When Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne met with media on Tuesday afternoon, he had the look of a man who carried the weight of black America on his shoulders. While announcing his decision not to charge white Madison officer Matt Kenny in the March shooting death of 19-year-old Tony Robinson, Ozanne spoke deliberately, often pausing to mop the sweat pouring off his forehead and neck.
It was an impossible situation for Ozanne, Wisconsin's first African-American district attorney. He was clearly aware that the national glare was on him; while his job was to determine whether the facts in this specific case warranted criminal charges, he knew he was doing so in an atmosphere in which his announcement could spark riots similar to those that had been seen in cities such as Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo. For Ozanne, the decision not to charge Kenny was a local criminal matter; to others, it would become one more example of the national trend of police getting away with murdering young black males.
But the facts of the case back Ozanne. According to the evidence he presented, Kenny was called after three 911 calls reported Robinson attacking people on the street, then wandering in and out of traffic. One caller said Robinson was "tweaking," and had ingested "shrooms."
According to Kenny, he followed Robinson into an apartment, where Kenny believed a struggle was occurring. When the officer entered the apartment, Robinson punched Kenny on the left side of his head, causing Kenny to hit the right side of his head on a wall. Kenny said that as he stumbled backward, he was afraid if he was struck again, Robinson would be able to take his gun — so he fired seven times, killing his alleged assailant.
But as has become the national trend, these facts have become casualties in the effort to paint the Robinson shooting as part of a national pattern. Some want desperately to take what happened in that cramped stairway and imbue it with a nationwide narrative, evidently believing that if the fist that hit Kenny's face had been white, the shooting never would have occurred.
It is these groups all over the country that Ozanne had to have in mind as he announced his decision Tuesday. During his news conference, Ozanne, who like Robinson is biracial, bolstered his credentials with the black community, even talking about his African-American mother's involvement in the civil rights movement.
And although the protests went on Tuesday and Wednesday, they were subdued. It appears the demonstrators were there more out of duty than out of genuine outrage — they knew the nation was watching them, so the paint-by-numbers protesting proceeded. (The provocateurs at the group Young Gifted and Black suggested the United Nations begin an investigation into the shooting, and Robinson's family has said they will be pursuing a civil suit against the city.)
Perhaps the protests didn't erupt into violence in Madison because the city doesn't have the sheer scope of poverty and criminality found in large cities such as Baltimore. Maybe even the city's African-Americans don't see Robinson as a particularly sympathetic figure. But Ozanne's emotional performance surely played a part in mitigating unrest, and his mere status as a black elected official may have lent more credibility to his decision.
Maybe Ozanne doesn't deserve as much credit as I think he deserves — district attorneys should not prosecute cases they can't win. But Tuesday was no doubt a torturous afternoon for him as he faced down the national media and became the latest face of police brutality against young black men.
On a street corner Wednesday morning, YGB co-founder Brandi Grayson questioned Ozanne's black credentials. "What happened when we had a black DA?" she yelled into a microphone. "Did we see justice?"
Groups such as Grayson's thought merely having a black district attorney would give them a more favorable outcome. But in an impossible situation, Ozanne, who was born in Madison, made the courageous decision. If justice is blind, Ozanne deserves praise for closing his eyes and listening to the evidence.
Christian Schneider is a Journal Sentinel columnist and blogger.