In Madison, one year following the death of an unarmed young man, the black body remains unprotected.
On May 12, 2015, a chorus of bodies—white, brown, in-between and more—congregated around a public television set somewhere in downtown Madison. I know, because I was there, clenching the leather of my seat. None of those bodies said much of anything, but their sorrows roared louder than the talking heads on the screen.
Black death is truly a circus. The talking heads descended from what appeared to be nowhere, to come to this false island between two lakes. The circus brings showgoers from all over to watch the same attractions on loop: dead black body, lawman’s gun, tears of family, prayers of citizens, cries for justice, no reply, dead black body, lawman’s gun, tears of…
On that May 12 on that false island, the circus was still in town and on many a tongue. Our body was named Anthony; Tony to those who love him. Our lawman is Matt. There’s blood on a porch; no one’s swabbed the deck yet. We met Andrea and Sharon and many many more. The chorus of bodies tuned in and heard from a man named Ismael. He told us that Matt is not responsible in the death of Tony. I clenched to the leather like I could choke the justice I craved from it. My better mind would suggest that we knew what was coming, but the disappointment sat in my chest and invited its friends to surround the room.
How many of us deserve the front-row seats? How much yellow tape covers our admission? When you know your dark skin, you’re drafted for the front-row seats even when you made no plans to come. You don’t pick an outfit, you don’t hire a sitter, you forget to feed the animals, and you don’t kiss your loved one or shake your comrade’s hand. Such a spontaneous thing, this carousel of blood. You can read about it in the papers if you’re unfamiliar.
At 21, I gripped my seat and moved foolishly in that pain because I, for the first time, was in the front row.
I remember the first time I was in the nosebleeds, which may feel like the front row thanks to all the platforms where death is accessible on-demand. I sat in the room where I spent my adolescence, my mother and sister across the hall, my father in the basement, all tuned into the same circus. That body was named Trayvon. The lawman was no lawman at all, but a concerned neighbor. His name is George. We met Sybrina and Tracy and many many more. This time, twelve citizens held the key to the guillotine. They told us George is not responsible in the death of Trayvon. George smiled and shook hands with his people.
I shouted in key with my mother, but my foolishness was excusable. It was my first time at the circus.
My parents tucked me in a suburbia full of bodies with a shade like mine, but I doubt that eased any of the terrors they envisioned. Given my programming, I assumed that I wouldn’t be captured in a backyard like ours. Trayvon was captured in a suburbia nicer than ours, on a lawn much more crisp and kempt. Once the circus moved to another act, every living trace of Trayvon was mined for evidence of charges he couldn’t defend. He wore gold grills, he liked rap music, he smoked weed and videotaped fights of his peers. He did what so many teenagers do in the backyards and back alleys of this country, a country founded in bloodshed and neglectful of moderation. They knew nothing of the body, yet scraped pieces of its flesh from the pavement to mold their monster. The onlookers shouted loud from the rafters and no one asked the right questions.
At that circus, life imitated art. Someone purchased the gun that took Trayvon’s life at the merchandise stand.
I think of October 6, 2014. I went to the Barrymore—months before the circus came to this false island—to hear the raps of Joey Badass and Pro Era and lose myself in the youth I knew would embark on the east side. I think of Tony’s body in the moshpit; it was one of his first concerts. I did not know him then and made no plans to see him later. I know he was there because I found him: a piece of his flesh, watermarked on Facebook for the world to rob for its rhetorical fodder.
I think of that one time in the circus where his friends called the police for help because Tony was tweakin’ off whatever the hell he was on. The weed, the Xanax, the mushrooms, and the normal in it all. The same normal I watch unfold every weekend, the one you may be acquainted with. The normal where the youth move in packs and try their drugs and play their music and run outside and tweak out sometimes and need assistance.
The same normal in the bodies I see every day I remain on this false island, at another circus far from the Black death I’m used to. The circus that showed up and overstayed its welcome. The circus that gives front-row seats every second on the second to every caller with their name, address, and skin tone. The same circus flooded with bodies indulging in the normal. Where the normal is just high school or college or growing up, a mistake and a second chance, but never an execution.
I think of Tony the way I think of Trayvon. I think of the night silence of Williamson Street, and the silence of the city a year after Tony was taken. I think of over 365 days disappearing and all the souls on this false island who won’t say his name in their homes, at their jobs, or at their gatherings. I think of that nosebleed seat into the circus of my life, that first taste of a pain that acquainted itself with me before I was forewarned of its arrival. That pain took the time to know my name and swears it’s seen me before.
I know I’m not the only one. In the year since the circus left our town, and my front-row seat expired, we’ve seen downtown on the verge of burning. A Black woman caught spit in her face from someone on her dorm floor. Someone slid a threatening note under another Black woman’s door, utilizing her campus-based activism as a means to target and threaten her while defending a mascot over a human. A fraternity was placed on suspension due to several incidences of racial and homophobic slurs. The police forces we subsidize decided to pull a Black man from class and arrest him over political graffiti in the name of combating white supremacy.
One year after Tony, Madison is continuing its course to become a centralized hub of oppression in a state hell-bent on collapsing under the weight of its inequities. The Black body is unprotected cargo in “one of the best cities to live” in these United States. To present any of this information as newfangled or refreshing is an injustice in itself; it is foolishness. This false island was false long before I stumbled upon it with tuition in one hand and a play noose in the other.
One year after Tony, I recall every conversation from my nosebleed seat before the circus came to town again. They told me the police here were too nice, that nothing like [insert name/city here] would happen in Madison. They told me Madison wasn’t like that, to the sound of another Black man locked up. They told me Madison was normal, to the cries of nigger on a downtown night. They told me Madison is one of the best places to be, to the chime of the WiscAlert that fit every description.
One year after Tony, the circus that never left—the place where hatred is normal and empathy is scarce—continues to sell out every seat in the house. And I continue to wonder whether someone I love, someone like me, or my black body will be recruited for the next act on the stage.