Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

What Gets Shut Down; What We Pry Open


There is that trite phase “one door closes, and another opens,” that gets used too often as awkward condolence to those who’ve lost things and especially people they love. No major loss is filled, much less replaced, by a new door, so to speak. Nor do the “silver linings” that can emerge in the horrible aftermath of tragedy somehow make up for the loss, or in any way be a fair exchange.

Far better to acknowledge the closed door, and how impossible its slamming shut is to comprehend, to process, to ever forget.

I’ve walked by this house on Williamson Street nearly every day on my week’s visit to Madison, Wisconsin, to see my sister. A little over a year after young, black, and gifted Tony was murdered by a cop here, this door remains closed; the building remains unsold, with a realty sign out front covered with tissue-paper flowers for Tony. On the steps and entryway, friends and neighbors continue to hold space for the closed door that was and is Tony’s young life. Words and symbols of love and remembrance, alongside signs of resistance, let this door stay shut, because the question of justice will forever remain open. And Tony will forever remain gone.

This and so many other do-it-ourselves shrines speak to staying with loss and grief, staying present for those who’ve most intimately experienced this absence and will forever be wounded. Perhaps that’s why people fight so hard to keep such grassroots monuments in place and dynamic. A box of chalk, for instance, sits amid the candles, flowers, and notes on Tony’s shrine, and new words appeared each day when I ritualistically stopped, stood, and took in this scene, at once barbaric crime and beloved community.

On my last day in Madison, I joined some 15-20 folks at Rainbow Bookstore (thanks to my marvelous new friend Camy Matthay and other collective members there for hosting a “Taking Sides” book event/conversation), and heard about a door that, against all odds, opened. It was not directly due to Tony’s killing, nor should it be reason to claim “another opened” as comfort against his execution. Rather, his death came as unnecessary truth in a long line of them: police and prisons murder, and they destroy black bodies far more disproportionately than white ones, particularly in Wisconsin.

So instead of calling it “one door shuts and another welcomes,” let’s dub is poetic justice — for all the Tony Robinsons of this inhumane, white supremacist society we inhabit. Organizers and agitators with groups such as No New Dane County Jail and Young, Black, and Gifted, among others, recently defeated precisely what they were aiming to stop: a new, multimillion-dollar Dane County Jail. But they aren’t stopping there. A demand to “release the 350” is being directed toward the current Dane County Jail, which houses — based on proportionality of population, 350 “too many” blacks. Or as Camy reframed it, perhaps far more compellingly for a highly disproportionately white Madison, there are 7,000 “too few” whites in that jail, relative to the Caucasian population figures. Of course, the real bull’s eye for this organizing is abolition: no prisons for anyone. (Camy mentioned that Books through Bars underscores that it doesn’t donate to prison libraries, because that would help make prisons look good, but rather person-to-person, until all are free.)

There are, daily, hourly, ever-more doors shut, furiously and with finality, with only gun casings and blood left behind, until teddy bears, roses, hand-lettered cards, and other bittersweet bits of love take their place. We have to look ever harder to find not doors that open for us from those heavy casualties but instead openings that we fight for — do-it-ourselves openings, like halting yet another prison, that hopefully save other lives down the line.

To abolition. To Tony.

*   *   *

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(Photo by Cindy Milstein, art of remembrance for Tony Robinson, RIP, Madison, WI, March 2016.)


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This entry was posted on March 20, 2016 by in Dispatches from Life, Dispatches from Rebellious Spaces.
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