Community Debates: Where Activism and Deliberation Converge

On March 12, 2015, Dr. Sara McKinnon and I hosted the second in what we imagine to be an ongoing series of community debates regarding incarceration and law enforcement in Dane County. Over 300 people attended the debate, which considered the following proposition: Renovations to the Dane County Jail will ensure the safety of vulnerable people in our community. The debate featured County Sheriff David Mahoney and local physician and retired professor, Dr. Douglas Kramer on the affirmative side and M. Adams of Freedom Inc., and the Young Gifted and Black Coalition along with Nino Rodriguez of the MOSES Jail Taskforce on the negative. You can watch it here. There were many reasons for hosting this debate on this topic, but primarily we wanted to create a forum to consider the different sides of an ongoing discussion at the county level about whether to renovate the county jail due to what the Sheriff says are grave safety concerns (originally the conversation was about whether to build a brand new jail, though after months of local agitation, that proposal was taken off the table). Members of the communities most impacted by incarceration and policing and their allies have loudly spoken against these proposals, demanding the county build the people, not the jail.

For some in these latter communities, it is hard to imagine how Dane County, known simultaneously as a progressive bastion and home to the worst racial disparities between blacks and whites in the United States, can even consider pouring money into the jail. In 2013, the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families’ Race to Equity Project Report detailed the severity of racial disparities here. Some of the most startling statistics included that 75% of the county’s black children live in poverty, compared to 5% of white children. This is relevant to the jail conversation because many people spend time in jail due to committing crimes related to being impoverished (e.g., theft, drugs, public urination). In 2013, Madison Police Department arrested black people at a rate of 11-1. And countywide, black youth are 15 times more likely to be placed in juvenile detention than their white counterparts. Perhaps one of the most disturbing facts about racial disparities in Dane County pertains to the county jail itself. While Dane County’s black population is about 6-7%, the Dane County Jail black population is around 48%.

In this racial context, the jail has been proposed and opposed. The context has grown increasingly complex in the past several months as a result of a series of national police murders of unarmed black men, followed by a series of non-indictments of the individual officers involved. As a result of the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, a coalition emerged in Dane County calling themselves Young Gifted and Black (YGB). Since November, YGB has taken to the streets every week to oppose mass incarceration, racist policing, and the building of a new jail, and to support resources for the black community and black-led initiatives. Then, on March 6, 2015, Madison Police Officer Matt Kenny responded to a couple of calls about an individual behaving erratically on Madison’s eastside. Within seconds of being on the scene, Officer Kenny shot and killed 19-year old unarmed black youth, Tony Robinson. For the past week, Madison residents have been in the streets protesting and mourning. The community debate on jail renovations was already long-scheduled. And we intended to go forward. After all, as YGB member Eric Upchurch noted in a YGB press release about the event, “The state violence that leads to mass incarceration of black people is the same state violence that leads a police officer to shoot an unarmed black boy. Our opposition to efforts to renovate the jail is directly connected to our pursuit of justice for Tony Robinson.”

The practice of academic debate has received a lot of attention from rhetoric and argumentation scholars. Some of those scholars, perhaps most notably Gordon Mitchell and those who write about urban debate leagues, have focused on the activist and public importance of academic debate. We have little to no scholarship that addresses the use of debate outside of the academic context. A few articles and conference papers have focused on Malcolm X’s use of debate to confront his adversaries and promote and defend his positions, including the work of Robert Branham. Branham explains that for Malcolm, debate was “a unique and valuable form of public address. His use of debate was a deliberate rhetorical choice, through which he believed that his positions might be advanced most persuasively to the largest possible audience (Branham, 1995). He confronted highly educated and sometimes nationally recognized adversaries in a format that accorded him relatively equal standing and some assurance that his views would receive consideration and response.” This view of Malcolm X is consistent with how McKinnon and I imagine this format in the local community. Each debate will feature a black radical position against a more moderate liberal or progressive position, and the issues addressed will be centered on black experience and voices. The point is to show the nuance of left-leaning politics on issues that are of vital importance to local black communities and to give a legitimizing space to radical black voices. The point is also to show how spaces where activism and deliberation converge do not have to be governed by norms of whiteness and civility. Instead, productive and engaged political spaces can be open to a variety of displays of affect and involvement.

To us, this seems like not only a great way to advance the “Wisconsin Idea” in a time when it is under attack, but also a way to show the significance of rhetoric and public address to contemporary political culture on our most pressing community issues. You can watch the first debate here. The proposition was: Police body cameras are an important part of the solution to the problem of police violence. Stay tuned for more.

 

References:

Branham, Robert James. “`I was gone on debating’: Malcolm X’s prison debates and public confrontations.” Argumentation & Advocacy, 31, no. 3 (1995): 117-137.

Mitchell, Gordon R. “Pedagogical possibilities for argumentative agency in academic debate.” Argumentation & Advocacy, 35, no. 2 (1998): 41-60.

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