Some took to the streets. Others headed to church.
All around Madison, people were trying to come to grips Saturday with the knowledge that the city had joined the list of those that had experienced the police shooting of an unarmed black man.
Emotions were raw on all fronts in the wake of the fatal shooting of Tony Robinson, 19, by a Madison police officer Friday night.
There was outrage in a four-hour rally as hundreds of marchers chanted “The whole damn system is guilty as hell,” as they moved from Downtown to 1125 Williamson St., where Robinson of Madison was shot by a white officer.
Later in the day, there was compassion and resolve as a large group of community leaders gathered at Fountain of Life Covenant Church on the South Side, with strangers sharing tears and hugs with Robinson’s grandmother, Sharon Irwin, and several other family members.
They listened quietly as a letter was read from his mother, Andrea Irwin, urging her son’s image not be besmirched as she comes to grips with his death. “I appreciate the support and concern,” she wrote, “but I need to focus right now on laying my son to rest and helping him find his place in heaven.”
Just over a year earlier the same church was the site of a huge town hall meeting headlined “Justified Anger” that explored ways to deal with Madison’s growing racial inequality.
Many of the same speakers were on hand again Saturday, lamenting that the best of intentions on the part of many had not been able to prevent the worst of realities.
“We let that young man down,” said Michael Johnson, CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County. “We lost a young man who could have done great things, not only in this community but in this world. We need to show a collective leadership.”
Rev. Alex Gee, pastor of the church on West Badger Road, was in Kansas City when he heard about the shooting. He said it was strange to see what was happening back in a city where things like this aren’t supposed to happen.
While appalled by the tragedy, he expressed hope that the shooting could be a turning point for the city.
“This is our reality,” Gee said. “But this reality will not define us. What we do from this moment forward will define us. This family asked that we would act in a way that would honor this young man and we can’t allow anything to happen that would be embarrassing to this family and this young man’s legacy.
“This is Madison’s defining moment and we’re here for a reason. What we have to do from this point forward is something different than we’ve done heretofore.”
He called upon those in attendance, who included Mayor Paul Soglin and his opponent in the April election, Ald. Scott Resnick, along with numerous City Council members, civic and religious leaders, to come together with even greater fervor in search of solutions.
Kaleem Caire, former head of the Urban League of Greater Madison and founder of One City Early Learning Center, has been involved in many such discussions. But his frustration boiled over Saturday when he stepped to the microphone.
“If you want me to be poised and patient and polite, you’re not getting that today,” said Caire, his voice rising with passion. “When you walk out of here today I don’t want to have unity, I want to have action. I want to have purpose. I’m tired of holding hands. Hold these babies’ hands.”
Caire said his anger grew in recent days as he heard about the gang-related shooting last Saturday outside West Towne Mall and then about another man firing shots at police officers Friday on the Southwest Side.
“When these boys shot up that mall, I wanted to round them up and give them an old-fashioned butt whuppin’,” he said. “I am dead serious. You can’t come into this city and do this mess.
“But we don’t tell our kids this. Our own people don’t do enough for our kids. We sit back and let tragedy strike.”
Keith Bailey, organizer of Milwaukee Matters, has been involved in that city’s struggles with similar situations. Part of his message Saturday was that no community is immune from these misfortunes. He also said that the solution to the underlying problems will not come quicker than the time it took for them to form.
“When you consider the time it took for us to get to this stale, dry place where lives don’t matter, it’s going to take a whole lot of time to undo that,” Bailey said. “Even though it’s Madison and we jump over most of this stuff, this time it hit right at home. This is a national issue and hopefully it rings some bells in Dane County and Madison, and something good comes out of it.”
The reality that Madison had more in common with Ferguson, Missouri, than most residents would have imagined was not lost on the leaders of the march earlier Saturday.
“That community said, ‘Enough,’” said M Adams, a leader of the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition. “They went into the streets and they forced justice where there would be none. That is what we need to do here.”
Adams outlined what she said will be a multipronged response by the group. It will help provide Robinson’s family with support and also address “the community trauma” — the collective experience of what many people are going through in response to the shooting, she said.
The group also will take to the streets, she said. The coalition announced plans for a march Wednesday beginning at 3 p.m. outside the state Department of Corrections building, 3099 East Washington Ave. More community events will be forthcoming, coalition leaders said.
“This is not a moment, this is not a day, this is a movement,” said Brandi Grayson, another coalition leader.
She warned people not to be distracted by what she said will be attempts by police and others to divide the community.
Gee, in an interview at the conclusion of the two-hour event at his church, said the black community shares a common goal even if the temperature of the rhetoric varies.
“We need all of this to let Madison know there’s not one black way, there’s not one black voice,” Gee said. “But we’re supporting each other and we’re working together because we all need to do what we do in order to make about a difference.
“We’ve been saying this can happen on our watch. People think, Oh, this is Madison, it can’t. Now what do we do, how do we move together? I love this community, but a line has been drawn in the sand. What we do will help to define us as a community. A kid from our community died. What we’ve only seen happen in other communities has happened on our watch. This ups the ante. The game has got to change.”
State Journal reporters Doug Erickson and Molly Beck contributed to this report.