"You ever have the feeling you’re going to live forever? I mean like you’re never going to die? I’m going to be great, I don’t know how I know but I do. Just watch. I’m going to change the world."
Tony Terrell Robinson’s life ended much too early bleeding from multiple gunshot wounds to the head, torso and right upper extremity on Willy Street on Madison’s near east side on March 6, 2015. Since then, some people have noted that Robinson’s death has forever changed the way that Madisonians think about race and could be a catalyst for addressing nation-leading racial disparities in Madison. Others have noted that it hasn’t changed a damn thing. Thousands of articles have been written about Tony Robinson in these last 14 months as the nation has looked in on Madison to find out more. But very few have really delved deeply into the question: Who was Tony Robinson?
"He had the most unique laugh. It was infectious. He loved to see other people happy. He was happy making other people happy," Andrea Irwin, Tony Robinson’s mother, tells Madison365. "He was definitely someone who everybody talked to. That’s what I hear from all of his friends. They could call him no matter what time it was, and he would talk to them on the phone until they felt better … give them advice and help solve their problems. He was very, very generous.
"He was a funny dude. I call him my gentle giant," she adds. "He was a big boy – 6’4" – but back him into a corner and he would fold. He just wasn’t a fighter.
"He used to get kicks out of irritating me. He thought it was funny. But then he would pull me in and hug me until I hugged him back," she adds. "He’d say, ‘C’mon, Mom! You know you love me!’ I had no other choice but to smile. And then he’d lick my face and run away. This was him at all ages – all the way up until he was gone. He was something else."
"In some ways it hasn’t fully hit me yet. All of his friends went away to college in August so I find myself thinking that he’s away at college, too," says Andrea Irwin.
Irwin has been through way more than a lifetime of pain since the fateful night that she lost her son.
"In some ways, it hasn’t fully hit me yet. All of his friends went away to college in August so I find myself thinking that he’s away at college, too," says Irwin. "I know that he’s gone, but I haven’t really fully been able to grieve yet.
"Even cooking dinner, it’s not the same. That boy would eat you out of house and home. He would eat dinner and everything left over and then back for more in the middle of the night," Irwin adds. "I know that every time I got some fast food and it was too much, he’d finish it off. I find myself now looking at leftovers and saying, ‘Dang it, Terrell, if you were here, this wouldn’t even be here.’
"He was a goofball. I didn’t know how many people he knew and how many people just loved him until after he died," she continued. "If you knew him, you liked him. You could not not like him."
Andrea Irwin with her three children (PHOTO: Leslie Amsterdam Peterson)
All of those emotions and more were evident at a #JUSTICE4TONY reception at MMoCA Gallery Night this past weekend at the Jackie Macaulay Gallery of the Social Justice Center, a half block from where Robinson was killed on that fateful night. On the 14-month anniversary of his death, the reception featured an intimate photographic art show documenting how the community coped during the first year without Tony Robinson in our community. Photos were taken by local photographer Leslie Amsterdam Peterson.
"Leslie has been taking pictures from the beginning, and I am so thankful," Irwin says. "Many of the things that happened after his death I didn’t know about because I was so busy, so I’m grateful to have those memories. Because of Leslie, I have those moments. She’s captured them all. There are some really special photos in there. [Photographer] Nate Royko Maurer took a lot of pictures, too … beautiful black and white pictures. They’ve been able to capture some really, really deep moments."
A close friend of Tony Robinson looks at pictures of Tony and family at the Jackie Macaulay Gallery at the Social Justice Center May 6.
The pictures are very powerful. Some attendees had trouble making it through the exhibit without crying or having to exit. Pictures and memories are all Irwin has left of her son and these powerful snapshots at the exhibit — combined with the visceral emotions that Mother’s Day weekend brings — are making things especially distressful for her and her three kids.
"Mother’s Day is very difficult for me. I miss him," Irwin says. "The kids told me that they wanted to go out to the grave and spend Mother’s Day with Terrell, and I thought that was sweet … thinking about him … because they know I was thinking about him.
"When I start feeling really bad, I try to think of something good or funny. My therapist told me that some people take years to grieve, so I don’t know how long this will last," she adds. "The anniversary of his death really got me down. The holidays do, too. But I can’t let myself get to a bad place. I have other children to take care of. I’m just trying to be as proactive as I can be."
Things have gotten a little better for Irwin, but at one point it was just really, really bad. The nastiness and virulent racism around Tony Terrell Robinson’s name on the Internet after his death was endless. Plenty of that nastiness was reserved for Irwin, too. Robinson’s death really brought out the demented side of humanity, and Irwin and her family bore the brunt of it.
"From the beginning, I was in shock, and it was so chaotic. I never had a chance to wrap my mind around it," Irwin says. "So when I was seeing the things people were saying about my son, I was dead set on presenting an image of my son’s family that this wasn’t who he’s being made out to be. We’re not violent or ignorant people. I wanted to change people’s minds that he wasn’t this thug criminal they were trying to make him out to be."
Family and friends of Tony Robinson gather outside the house on Willy Street where Tony was shot. (PHOTO: Nate Royko Maurer)
It was a futile exercise. The nastiness kept coming in droves.
"There were a couple times where I got on there, and I wrote long passages with a whole bunch of cuss words. But I never hit ‘send.’ I deleted it all," Irwin says. "It did feel good just to write it. But in the end, I just told these people, ‘God forbid you ever find yourself in my or my son’s position, I pray that you are given much more mercy than what you have given to me and my family and my son.’ To speak so ill of somebody who’s not even here to defend himself … someone you don’t even know! You’re judging him based upon what you are seeing in the media and that was only half-true. Please do some research!
"Some people have to be so miserable to be so hateful. After I tell somebody, ‘I’ll pray for you!’ there’s not much else I can do," she adds. "But after that, I just stayed off [social media]. I’d have friends tell me about some nastiness, and I’d be like, ‘I don’t even want to know.’"
The attacks on her and her son would continue. Even to this very day. In real life, too. Irwin says people would flick her off in her car while she was driving and or she would get called nasty names. Still do this day. It hasn’t stopped.
"The weird thing was that attacks were coming at me, and I wasn’t even being negative or violent or hateful," Irwin says. "What is it that I did that has made you so angry? You’re mad at me because the son was killed and the media picked it up? I’ve been standing out here trying to be as peaceful as I can … not saying anything negative against the police.
"I could never be so evil to people," she continues. "For nothing else but for the fact that I just lost my child. Please give me that respect. You don’t have to like me, but you don’t have to be so hateful.
"The things I said on the news, I never really believed. I knew there wasn’t going to an indictment," she adds. "But, publically, I wasn’t bashing anybody. I just want the truth. I just want justice. That’s it."
Irwin with her boyfriend, Jeff Jackson, immediately after the death of her son. (PHOTO: Nate Royko Maurer)
Irwin and I discuss the actual death of her son at the hands of the Madison Police Department. Robinson was having a bad reaction to hallucinogenic mushrooms when he was shot and killed. I explain to her what happens on a daily basis on UW campus (and campuses throughout the United States) and what I’ve seen many times in my lifetime that transpires a little over a mile down the road from where Robinson’s life ended – massive binge drinking, LSD, heroin, mushrooms, cocaine. Young people weaving in and out of traffic, vandalizing, assaulting. Young – almost all white — college students doing insanely stupid things in mind-altered states. Get your Google going, if you don’t believe it. Try "White Kid Actually on Drugs and Grabs Cop’s Gun" or "White teen in BMW hits three cars, assaults cop" or "Armed White Guy Has Standoff With Police, Then Gets His Gun Back."
It’s a very long list. But nobody ever ends up dead.
Realistically, what Robinson needed that night was for somebody to sit him down and tell him that everything was going to be OK.
"When I was growing up, police officers … they knew you. They’d get out of the cars, and they’d walk the streets with you. And it’s not so much like that anymore. I think that’s something we need to get back to," Irwin says. "If you had a situation with the one we had like with my son, the officer that patrols the neighborhood would have known him. He would have known who he was and that this isn’t normal behavior. I don’t think it would have ended that way. And I think that’s really important. You have to know the people that you are out there trying to protect for any situation. Not just for the people’s safety but for the police officer’s safety, too. It’s very important.
"We have to do everything we can to keep the fear down. Because as the fear escalates, things like this will keep happening more often," she adds. "And I wouldn’t wish this on anybody. Not my worst enemy. This is a club that nobody wants to be a part of ever."
Dwelling on all of this negativity is simply not healthy for Irwin at this point, and her therapist constantly tries to keep her focusing on the positive – the many beautiful memories of her son.
"He was a deep thinker. He wouldn’t sleep much sometimes. He had insomnia, and he would just sit up at night thinking about all of these different things," Irwin says. "His mind just never turned off. You could just sit and have some really deep conversations with him.
"He said that he wanted to go to school for business management. He told me that he didn’t know what he wanted to do, but he just wanted to be the boss," Irwin adds. "He had two jobs – Pizza Ranch and Copp’s – and I think that he didn’t like doing all the grunt work, so I think he wanted to be the person someday to tell somebody else to do it. He was a smart kid."
Irwin says that Robinson loved music like crazy. "We both loved music. But for the first year I could listen to music, I couldn’t listen to the radio. I didn’t want any music on around me," she says. "Whatever emotions you have, music can pull them right out. I wasn’t ready for that. I’ve been hiding from this grieving because it hurts. It hurts so much. I’m afraid of it.
"There were just so many things to be done after his death, and there was nobody else to do it but me," she adds. "I had to keep things together. I had to do so many things. I felt like if I allowed myself to slip into those bad, bad feelings that things wouldn’t get done the way they were supposed to. It’s scary."
Madison rallies for Tony Robinson on Willy Street days after his death. (PHOTO: Nate Royko Maurer)
Tony Robinson has become a movement in Madison and well beyond. For many people, his death has increased the passion to create change in Robinson’s honor. Irwin says that she is grateful for all of the love and support she has gotten in the community. "He is marked on this city forever. It’s never going to go away. And I think, for the most part, it’s a positive image," she says. "I’m glad that many people recognize him for the kid he always was rather than where he was a few hours before he passed.
"The image of who he was kind of became this whole thing in Madison. I didn’t know him as ‘Tony,’ I called him ‘Terrell,’" she adds. "His family called him by his middle name because his dad was Tony, but at school and everywhere else, they called him Tony. And that’s what he preferred.
"The Tony Robinson issue is different for me," she continues. "I think the problem for me was that I wasn’t able to separate my Terrell from the image that had become who he was. It was hard for me to mourn. My Terrell, who he was to me … is different."
Irwin’s therapist is helping her work through this and many other issues.
"I appreciate people and the things that they say. But a lot of people come up to me and say, ‘I don’t know what to say.’ There’s really nothing you can say," Irwin says. "There’s nothing right. There’s a few wrong things to say, though.
"There are a lot of good people in this city and they do genuinely care," she adds. "They came out to show so much love and support for people that they didn’t even know. I will forever be grateful for that."
In the years to come, there will be annual events around Tony Robinson to help keep his name and memory alive. Irwin hopes that the people of Madison don’t forget about her son. "I know over time things will die down, but to have his name kept alive … that’s important to me. I hope that this city finds a way to rebuild relationships," Irwin says. "I don’t ever want to go on in my life without saying his name or thinking about him. He was my son. I had him for 19 years. I just don’t want it to stop, I guess."
As Irwin looks back in hindsight, there is one last thing that she can’t stop thinking about. She is convinced that there was something in the way her son was behaving on his final days on this earth where he knew something was going to happen to him.
"He went around to say, 'I love you' to every one of his family members before he passed," Irwin says. "It wasn’t normal the way he did it. His dad [Tony Robinson Sr.] and him would not say, ‘I love you’ a lot to each other and the last thing he said to his dad was, ‘I love you, Dad. I’ll see you tomorrow.’ He was at a barbecue with his dad, and he asked him to save a burger for him in the refrigerator. I think his dad saved that burger for him for seven months [after his death].
"Him and his friend Elijah had been in a fight for a month and not really speaking, and on the morning he died he went over to Elijah’s house and he made up with him," Irwin remembers. "They were lifelong friends."
Robinson came over to Irwin’s house on the Wednesday night before his death – much too late on a school night for Irwin’s liking. "He came into my room, and I was like, ‘Why are you here so late? I have to work in the morning! You can’t come over this late!’" Irwin remembers. "He was in a great mood and he was like, ‘C’mon, mom.’ He ran upstairs to see his brothers and his sister. He woke each and every one of them up and hugged them and told him he loved them. That was not normal for him to do that."
Robinson came back downstairs and Irwin was still mad at him. "I said, ‘Why did you wake them up?’ He just said, ‘C’mon, mom. You know you love me.’ He pulled me in tight and just held me there for a while. I can remember his heartbeat. His heartbeat … I can still hear it in my mind today."
Irwin had just gotten a promotion at her job, and Robinson was going to treat her to dinner on Friday. As abruptly as Robinson was in, he was making his way out the door.
"I love you, Mom. I’ll see you Friday!’" he said.
"I love you, too, baby," she replied.