Some Thoughts on Tony Robinson

A friend of Tony Robinson at the candlelight vigil held in his honor on Willy Street in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo by Callen Harty.

A friend of Tony Robinson at the candlelight vigil held in his honor on Willy Street in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo by Callen Harty.

Last night I stood in the middle of a street and cried for a young man I never knew.

The tears were for Tony Robinson, a 19-year old unarmed African-American who was shot and killed by police officer Matt Kenny on Williamson Street in Madison, Wisconsin. The Willy Street neighborhood is like a second home to me as I have worked at Broom Street Theater a couple doors down from the shooting since 1983 and I’ve lived in the neighborhood in the past.

Last night there was a candlelight vigil in front of the house where Tony was shot five times by the police officer. The vigil made the horror of what happened so palpable and so real for me and others. To listen to one of his best friends try to speak through a profusion of his own tears to describe what a great friend Tony was and how much fear he now has for his own safety could not fail to touch even the most hardened of hearts. Several of Tony’s friends took the microphone and talked about how special he was–how he always made them smile, how he preached about the value of hard work, how he could bring someone who was down back up again–and it was clear from their trembling voices that it was not only Tony who was lost but that they all lost a part of themselves and their own innocence along with him.

We can talk about politics another time. There will be plenty of discussion about the racial implications of the killing and there had better be some really basic discussions about race, class, and other issues that face our community and our nation. Anyone who doesn’t think that there is racism in this country is either fooling themselves or simply unwilling to face reality. Racism didn’t end with the abolition of slavery. It didn’t end with the ending of Jim Crow laws or with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. It didn’t end when we elected our first African-American President. It has not ended yet and every day for black citizens of this country is a challenge to overcome it. We must talk about it, because it played a part in this shooting. It laid the groundwork for this to happen. We must engage in some basic work and some real conversations about it. We can’t let this moment pass into history without doing so.

But the vigil last night was not about politics. Last night was about the young man who died and the family and friends he left behind. The gut-level, most basic reality of what happened is that a young man’s life was lost before he had a chance to fully become whatever he may have been in this world and that many, many more lives were impacted deeply by it. The officer’s life and his family are likely to never be the same either.

So last night I cried in the street.

I cried because I bore witness to the pain of those left behind. I cried because I know that this happens every day in this country, and that my fellow citizens kill each other, too. The night that Tony Robinson died a young woman was killed at a party in Milwaukee. I cried last night because I was ashamed of what my white brethren have done to my black brethren. I cried because I never got a chance to know Tony and there was nothing anyone could have done to help him. I cried for my city and my country. And I cried when I heard other young men and women talk not of retribution but simply of their love for their friend. This is all that we need to live for in the time that we have–to love and be loved–and based on the testimony of his friends Tony Robinson clearly lived.

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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6 Responses to Some Thoughts on Tony Robinson

  1. Truth Speaker says:

    And I cry because I read this post and it leaves out key facts. That Tony was a convicted felon for having taken part in an armed robbery, assaulted a police officer, was reported as having strangled a woman before cops arrived. I cry because an innocent officer had to take a life to protect his own, and will forever have to live with that trauma. Sadly a person is dead, but that actions that occurred took place because a violent delinquent threatened and attacked people that night.

  2. Tequila Nash says:

    I lived at 1114 Williamson St for 11 years, and in that neighborhood for over 16 yrs. I raised my daughter there, I’m ashamed, ashamed of those who do not feel compassion for this young man, his family, and this too,too familiar situation. Fearing someone because they’re black has become a justifiable excuse to kill them, and it’s WRONG! I’m ashamed that my country won’t see that.

    • Jon says:

      I do not agree. While I completely agree that racism is alive and well, the world over, I do not agree that this, and many other incidences of police homicide are racially based attacks. Ever seen the way police respond to poor, WHITE skater kids ?? It’s a good way to get a baton to the head, trust me, I’ve been there. The single biggest concern I have in all of this is that the entire issue is being boiled down to “race”. The Madison PD deals with people of all ethnicities, I doubt this shooting was prompted by a fear of a “black”(that is, by the way, a very racist term, according to some) man. I think it far more likely that this shooting was prompted by the officer’s knowledge that there is no forum for official, legal retribution when a police officer kills someone. I also find it immensely disturbing that the very same media stirring up the violence is so quick to pull the race card. Why has no media source brought up the fact that it is now LEGAL in America for a police officer to KILL you ?? Why the immediate cries of “RACISM !!” ?? Why is no one crying, “police brutality, felony negligence with a deadly weapon, and abuse of power” ?? As long as we allow the “system” to bury us in our differences, we will never rise in our equality.

  3. Thank you so much, Callen, for all that you do and say…

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