‘To us, he was a child’: Madison mothers react to shooting

Women with Black sons tell their stories
‘To us, he was a child’: Madison mothers react to shooting

“To us, he was a child,” says Lisa Peyton-Caire, softly, slowly, stretching the word child into a weary sigh. She’s thinking about her two oldest sons, just twenty-one and nineteen. “Nineteen years old is not a man, you know? As mothers raising children who are young adults, but still children in many ways. Still being supported by parents, still getting lunch money, still doing road tests with their parents’ cars, paying tuition–these are children. But in the world’s eyes, at nineteen, Black young men are men. Hardened men. Men presumed to be violent, dangerous, up to no good, guilty.”

All across town in the late hours of March 6, through a sickening fog of shock and pain, in a dizzying whir of texts, calls, comments and messages, mothers frantically conduct their role calls. Mentally collect their babies, tally them one by one, mark them present and accounted for with bitter, breathless relief. A boy has been shot and killed by police. But whose boy is this? Whose baby? What did he do, what did they do, what will we do? This can’t be happening, this can’t be Madison, this can’t be now, no, please. What’s his name?

In the coming days and weeks, What’s His Name? morphs from a desperate question into a resounding mandate. A bullhorn chant amplifying a fresh, chilling reality that Madison is no longer immune from the growing list of communities where police interactions with Black men end in a hashtag.

So many things will muddy the events of that night, an onslaught of news articles and police reports, commissions and committees, policies and procedures, rallies and debates. But the specifics start to feel less relevant, even insulting, for so many Madison mothers, mothers of African American sons, mothers who’ve spent their lifetimes in a kind of twisted training for this exact, unspeakable moment. Different women walking different paths at different paces, yet find themselves continually running into each other at this same intersection: the place where fear lives.

Persistent uneasiness that their sons are not safe in a country that first sees a threat before it sees a human being, if it even sees him at all. And so they begin to mobilize as only mothers can, because no matter where they’re coming from or how they think it all should go as individuals, there’s one point on which they all agree, unanimously.

They never want to meet here again.

It’s hard to imagine when you’re raising up those sweet little boys that anyone will ever see them as anything but. You nurture their creativity, their brilliance, their humor, their sensitivity, their strength, and you can’t help but think it will all be different for your kids. So when the energy surrounding them starts to change as they grow, it’s so subtle you can’t quite articulate it–but it’s palpable.

“We started talking to our sons about how to behave in certain situations as soon as they started to show signs of puberty,” says Lisa. “You begin to prepare them and teach them how to shape themselves and their approach so that others aren’t threatened by them.”

As if those birds and bees or drugs and alcohol talks aren’t tough enough, how do you tell your children that their neighbors might find their very essence threatening? That their default is suspect, that they may need to first prove themselves safe, approachable, well behaved, before moving forward in any interaction? You don’t want to say these things because it’s all so outrageous, so wildly unfair, so painful–and yet your fervent desire to keep them safe trumps your pride and so you swallow it. Hope neither of you digests that degradation into identity.

And you watch your babies grow. Watch them get older and braver, taller and broader, slip farther and farther from your protective grip. They get to that age where it’s normal to pull away from you, to challenge the status quo, to learn by pushing boundaries, by experimentation, and this is good, this is necessary, except it’s equally terrifying.

“There’s little comfort in allowing your sons to go through what’s a natural stage of young adult life, young American life, of exploration, freedom,” says Lisa. “The more freedom they get? The more anxious we are.”

It’s such a shaky place from which you try to strike that parenting balance, but you try anyway. Hold your breath and tiptoe that paper-thin line between encouragement and safety, temper your own fear and trauma and the brutally earned wisdom of your elders, and walk on.

“You want them to know that they’re free people, ‘you can do anything you want in this world, the world is open to you, no boundaries, no barriers,'” she says. “But then there’s this other side where we have to talk about ‘but.’ Because you’re a young, Black man, there are some unwritten rules. Some restrictions.”

And you pray.

“Those are the prayers, the praising up, the calling on ancestors, whatever you do,” says Nichelle Nichols, who has four sons. “That’s what you’re sending your kids out the door with all the time, every day.”

Angela Ferguson’s six-foot-two, 250-pound son was so spooked while being trailed by police walking home that she had him put her on speaker phone; by the time she was heard asking if her boy needs a lawyer, the officer was driving away.
“I always taught my kids, if you get pulled over, keep your hands on the steering wheel,” she says of her four children, three of whom are boys. “Let the officer know that you’re reaching in your pocket to get something. Never pull over in dark areas. Keep driving, until you get to a well-lit area, or to a gas station where other people are so you can have witnesses.”

Sometimes you’ve already got witnesses. Curious neighbors and friends staring from windows and lawns–what’s his name?–as your son is arrested by “nine officers, literally, in unmarked cars,” as Angela’s was. For a crime that happened when he wasn’t even in the state, as Facebook pictures prove before the police quietly release him.

“And how do they know he lives here? Because when he gets off the bus, you’re tagging him along down the street, ‘where you coming from, where you been, who do you know, where do you live?'” says Angela. “And that’s fine if he fits the description and you want to question him, but bring him back home with those nine officers that you had there. Bring him back uncuffed. Let everybody know, hey, he’s innocent.”

So many mothers of African American children testify to similar experiences, mostly for their sons and husbands (and, increasingly, even their daughters).

“We all have stories,” says Lisa. “Every mother has a litany of stories.”

Jacquelyn (Jackie) Hunt’s son borrowed her convertible one day and didn’t make it a mile from their house before getting pulled over; his music was too loud, the officer said. Another time, another son was part of a car full of kids pulled over on the way home from Fitchburg Days. When Jackie came to retrieve him, she saw all his friends–all white–“swearing and cussing out the police,” but it was only her Black son who held the officers’ full attention, three of them “standing right on top of him.”

“I think that moment shook his reality. He was eighteen. He hadn’t graduated yet,” says Jackie. “And taking my baby home that night, my conversation with him was, son, I don’t even know if raising you here in Madison has been a service or a disservice.”

Sabrina Madison’s son and a couple friends were visiting another friend at a UW-Madison dorm room, but they got lost trying to find it and ended up on the wrong floor–where someone promptly called the police.

“No matter how much we pray on it, no matter how much we direct them, no matter how much coaching we give them when they interact with folks, they are interacting with people who already view them like their skin is mostly a proxy for guilt. A proxy for criminal. A proxy for thief,” says Sabrina. “I don’t know how to send him out and not be afraid for him at the same time, even though I know he has to go out and live.”

To go out and live–that’s all any mother wants for her child. And Madison, on its surface, seems like the perfect place to do just that.

“Madison is a great city in the sense that there is so much thriving enterprise, there’s creativity, there are interesting people creating interesting things, there’s technology, there’s advocacy, social justice work, a Big Ten University–you name it, it’s here,” says Lisa. But deep down she knows that for children like hers, it can be a tale of two cities. “And to see this? To push your kids toward opportunity and to see them run up against walls namely because of who they are? Because people don’t try to know them? Preconceived notions? It results too often in arrested development by virtue of a larger environment that isn’t as progressive as it chooses to believe.”

Because it’s not just these unsettling police interactions. Here in progressive Madison, our racial disparities are by now well documented. African American men made up 4.8 percent of the Dane County adult population in 2012, but forty-three percent of new prison placements. Black kids comprise almost eighty percent of our correctional facilities. Three quarters of African American children live below the poverty line in Dane County. They’re fifteen times likelier to be suspended and nearly half won’t graduate on time. And in 2011, a quarter of the county’s African American residents were unemployed.

‘To us, he was a child’: Madison mothers react to shooting

“The talent in our city is already here,” says Lisa. “We’re just ignoring it.”

For a few years, Lisa and her husband, Kaleem, were raising their children in Prince George’s County, Maryland, where Black-owned businesses hover close to fifty percent; here, in Madison, it’s less than two percent.

“They apply for job after job after job after job and they never get the call back,” says Lisa of her son, who once shifted a few letters in his name to something that sounded a little more … European. “Then the calls came.”

Sabrina moved her son here to Madison from her native Milwaukee because she thought the neighborhoods would be safer, that the schools would offer better opportunities.

“We’ve got fabulous young men. They’re awesome kids, brilliant, creative. All of these kids, once they become adults, Madison shuts them out,” she says. “While he was young and cute, everybody was on him. They wanted to be a part of him. Now that he’s an adult, and all of our kids are adults, I don’t think Madison sees them as part of the community, really.”

And never does she feel more dismissed than when big tragic news stories hit: the Boston Marathon bombing, the death of Robin Williams, the shooting of Paulie Heenan (also by police, also on Williamson Street)–and it’s all her colleagues at work can talk about for days, weeks, and they’re sad, and they’re shocked, and they’re grieving, as they should be, but…

“I don’t see any outward emotion when someone who looks like me has been killed,” Sabrina says. “Going to work Monday morning [after Robinson’s death], I’m sitting there at my desk and I’m like, ain’t nobody upset but me.”

What’s his name?

“And why is it,” says Nichelle, “when we have our emotional expression, whether it be outrage or just straight hurt or whatever it is, our sensitivity to a humane issue, it’s perceived as some kind of race-based, irrational reaction?”

It starts to feel impossibly dizzying, this experience of a bifurcated Madison viewed through cracked lenses, two different worlds, one for their kids, another for yours.

“You want to believe that the progressive Madison that everybody keeps talking about is progressive for everybody, but it’s not,” says Nichelle. And so while everything in a mother’s being screams to keep her children close, she feels the best thing for them is to send them away. Go to L.A. to pursue your video production dream, sweet baby. Go somewhere else, anywhere else, because, “We’ve had the Race to Equity report, we’ve had 101 reports describing the Black experience, it’s not new. Now we have a kid who’s been killed on our own front porch, and there will be 101 reasons why this is gonna get described as the exception,” she says. “But it doesn’t feel like an exception to us.”

And something in those kids knows it, too, whether they can articulate it or not. A few days after the unarmed Black boy who looks like him is shot and killed by a police officer on Willy Street, Lisa’s son is silent in the passenger seat on the drive to school. It’s a crisp, sunny day, all fresh air and promises, the kind that makes Madison look especially bright. The bike path, sidewalks and roadways are full of joggers, walkers and cyclists, rolling on, enjoying the exquisite morning.

“I wonder,” he says to his mom, staring out the window, “if they’re even thinking about Tony?”

Tony. His name was Tony, but it could have been any of their sons, easily, and that’s what hurts the most. It’s a gaping wound and a lasting ache, especially for the kids.

When Corinda Rainey-Moore got the news, “My whole body was actually numb,” she says. “I’m like, not her baby. I felt like he was my child. And my mind went immediately to my grandson, who is fourteen. That could easily have been my grandson.” The next morning, “I could hardly even get out of bed,” she says, her voice breaking. “I was so shaken.”

Not long after, Corinda’s daughter, who works with high school kids, called and asked if she’d come help out her students because they were grieving, they were confused, they were struggling, and their needs weren’t being met. Corinda is a mental health professional.

“Trauma is all around these kids,” she says. “And when I think about mental health–and I know the resources are slim, and access to those resources is even more slim when it comes to people who look like us–who is helping these kids?”

Because Corinda knows that trauma is expansive, it multiplies like a cancer, exponentially, extending so far beyond the initial impact of a horrible event. There’s trauma in the aftermath. There’s trauma in witnessing your friends’ and loved ones’ pain. There’s trauma in the way people and systems respond (or don’t) to what happened. There’s trauma in the way you might be belittled, dismissed, ignored, disparaged, disbelieved. There’s trauma in injustice. Malignant trauma.

“When we talk about these disparities from poverty, we know that those things are triggers for mental health. And then you add on this trauma,” says Corinda. “I’m concerned. I’m concerned for our village kids who look like us, who already meet the threshold for mental health issues, and now we compounded this other thing on top of it.”

The school Corinda helped out at that day is the same school where Angela’s daughter attends. Her daughter is struggling because her friend, a family member of Tony’s, is suffering and she doesn’t know how to help him. She tells Angela, “He just walked out of class and couldn’t stop crying,” she says. “And usually he talks to her but he won’t talk now.”

Jackie Hunt is also a mental health professional, and “as a mom, I’m still numb.” Because it’s all so much. And she knows it takes the tools of adulthood, of experience and perspective and historical context, to navigate this mess–and even then, it’s a tremendous challenge.

“That’s my fear and that’s part of my concern, we have a lot of noise,” says Jackie. “And kids have access to a lot of information that they are not able, they don’t even have the capacity, to process it and to make sense of it. And as adults, it’s our job to help our children. But you can’t give what you ain’t got. If you haven’t figured out how to make sense of what’s going on yourself, you can’t give that to your child.”

When her own fourteen-year-old daughter wanted to leave school to participate in the student protests, her first instinct was to say no. But when her daughter articulated her reasoning so powerfully, Jackie gave her blessing. And at that protest, Angela, who was there helping form a protective adult perimeter, watched Jackie’s daughter and her friends press the mayor of their city for answers about Tony. Heard his tone-deaf answer about workforce and development, about education and poverty and disparity, heard him wrongly call Tony “Antonio” despite all those “What’s His Name?” chants, “and I just saw her face drop,” says Angela. “And I was just like, he just lost all of them.”

For Sabrina, the youths’ pain was most pronounced at a vigil for Tony when his friends and classmates were grieving so hard “you could just feel these babies’ energy,” she says, before inviting them to take the megaphone themselves, which they did, leaning hard against each other, expressing their raw pain with a grace and presence and maturity they never should have had to have just yet.

“These babies are now walking around, they feel even less safe, they feel less protected, less cared about,” she says. “So now you’re gonna have kids actin’ out in school or making some sort of crazy decision or these aggressions they’re gonna have, so how are we gonna care take them? Because we gave this to them. It was adults who gave them this issue that they’re dealing with now. They didn’t create it themselves.”

And who’s helping them, all of them, in the aftermath? Once the media go home, after the struggle loses urgency and the story fades, what happens to all those kids who’ve seen the worst? Who identify with Tony and watched as his character was publicly assassinated? As he was posthumously stripped of his humanity?

“They know that could happen to any one of them at any given time,” says Lisa, and so she, and Sabrina, and Jackie, Corinda, Angela, Nichelle, so many others, they say enough. “We just said as moms, we’ve got to do something. We don’t know what the heck to do, but we can’t be silent. We can’t just talk about our pain. We gotta talk about accountability and what happens next.”

Which is why, when people ask them why they don’t wait–wait until the investigation into shooting is complete, wait until the officials release all the details of their own facts–they shake their heads and side eye each other and four hundred years of words pass silently between them. A mother does not wait when she perceives that her children aren’t safe. When her children are telling her they do not feel safe or secure themselves. When history has proven that they are not, maybe never were, safe.

“Our children cope,” says Lisa. “My kids are coping. They’re not thriving. And they’re not happy and they’re not overjoyed. They’re coping.”

So instead of waiting, there are emails, phone calls, decisions. A private Facebook group to post and communicate quickly; organization, mobilization, momentum. Who do we need to talk to? What do we need to learn to understand how police policy works, about training practices, who’s responsible, who has the power to change legislation? Is it the police and fire commission? Is it the public safety review committee? Is it the mayor? The moms start setting up meetings with all of them.
They start to voice that maybe what we need is independent review bodies. Maybe it’s independent investigations, some kind of better checks and balances. Maybe it’s cultural competence training, not some one-and-done class but an ongoing assessment, a constant re-evaluation. Something that ensures officers and citizenry alike feel understood, cared for, like they’re all on the same side, that they’re all a part of one community. Because they are.

Also, they wonder, how they engage–truly engage–the non-Black community in their efforts. For Jackie, the answers should be found more universally, not by the few but by the many, and every civic leader and media reporter needs to take some ownership for what’s next.

“I believe that as a community, everybody who was a part of making this story big,” says Jackie, “needs to be a part of settling it.”

Sabrina just wishes we’d bring our private conversations forward, be willing to venture further out on that branch than we ever have before, because it matters. Because everything is at stake, and moms can’t do it alone.

“We all have, Black women got those white friends we can just talk to, we can talk openly, and they even tell you all the mess they’ve done that they said, their neighbors did and everything, but come on. I need you to do this publicly. I need you to pull your folks together publicly,” she says. “I don’t need us to just be in back rooms talking to each other. Because otherwise we ain’t really saying ‘if’ this is gonna happen, it’s more ‘when.’ When we’re gonna have the next young man.”

But so many times, in so many different venues from so many different leaders and coworkers and neighbors, they get the same dismissive arguments in response to the “how.” What about gang violence? What about the west side shootings? What about Tony’s record, what about the drugs, what about his erratic, violent outbursts that night? There doesn’t seem to be any separation, any distinction, between that conversation–a separate, important one–and this one.

“We’re not talking about at-risk kids, we’re talking about all Black kids,” says Lisa. “And all Black males, including the squeaky clean ones who live in our house, who go out to go from work to school to home and who are racially profiled and who know it could have been them, under the wrong mix of circumstances. And that it can be them, tomorrow, under the wrong set of circumstances. What guarantees do we have as African American parents to know that, even in a conflict situation, our child isn’t gonna die in the process of interacting with a police officer?”

It’s not like these are new sentiments, new fears, new expressions of no more. But something about the death of this boy–what’s his name?–has changed everything, and not just for them.

“The beautiful part is I have never seen so many people mobilized,” says Lisa. “People spurred into action because this affected them in such a deep way, wanting to engage in the political process and the policy process to help shape outcomes beyond this that will help prevent this in the future. The loss of this child and how personal it was has really moved people who may not have felt as compelled to move before, because we all feel like this is our community’s child, you know? This is our community’s child.”

What’s his name?

“This is our community’s child, and people have been mobilized, impacted, there’s a lot of collaborating and partnering going on within the African American community and beyond, a lot of multiracial alliance among people in general who just look at this and say no, this is not our Madison. This is not the kind of policing we want. We don’t want to become known as a city where people die when a distress call is put out.”

What’s his name?

“And so seeing Black, white, Asian, Latino, Native, gay, straight, whoever, come together to stand for–“

What’s his name?

“–Tony Robinson, or at least to stand for greater accountability in how we police and how we protect safety and security of all citizens, which includes African American male youth, has been and will continue to be something that lives beyond this,” Lisa says.

“And so you’re seeing mothers galvanize around one another, around a singular collective mission. To protect our children and pave a way for them in this community in a more vocal and visible way than we’ve done before. We’ve done it behind the scenes, we do it every day, but we’ve got to have a presence where policy and decisions are made, and we have to impact that and shape that and not be absent from the table.

And that’s what the mothers are bringing.”

In his name. For their babies, and their babies’ babies. For their husbands and boyfriends and brothers, for their nephews and their nieces, their daughters and their sons, for their son, her son, our son, Tony, for Tony.

Tony Robinson.

Living Color

White ally leader calls for normalizing conversations about race

When White Privilege Conference founder Eddie Moore Jr. spoke in Madison last spring, Kristen Brock-Petroshius remembers him asking how Madison, a city full of nice white people, could at the same time have such egregious racial disparities–and it resonated deeply.

“I think often times white Madison’s racism is very nice,” says Brock-Petroshius, a member of Groundwork. “For those of us who are white, I think for the most part we’re raised to be color blind. We have a hard time understanding and owning the ways we harm people of color every day while going about our daily lives, because we think of ourselves as good, nice people. And the two can exist at the same time. You know, I can be very nice about keeping somebody in a subjugated position.”

It’s complex nuances like this one that Brock-Petroshius and others try to articulate as part of Groundwork, “a community organization of white people working to achieve racial equity in Dane County.” For the past ten years, through intensive, eight-week workshops and community events, Groundwork has helped people understand racism and connect to it emotionally through art, history and local activists of color speaking about personal experiences. The all-volunteer group also focuses on supporting existing grassroots efforts led by people of color. Some include immigrant rights, Native American mascot issues and a “real-time responsive role” to the Black Lives Matter and Young, Gifted and Black movements locally.

“It’s a balance to actually listen to and respect and support the leadership of people of color, because they’re most directly impacted by racism. At the same time, it’s important for white people to take leadership around racial justice in all of our spheres of influence,” she says. From home to work to school, push the needle forward wherever you are. “It’s tricky and complex and there’s not a magic formula for it, but that’s a lot of what we talk about, how to balance that.”

Rather than just get angry at racism when you see it, “remembering that any racist thing that other white people have done, I probably have done at some point in my life,” she says. Let yourself be vulnerable, and push past the fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. “It’s that fear of mistakes that keeps us from doing anything, and then we end up with what’s here in Madison, where we have a lot of well-meaning, well-intentioned white people,” she says. “What I would like to see is for Madison to become a place where talking about race becomes the norm, owning our limitations and putting forward innovative ideas that make people uncomfortable.”

Click here for all stories that appeared in the May 2015 cover story covering the days after the Tony Robinson shooting.