Each morning, Vincent Robinson pulls on a freshly laundered red jersey, fits orange gloves over his hands, and steers his wheelchair out to the highway. His goal is to advance north from Atlanta in the direction of Chicago by another 20 miles or so, spreading a message of positivity — and trying to convince people to stop shooting each other.
Robinson knows the damage gunfire can do: As a young man in Atlanta, he was shot twice at point-blank range. The damage was so severe that doctors were forced to amputate both of his legs.
He’s got a long way to go on his journey, more than 340 miles left as of Wednesday afternoon. The days are growing shorter and colder, and often he comes far short of his mileage goal. It’s not because Robinson, who is 44, is tired, or because his muscles are aching — he’s climbed mountains with just the strength of his arms. It’s for the simple reason that so many of the people he encounters along the way want to stop to talk to him, and he wants to talk back.
Speaking by phone on the shoulder of Route 41 in Slaughters, Kentucky, on Wednesday afternoon, Robinson recounts the outpouring of support he’s been getting. “I’ve had people cry,” he says. “Someone said, ‘You’re standing up for a cause and you don’t even have legs.’ I never looked at it like that.”
As he talks, curious passerby slow their cars and ask what he’s doing. Families stop to say hello. A state trooper pulls over to ask if he needs any help. Each time, he greets them warmly and gives his spiel: “I’m pushing from Atlanta, Georgia to Chicago, Illinois, to stop the violence.” Then he invites them to follow his journey on Facebook, where he live-streams videos every day.
Robinson started his trip on September 27, with a few hundreds of dollars in savings and his uncle, Freddy Handspike, trailing behind him in a rented minivan. Since then, strangers have given him food and water. A man mailed a pair of spare tires for his wheelchair; another is planning to send him a cushion. Some offer prayers, weather reports, and free lodging. Often, the people he encounters tell him their stories.
Robinson is still on the phone with me when a woman’s voice emerges from the background. “I’m a victim of domestic violence,” says the woman, who identifies herself as Catherine Gibson. “I’m scared for the world that my kids are growing up in. I don’t want my kids out of my sight because I’m afraid something’s going to happen to them.” She tells Robinson what he’s doing is “absolutely amazing,” and gives him a hug.
The idea for the journey came from God, he says. At first Robinson resisted. No, he thought, absolutely not. People would think he was crazy. But the voice telling him he needed to get to Chicago would not relent. “It was like something was pulling at me, grabbing at me, saying ‘Go, go, go.’”
Robinson thinks messages like this came to him in childhood, too, but back then he wasn’t listening. He grew up in Bankhead Courts, a public housing complex in west Atlanta known for rampant drug use and violence. “I could walk out my door and see nothing but negativity, as far as pimps, drug-dealers, gang-bangers, fighting, prostitutes, drug paraphernalia. People being shot, people being stabbed,” he recalls.
At 11 years old he sold his first bag of weed; at 14 he dropped out of high school. At 16 he got into a fight that led to him getting shot in the hip. He could still walk, thanks to the help of surgically installed screws and rods.
In November 1992, Robinson was living in another part of town when his mother called to tell him about a nightmare she’d had. In the dream, he was standing outside her door, surrounded by people who were shooting and stabbing him. He remembers her saying, “Vincent, don’t come to Bankhead.” He laughed it off.
Three nights later, Robinson says he was walking toward his mother’s door when a man approached him. He had a shotgun and shot him twice in the groin. Robinson says he slipped into a coma, and awoke in the new year to find both of his legs were gone. He was 20 years old.
He says he didn’t really have time to feel sorry for himself — he was just grateful to be alive. He was determined to be independent, so he taught himself how to use his wheelchair, how to drive a car.
That spirit of determination is still with him 24 years later, as Robinson set out on this voyage.
Robinson says his journey is not about raising money, nor is he traveling under the auspices of any organization or movement. Instead, as someone who grew up in a neighborhood where shootings were so routine he and his friends would hardly look up from their games of basketball, he wants to be a beacon of hopefulness and optimism.
“What am I doing? I’m doing a stop-the-violence campaign, but I’m also stressing unity and love,” he says. “Let people see that — we can unite, we can love each other, we can help each other out.”
Back in Slaughters, moments after Robinson says goodbye to one well-wisher, his phone call is interrupted by another admirer. Robinson hands his cell phone to Ricky Barnett, who says he spotted Robinson coming down the road and was compelled to express his thanks. “All the negativity today — you see something positive, I want to show my appreciation for it,” Barnett says. “It’s inspirational, what he’s out here doing. You got people that have their legs who won’t get up and do anything.”
[Photo: Smokey Barn News]