There is yet another great and bloody gash on the soul of America right now, because we allowed a state-sponsored killing of a potentially innocent man to occur in our name, on our watch. Fellow Americans, we must end the uncivilized and inhuman act of the death penalty, of killing people convicted of or believed to be murderers, immediately. If slavery was barbaric and morally wrong in its time, then the death penalty is barbaric and morally wrong in ours. Troy Davis should not be physically dead but, alas, he is.
I feel immense sorrow, was unable to sleep last night, and my very sincere prayers are both with the family of slain police officer Mark MacPhail, and with Troy Davis' loved ones. We have two tragic life endings on our hands, separated by 22 years, millions of dollars in taxpayer money, and bottomless divisions in how and why a murder case should be handled and judged.
For in executing Troy Davis he has been made a martyr, a symbol of a new movement of awareness about our very busted criminal justice system, of how much race and class come into play when deciding who will be imprisoned, and for how long, who will be executed, and why, and what people are more likely to be executed for killing those not their race. Specifically when Black folks are charged with killing White folks. And, yes, I am aware that a White man named Lawrence Russell Brewer of Texas was executed, coincidentally, on the same day as Troy Davis, for the 1998 truck-dragging murder of a Black man, James Byrd. But, one, it is so rare that a White person is ever convicted (or put to death) for the killing of a Black person, or a Latino person, or an Asian person or a Native American person, in our America. And, second and most important, I am in complete opposition to the death penalty, and that means I did not want Mr. Brewer to be executed either, no matter how apparent his guilt was in the James Byrd death. Neither Lawrence Russell Brewer nor Troy Davis should be physically dead but, alas, they are.
Yet in spite of the racial realities of America, still, a progressive, multicultural army of concerned citizens came together to make our voices heard, in support of Troy Davis, in opposition to the death penalty. I have been an activist of some sort for 27 long years and I can tell you of the numerous movements and mini-movements I've ever been a part of, few have been as empowering and uplifting as the work to spare Troy Davis' life. You could see and feel this online, on Facebook, on Twitter, in the many email exchanges and forwards. You could see and feel this in the too-many-to-count blogs that have been posted. And I certainly could feel and see it last night at our Brooklyn, New York rally and vigil for Troy Davis, where people of all races, all faiths (or none at all), all avenues of life, came together, in solidarity, for a cause that mattered as much to them as their own lives.
That is why I think it important that well-meaning Americans of whatever background read Michelle Alexander's astonishing book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Ms. Alexander is a legal scholar and college professor who painstakingly puts down the facts about America's "prison-industrial complex," and how it has disproportionately affected people of color. I visit American prisons regularly and have seen first-hand the legions of Black and Latino males locked up for years, for life, or those languishing on death rows, awaiting their capital punishment. Troy Davis happens to be the most famous death penalty case in American history, but real change will only occur when we begin to understand this is a catastrophic crisis deeply woven into the American social fabric and justice system.
Yes, there should be penalties for crimes in America, but there is something critically wrong when Black males only make up a small percentage of the total American population yet are the highest percentile of American prison inmates, of inmates on death row, or individuals with criminal records which will follow many of them for the remainder of their physical lives.
Indeed I thought of this and so much more as I assembled with that mostly young and very multicultural group at Downtown Brooklyn's The House of the Lord church for the Troy Davis rally and vigil last night. We had no real structure for the program, no idea what was going to happen, but we were clear, as were thousands of others similarly gathered across America, and the world, that we could not go through this modern-day lynching of Troy Davis alone. So we created spaces for ourselves, we burned candles, we marched, we rallied, we prayed, we cried, we held hands, and we Americans hugged strangers in a way I had not seen since the night Barack Obama was elected president and, before that, not since the September 11th tragedy.
For me personally my emotions and spirit felt twisted in a hurricane, like a thick tree broken at its root, because I could not help thinking that I, a Black male in America, could very easily be in Troy Davis' position. To be sure, some one hundred years ago, White males summarily murdered my great-grandfather, Baine Powell, from my mother's side of our Low Country South Carolina family, in his community because they coveted his business independence and his 400 acres of land. His widow was left with three mere acres and children to raise solo. As the story goes the fear and trauma left by the killing of my great-grandfather led many of my kinfolk to flee that community, fearing it could happen to them, too. While others stayed, paralyzed with that fear, the story passed from one generation to another in hushed tones of trepidation and warning.
Thus, for some Americans, there is a painful memory of lynchings, of people watching, celebrating, and smiling when a Black man was executed, in many cases for a crime with untrustworthy witnesses and flimsy evidence, as was the situation with Troy Davis. That is why so many took to the social networks and used the term lynching without apology. And these were not just Black folks saying this either. For all Americans know, even in the quiet spaces of our minds, what America's shaky history is around justice. Matter of fact, when Larry Cox of Amnesty International came out of the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison (yes, that is the real name) after witnessing Troy Davis' execution last night, he declared, pointedly, "I'm deeply ashamed of my country."
Does not mean that Mr. Cox, or any of us, are unpatriotic. On the contrary patriotism means, for me, that I love America so much, know its history so well, know its soul, heart, and mind so intimately, that I am clear what the potential is for America. But we will never achieve that potential, and will forever be semi-participants in the democracy and freedom social experiment, for ourselves, for the world, as long as things like the death penalty, poverty, ghettos, a dysfunctional public school system, and the absence of real-life economic opportunities for each and every American are alive and well.
So if there is ever a time for a national gut check, it is right here. For example, that means that so many people, especially in the state of Georgia, could have said their political careers are less important than murdering a potentially innocent man. Be it the five people who sit on the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles, or the Chatham County (Savannah) District Attorney, or the judge who signed Troy Davis' death warrant on September 6, one after another refused to budge, or said they were powerless to do anything further. It makes you wonder how any of these folks can look themselves in the mirror on any given day, how they can, from one January to the next, celebrate the life and teachings of Georgia native son Martin Luther King, Jr., yet casually ignore one of his last lessons about us human beings needing to practice "a dangerous kind of selflessness." What these officials did, instead, was turn their ears and hearts off from people the world over, hid behind timid statements and telephone and fax busy signals, and either claimed someone else had more power than they, or they simply refused to acknowledge the 7 of 9 witnesses who recanted their stories, the lack of consistent and concrete evidence, and the moral outrage that poured in from Pope Benedict XVI, former president Jimmy Carter, former FBI Director (under President Ronald Reagan) William S. Sessions, Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu, six prison wardens, and over one million signed petitions.
We can run but we cannot hide, and I sincerely hope the Troy Davis case also increases voter participation in Georgia threefold, especially among younger voters, and that Georgians vote out of office district attorneys, judges, and any elected official who did not listen to the cries of the people at an hour such as this. If not now, then when? If not for we the people, then for whom do you work? But this is what happens when people with clear and multiple political aspirations and clear and multiple political agendas put their careers and maneuverings for power ahead of the people. All the Georgia officials who, at one point or another over the past 20 years have crossed paths with the Troy Davis case, now have to live, for the rest of their physical lives, with the reality that they all took part in a state-sponsored murder. And did little to nothing to halt it.
Indeed, no one that I know, including me, was even remotely suggesting that Troy Davis should have been freed from jail. No. Just make it a life sentence is what I have stated publicly, especially under that huge cloud of doubt. But there is simply no way to kill the spirit of a man, a human being, who maintained his innocence right to the very end, as that lethal injection ended his life at 11:08Pm on Wednesday, September 21, 2011. As I said in a previous blog, I do not know what happened on the night of August 19, 1989, but I just cannot subscribe to the notion of an eye for an eye. If it was wrong for Officer MacPhail to be killed, then it was also wrong for Troy Davis to be killed. Either we human beings, in America, in the world, are going to practice peace, love, nonviolence, compassion, and mercy toward each other, or we are going to continue down a path toward the destruction of us all, one community after another, one nation after another, one life after another. I am not sure what God you worship, but the one I celebrate does not condone any of this.
Likewise I categorically refuse to walk down that path of despair and hopelessness, for the work for justice is just beginning. Let us see the possibilities created by the short lives of both Officer Mark MacPhail and Troy Davis. Let us pray that the families of Officer MacPhail and Troy Davis one day come together to find the entire truth of what occurred, and become an extraordinary symbol of human unity and human understanding. Let us latch ourselves to that old but reliable mule called history and recall that it took a progressive, multicultural coalition of people power, committed for years, to end slavery in America. That same super-charged energy brought us the presidency of Barack Obama in 2008. So I am convinced that we can come together, stay together, and be together, in this moment, to create a movement to end the death penalty in America and on this planet, once and for all.
And when we do this, Troy Davis' execution shall not be in vain--
Kevin Powell is an activist and public speaker based in Brooklyn, New York. A nationally acclaimed writer, Kevin is also the author or editor of 10 books. His 11th, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and The Ghost of Dr. King: And Other Blogs and Essays, will be published January 2012. Email him at kevin_powell, or follow him on Twitter @kevin_powell