Archive for September, 2011

Troy Davis Is Not Dead

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

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, or follow him on Twitter @kevin_powell


Why Are We Killing Troy Davis?

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

“To take a life when a life has been lost is revenge, not justice.”—DESMOND TUTU

Unless something God-like and miraculous happens, Troy Davis, 42, is going to be executed tomorrow, Wednesday, September 21, 2011, at 7pm, by lethal injection at a state prison in Jackson, Georgia.

Let me say up front I feel great sorrow for the family of Mark MacPhail, the police officer who was shot and murdered on August 19, 1989. I cannot imagine the profound pain they’ve shouldered for 22 angst-filled years, hoping, waiting, and praying for some semblance of justice. Officer MacPhail will never come back to life, his wife, his two children, and his mother will never see him again. Under that sort of emotional and spiritual duress, I can imagine why they are convinced Troy Davis is the murderer of their beloved son, husband, and father.

But, likewise, I feel great sorrow for Troy Davis and his family. I don’t know if Mr. Davis murdered Officer MacPhail or not. What I do know is that there is no DNA evidence linking him to the crime, that seven of nine witnesses have either recanted or contradicted their original testimonies tying him to the act, and that a gentleman named Sylvester “Redd” Coles is widely believed to be the actual triggerman. But no real case against Mr. Coles has ever been pursued.

So a man is going to be executed, murdered, in fact, under a dark cloud of doubt in a nation, ours, that has come to practice executions as effortlessly as we breath.

Be it Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, governor of Texas, and the 234 executions that have occurred under his watch (that fact was cheered loudly at a recent Republican debate), or the 152 executions when George W. Bush was governor of that state, we are a nation of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. Spiraling so far out of control that we are going to execute someone who may actually be innocent tomorrow.

I say we because the blood of Officer MacPhail and Troy Davis will be on the hands of us all. We Americans who fail to use our individual and collective voices to deal with the ugliness in our society that leads to violence in the first place, be they for economic crimes or because some of us have simply been driven mad by the pressures of trying to exist in a world that often marginalizes or rejects us. Thus our solution for many problems often becomes force, or violence. But it has long since been proven that the death penalty or capital punishment is not a deterrent, contrary to some folks’ beliefs. Murders continue to happen every single day in America, as commonplace as apple pie, football, and Ford trucks.

I also say we because it is startling to me that Troy Davis could be on death row for twenty years, have his guilt be under tremendous doubt, yet save a few dedicated souls and organizations, there has not been a mass movement of support to save his life, to end the death penalty, not by well-meaning Black folks, not by well-meaning White folks, not by well-meaning folks of any stripe, and certainly not by influential Black folks who represent the corridors of power in places like Atlanta, with the exception of, say, Congressman John Lewis.

You wonder what the outcome of the parole board decision would have been if Black churches in Atlanta and other parts of Georgia, for example, had joined this cause to end the death penalty in America years back, if Black leaders had launched a sustained action much in the way their religious and spiritual foremothers and forefathers had done two generations before?

What could have been different if more Georgia ministers had the courage of Atlanta’s Rev. Dr. Raphael Gamaliel Warnock, pastor of the famed Ebenezer Baptist Church once helmed by Dr. King? Dr. Warnock has been steadfast and outspoken, yet seemingly out there alone in his support of Troy Davis. I mean if there is ever a time for Black churches to practice a relevant ministry, as Dr. King once urged, is it not when a seeming injustice like the Troy Davis matter is right in front of our faces? When so many Black males are locked up in America’s prisons? What is the point, really, of having a “men’s ministry” at your church if it is not addressing one of the major problems of the 21st century, that of the Black male behind bars? Especially in a society, America, that incarcerates more people than any other nation on earth.

And you wonder how the five-person Georgia State Board of Pardons and Parole that, paradoxically, includes two Black males, including the head of the board, must feel. Had it not been for past legal injustices, like the Scottsboro Boys case of the 1930s or the vicious killing of Emmett Till in the 1950s, there would not have been a Civil Rights Movement, nor the placement of Blacks in places to balance the scales of justice, like that Georgia Parole Board. While I certainly do not think any Black person should get a pass just because they are Black, I do think, if you are an aware Black man, somewhere in your psyche has to be some residual memory of Black males being lynched in America, of Black male after Black male being sent to jail, or given the death penalty, under often flimsy charges and evidence. If there is a reasonable doubt, keep the case open until there is ultimate certainty—

Finally, incredibly ironic and tragic that this is happening while our first Black president is sitting in the White House. We, America, like to pat ourselves on the back and say job well done whenever there is a shred of racial or social progress in our fair nation. But then we habitually figure out ways to take one, two, several steps back, with this Troy Davis execution, with the rise of the Tea Party and its thinly-veiled racial paranoia politics, to push America right back to the good old says of segregation, Jim Crow, brute hatred of those who are different, while social inequalities run rampant like rats in the night.

And if you think Troy Davis’ cause celebre has nothing to do with Jim Crow, then either you’ve not been to an American prison lately, or you simply are blind. I’ve been to many, across our country, and they are filled to the brim with mostly Black and Latino males (and some poor White males), including the majority of folks sitting on death row.

For sure, given my background of poverty, a single mother, an absent father, and violence and great economic despair in my childhood and teen years, but for the grace of God I could be one of those young Black or Latino males languishing in jail at this very moment. I could be, indeed, Troy Davis.

So I cannot simply view the Troy Davis case and execution as solely about the killing of Officer MacPhail. Yes, an injustice was done, a killing occurred, and I pray the truth really comes out one day.

But I am just as concerned about America’s soul, of the morality tales we are text-messaging to ourselves, to the world, as we move Troy Davis from his cell one last time, to that room where a needle will blast death into his veins, suck the air from his throat, snatch life from his eyes.

While the family of Mr. Davis and the family of Officer MacPhail converge, one final time, to witness a death in progress—

Now two men will be dead, Officer MacPhail and Troy Davis, linked, forever, by the misfortune of our confusion, stereotypes, finger-pointing, and history of passing judgment without having every shred of the facts. I am Officer MacPhail, I am Troy Davis, and so are you. And you. And you, too.

And as my mother would say, have mercy on us all, Lawd, for we know not what we do—

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