“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