On Wednesday, Troy Davis, a man who may well have been innocent of the crime for which he was convicted, was executed.
Troy Davis was accused of killing Mark MacPhail, a Georgia police officer. Seven of the nine principal prosecution eyewitnesses changed all or part of their testimony, many alleging police coercion in getting their testimony. In addition, three witnesses claimed that another man, Sylvester “Redd” Coles, had confessed the murder. To the end, Troy Davis steadfastly maintained his innocence. I believe there is certainly reasonable doubt that Troy committed the crime he was accused of. (Further information about the case, for those who have not been following the story, is available at Amnesty International.)
However, a perfect storm of kyriarchial shit got Troy Davis’s way.
The death penalty is one of the starkest examples of discrimination around class, race, ability and gender in our society. People of color constitute 25% of the population and 43% of the people executed; 80% of people executed are convicted of murders of white people, even though white people and black people are murdered at equal rates. 5-10% of death row inmates have severe mental illnesses; many have experienced physical or sexual abuse and nearly all suffer from brain damage due to injury or trauma. Almost all people on death row are too poor to afford a lawyer during their trials.
Women commit 10% of all murders, receive 2% of the death sentences and account for 1% of death row inmates. Differences in the type of crime explain a lot of the disparity: women are more likely to murder family members, while men are more likely to be involved in death-penalty crimes like cop-killing and murder during the commission of a robbery. However, that is not the complete explanation: women commit 30% of spousal murders and are 15% of the people executed for killing their spouses.
As a black man in the criminal justice system, Troy Davis de facto has no reasonable doubt that he committed the crime he was accused of. After all, he’s black! And male! The facts didn’t seem to play much of a role in the matter at all.
I have been drafting this post for days. I have tried to say something insightful. Something about the prison-industrial complex, or about the culture of violence, or about the racist and misandric assumption that black men are criminals, violent, beasts that are unable to control themselves. Perhaps an incisive discussion how this case perfectly illustrates bell hooks’s fascinating theory, in Black Men and Masculinity, that treating the black male as “uncivilized brutes without the capacity to feel complex emotions… fear or remorse” (48) serves to justify a racist system of subjugation.
But to be honest I can’t. Because what I’m feeling right now is rage.
I am angry at the failures of the criminal justice system. I am angry because I support civil liberties, the presumption of innocence, reasonable doubt, due process, everything Troy Davis was denied. I am angry because a murderer might get away. I am angry because an innocent man might have died. Might have been murdered.
I have had to stand up and walk away from this post so many times. It’s hard to type through tears.
I am a white woman, but Troy Davis is my brother, the way all black men are my brothers, the way, under our skin, we are all family. The same DNA lies in our cells, the same blood runs in our veins. Injustice perpetrated against one of us is injustice perpetrated against all of us. As long as one of us is oppressed, no human being is free.
Troy Davis is why I fight for social justice. Social justice isn’t some academic wankery or an Internet game. Social justice is about real people who are really in pain. Racism kills; homophobia kills; sexism kills; transphobia kills; ableism kills. People die because we are incapable of overcoming our animal instincts to divide the world into Us and Not Us, because we need these little groups to classify people into, The Other and Not Like Us and Just Not Our Sort Dear.
But there is another way. Thousands of years ago, the playwright Terence wrote one of the most beautiful sentences ever spoken: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto. For those of you who don’t speak Latin (pah), it means: “I am human; I consider nothing human alien to me.”
Social justice is the struggle to make that sentence a reality. Ordinary human beings, trying to overcome our tendency to only see black skin or male secondary sexual characteristics, trying to see nothing human as alien to us. We fail: oh, God, do we fail. But that doesn’t make it any less necessary to try. Social justice is a history of failures trying to be, if not right, at least a little bit less wrong.
On Wednesday night, a man said, “for those about to take my life, God have mercy on your souls. And may God bless your souls.” At 11:08 PM, he died. To the end, he professed his innocence.
It was a failure of justice. But that failure doesn’t mean we should give up. It means it’s time to keep fighting.
(If you have extra money, you may want to consider donating to The Innocence Project, which works to free wrongfully convicted people. There is a link on the sidebar.)