When I was a tween, my mom worked at a prison in Connecticut. She calculated the payroll for the correctional officers at a facility imprisoning male inmates. Listening to my mother talk about her job, my thoughts often wandered to the inmates’ lives. How did they deal with daily confinement? What would life be like for them when they were released? How did their families deal with their imprisonment?
I naïvely thought that if inmates were incarcerated, they must have committed the crime. I mean, our courts don’t convict and imprison innocent people…we live in a democracy that believes defendants are innocent until proven guilty…right??
Years later, I discovered the massive disparity in incarceration rates between whites and people of color, particularly African-Americans who face discrimination on a daily basis. African-Americans are pulled over by cops and arrested more frequently, contend with greater conviction rates and suffer harsher sentences than white people.
This doesn’t sound like justice to me. And it’s not; it’s blatant racism fused with classism. Yet I still clung to the belief that justice would prevail. That spark of hope was snuffed out last Wednesday, September 21st, the moment I heard Troy Davis had been executed.
Troy Davis was convicted of shooting Michael Cooper, assaulting Larry Young and murdering Mark MacPhail, a white off-duty police officer, in Georgia in 1989. Up until his last moments alive, Davis professed his innocence, telling MacPhail’s family to “look deeper” into the case. For over 20 years, Davis fought for his freedom.
A week has passed since Troy Davis’ death. It still haunts me as I’m sure it haunts the numerous people whose lives he touched. Last Wednesday commemorated World Peace Day, ironically the day a potentially innocent man was executed.
Here are the lessons Troy Davis, a man I never even met, taught me:
1. We need to speak up for human rights and fight against systems of oppression.
As a feminist vegan, I often focus my energy on issues involving gender, sexism and animal rights. But whatever cause we’re passionate about (whether it’s reproductive justice, education, hunger, homelessness or the environment), we must be cognizant of and speak out against concentric layers of oppression including race, class, gender and ableism. A protester at Troy Davis’ execution on Democracy Now! said,
“We are Troy Davis…If we don’t have somebody to stand up for us, we are no better than the people who put him there.”
2. The death penalty is not synonymous with justice and must be abolished.
I’ve never supported the death penalty which is cruel and barbaric. NAACP Georgia Chapter President Ed DuBose on Democracy Now! asserted:
“The Troy Davis case represents everything that’s wrong with the death penalty.”
Reverend Al Sharpton on Democracy Now! declared:
“If flawed eye witnesses can send a man to his death that could happen to me or anyone anywhere…Race is a factor here; class is a factor here…Justice is not executing the wrong man.”
3. If the U.S. wants to police the world and preach democracy, we need to start by setting an example in our own backyard.
The U.S. is so busy interceding in other nations problems (sometimes warranted, sometimes not), telling other cultures how they should mimic our own. Yet we don’t always follow the best example of upholding human rights ourselves. Troy Davis’ brave sister, Martina Correira, was a military nurse. Even while battling stage 4 breast cancer, wheelchair-bound, she fervently fought for her brother’s rights. She divulged to Amy Goodman at Democracy Now!:
“I learned how to kill before learning to heal…I gave up fighting in military to fight for human rights…I taught my son, don’t allow anyone to allow the color of your skin to dictate your future…We are the only country executing people while telling other countries how to handle civil & human rights.”
4. For those politicians and citizens who claim to want smaller government, there is nothing bigger than entrusting the government to execute an individual.
On The Ed Show, Rachel Maddow said:
“[There is] a suspicion of government, a belief that govt should not be powerful and should be as small as possible. The power of a state govt to kill its citizens is a power that comes vested in it a real faith in the state’s power to do that well, to do that infallibly.”
5. We do not live in a post-race U.S.; racism plagues our society.
Racist stereotypes combine with racial disparities in jobs, poverty, education and crime. This disparity continues with the death penalty too. “Prosecutors are more likely to seek a death sentence when the race of the victim is white and are less likely to seek a death sentence when the victim is African-American.” Looking at sentencing in Connecticut, the state I grew up in, a study found that “African-American defendants receive the death penalty at three times the rate of white defendants in cases where the victims are white.”
6. We must learn from one man’s courageous example to not give up the fight for justice. Last Wednesday, Troy Davis issued this statement:
“The struggle for justice doesn’t end with me. This struggle is for all the Troy Davises who came before me and all the ones who will come after me. I’m in good spirits and I’m prayerful and at peace. But I will not stop fighting until I’ve taken my last breath. Georgia is prepared to snuff out the life of an innocent man.”
“They can take my body, but they can’t take my spirit. I gave my spirit to God.”
7. The criminal justice system is not infallible.
Mistakes happen. 7 of the 9 witnesses in Davis’ case recanted their testimony. Democracy Now! reported that a juror in the Troy Davis case admitted:
“If I knew then what I know now, Troy Davis would not be in prison.”
Rachel Maddow on The Ed Show cautioned:
“I think the chaos again around the Troy Davis case and the doubts that are raised about the, uh, whether justice was followed here I should say. I think raise a real question about the infallibility of our justice system…you can’t take it back. You can’t take back killing a person.”
Denny LeBoeuf, Capital Punishment Project, concluded:
“Troy’s case makes clear that the death penalty system in the U.S. is broken beyond repair.”
8. Justice doesn’t always determine who’s convicted and who walks free; the color of our skin and the money in our bank accounts often does.
We’re so quick to judge and condemn, not taking into account oppression such as racism, sexism, classism and ableism.
9. One person can make a difference.
The whole world watched on the night of Davis’ execution. In addition to Georgia and DC, protests sparked in Paris, London, Dublin, Hong Kong, Mali and Peru. I was awed by the global outpouring of support for this one man whose personal struggles symbolized the U.S.’s crumbling criminal justice system, exposing its prejudiced flaws.
Georgia Congressman John Lewis declared:
“Today, we are all Troy Anthony Davis. Tonight, a little piece of all of us will die.”
10. Love, we need to remember its power.
One of my feminist idols, badass poet, writer and activist Staceyann Chin tweeted about Troy Davis, succinctly summing up my thoughts:
“Love is not finite; justice is not only for those who can afford it. We can be better than this. So much better than this.”
I hope she’s right. I hope someday, we are better than this.