September 21st marks the one year anniversary of the execution of Troy Anthony Davis by the State of Georgia.
Davis’s execution came after nearly twenty years of efforts to commute his sentence and secure a new trial. In the years since Davis’s initial conviction numerous eye witnesses recanted their stories and alleged that they had been coerced by detectives to identify him as the shooter. Davis and his family had long maintained his innocence. But after three stays of execution and a U.S. Supreme Court intervention, noted figures like Bishop Desmond Tutu, Pope Benedict XVI, and former President Jimmy Carter joined the rallying cry for a new trial.
Bolstered by social media over 1 million people signed petitions for clemency while many more made #TOOMUCHDOUBT a top trending topic for 2011. Silent vigils erupted into spontaneous marches on the White House and state capitols across the U.S. as everyday people conveyed their outrage over the possibility that an innocent man may have been put to death. The now iconic “I Am Troy Davis” image seemed to be permanently etched in our collective memory. Yet one year after Davis’s death, we are faced with a question first posed by the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1967: Where Do We Go From Here?
The public’s response to Troy Davis’s plight reflects a persistent and troubling pattern among communities of color: intense organizing in response to overt instances of racial injustice with little attention to building a community-based infrastructure that charts more preventive strategies. Perhaps the “on to the next one” approach is a consequence of “racial fatigue” but the need to move from moment to movement remains. Troy Davis’s execution exists within the context of broader racial disparities in the criminal justice system. African Americans make up approximately 12% of the total U.S. population but comprise over 50% of the 3,189 death row inmates in the U.S. Numerous scientific studies have documented the tremendous racial, class, and gender bias embedded in deciding who is most likely to receive a death sentence.
More importantly, the application of the death penalty in the US privileges the lives of certain victims over others. Since 1977 the homicide rate for Black and White victims has been nearly equal. Yet in that same period, 80% of inmates executed in the United States have been convicted of murdering a white victim. The millions of taxpayer dollars spent on death penalty cases could be better spent on providing restitution, counseling, support, and violence prevention programs for victims and their families. In light of the overwhelming evidence of this bias the time has come for our communities to engage in sustained, grassroots organizing surrounding abolition and the broader quest for racial justice.
Currently, there are 58 people sitting on federal death row. More than half (26) of those awaiting death in federal jurisdiction are Black.
Where is our power? The political impotence felt the night of Troy Davis’ execution can still be felt today. Many of us remember vividly watching the news and waiting to hear of possible intervention from the US Supreme court and being overwhelmed with relief when the temporary stay was announced. That moment of relief soon turned to shock, sadness and for some, fury. Furious with the state of Georgia, with its parole board, with the many appellate courts, but mostly we were furious with our lack of collective power to save the life of Troy Davis. James Donald of the Georgia State Parole board was key in the final decision to proceed with the execution of Troy Davis. James Donald, the entire parole board, and other individuals empowered with the ability to halt the execution continue on with business as usual without any significant political punishment from those of us who passionately demanded clemency. Our ability to impact this case was reduced to appealing to the conscious of a people who have normalized state sanctioned killings. Collectively, we are not in a position to politically reward or punish.
One year ago, millions of people worldwide called on America to question the execution of Troy Davis and the use of capital punishment. Millions of people were forced face the horrible reality of capital punishment as we attempted to make sense of a senseless and cruel institution. Yet as of September 21, 2012, 11 people across the United States are scheduled to be put to death at the hands of state governments.
What can you do? In the summer of 2012, members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated passed an international resolution calling for an end to the death penalty in the United States. This resolution marks what can very well be a shift in the consciousness and behavior of Black institutions in America. The Sorority made a very powerful statement by drafting and passing this resolution. They affirmed the value of sustained efforts to affirm social justice and human rights. Imagine if the entire Divine 9 passed similar resolutions. Imagine