Thursday, September 22, 2011


Unanswered Questions from the Catacomb in the Flower of Mankind

There is no point in saying it poetically. Yesterday an innocent man named Troy Davis was put to death by the US criminal justice system in the state of Georgia.

Despite overwhelming evidence of his innocence, despite decades of sustained organized support for Mr. Davis, from his family to international institutions, despite rallies in his defense attended collectively by thousands around the world, he was executed.

Up until the final minute last night, people around the world were hoping that a stay would be put on his execution, or that a reprieve would give his legal defense another chance to speak truth to power. In vigils from Georgia to New York and beyond, thousands united in prayer for Mr. Davis and his family, and in the hope that sanity and justice would somehow prevail.

Yesterday evening in St. Mary’s church in Harlem, I gathered with hundreds of others as the scheduled date of his execution approached. We watched a live stream of Democracy Now, reporting at the gates of the death row prison in Georgia, where Mr. Davis’ family and hundreds of supporters were gathered in protest against his execution. A few minutes after the scheduled time of his execution, a massive cheer went up -- he had been granted a reprieve! At this news, many of the hundreds that had gathered began a chant of “The people united shall never be defeated!”

It was a tragic prelude to what was to come later that evening. Our prayers were answered with nothing but contempt. But it is a sad truth upon which we must reflect: the people have united, and been defeated, time and time again. There is no single solution except to continue the struggle. But in what direction and by what means?

In the tense minutes approaching his execution, Benjamin Jealous, President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) speaking with Amy Goodman, gave his impression of the significance of Troy Davis’ frustrated fight for justice:

"We hear a lot of definitions of ‘patriotism’ in this country, but patriotism is what was shown by Troy Davis saying, you know, let’s hold out hope to the last minute. Always hold out hope to the last minute… We are patriots. We believe in our nation."

For Mr. Jealous and the NAACP, Troy Davis seems to be some kind of modern day Socrates: a man who fell victim to his country, but who died believing in it. A man whose faith in his nation’s political system was so great that even a death sentence for a crime he did not commit could not convince him otherwise. The lesson seems to be that, despite our sadness and indignation, we should still try to work within the system for that famous “more perfect nation”.

Earlier this month, Mr. Davis wrote a message of thanks to all of his supporters. At the end, he says something that I think points in a different direction:

“no matter what happens in the days, weeks to come, this Movement to end the death penalty, to seek true justice, to expose a system that fails to protect the innocent must be accelerated. There are so many more Troy Davis’. This fight to end the death penalty is not won or lost through me but through our strength to move forward and save every innocent person in captivity around the globe. We need to dismantle this Unjust system city by city, state by state and country by country.”

The name of Troy Davis is joined today with not only the hundreds of innocents still on death row, but with the names of all those before him who suffered the same fate. Hundreds have been executed with impunity in the United States, through similarly grotesque courtroom trials in which evidence played no role. Like Mr. Davis, many of them left the world with words condemning the system that killed them. Perhaps it may be relevant to reflect on one such case over 80 years ago.

In 1927, a sham trial sentenced Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti to the electric chair without a shred of evidence. Like Troy Davis, they were victims of a rigged system and its racist judges. Thousands protested around the world, for years on end, but to no avail. Nicola Sacco gave a final speech to the courtroom in broken English:

"I never knew, never heard, even read in history anything so cruel as this Court... I would like to tell all my life, but what is the use? …You forget all this population that has been with us for seven years, to sympathize and give us all their energy and all their kindness. You do not care for them."

Speaking after him Bartolomeo Vanzetti spoke to the thousands who mobilized around the world in their defense and were taught a lesson in contempt:

I am glad to be on the doomed scaffold if I can say to mankind, "Look out; you are in a catacomb of the flower of mankind. For what? All that they say to you, all that they have promised to you -- it was a lie, it was an illusion, it was a cheat, it was a fraud, it was a crime. They promised you liberty. Where is liberty? They promised you prosperity. Where is prosperity? They have promised you elevation. Where is the elevation?"

Today we must ask ourselves the same questions. As we contemplate the path forward, we must reflect on what we have learned, on what our history shows us. Do we mourn the execution of Troy Davis as a terrible and unnecessary sacrifice on the altar of the United States, the flower of mankind, the aspiring "beacon of human rights,” as Mr. Jealous described this country?

Or is the life and death of Troy Davis a moment of revelation, in which beacon becomes beast, in which execution becomes murder, in which flower becomes catacomb?

What have we learned from all this? What will be the meaning of the life and death of Troy Davis?

He lives on to the extent that we honor him, and we honor him to the extent that we carry his struggle for justice forward. But we cannot do either if we do not reflect profoundly on just what this struggle for justice requires, and who and what exactly must be overcome.


Anonymous said...

at a moment like this, i cannot tell you how grateful i am for this piece. though you begin by saying there is no sense being 'poetic', you are obviously a poet if you can string such impossibly difficult ideas together so beautifully.

on the point you raised about troy himself, and what he might have been hoping for: from what i've read of what he wrote and said, it seems his call to "dismantle the system state by state and country by country" likely extended beyond abolition of the DP and included also the prison system itself, which is increasingly becoming the heart of our society, pumping out poisoned blood, churning out "ex-convicts" who are then marginalized in society. i like to think this. of course we can never know.

you also say "when execution becomes murder" - it is interesting to note that the death certificate of execution prisoners reads "homicide" - the irony of that, on any other day, would be black, perhaps to the point of humor. today, it is a nauseatingly apt description of the world we live in, like a body turned inside out, all wrong, all wrong...

Quincy Milo said...

Thank you for your comment! My blog receives very little feedback, so I'm doubly grateful for you incisive and heartfelt words.