By Guest Contributor Michael P. Jeffries
Just two weeks ago, the live audience at the Republican presidential candidate debate cheered in gleeful support of the death penalty. At the time, sensible Americans, secure in their own polite disapproval, bookmarked the incident as another harrowing YouTube amusement, and returned to normalcy the next day. The climate has changed, and there will be no such return to normalcy after Troy Davis’s death. We cannot make up for the blood spilled while the death penalty languished as mere speck on our political radar, but we can and will work to eradicate it.
Desperate for redemption in this dark hour, we have to believe that history will reveal the Davis execution as the spark that eventually incinerated the death penalty in the United States. I worry, though, that the worthy goal of eradicating capital punishment, even if achieved, will distort and erase the tormenting racial subtext of this incident. The very possibility of even characterizing the racial meaning baked into this case as “subtext,” speaks to the suppression of the truth about racism in the United States.
It is a testament to the depth of human empathy and faith that violence did not erupt between the largely black group of protestors and law enforcement, given the number of police officers who have attacked and murdered black people without being punished. The government has repeatedly confirmed that the lives of Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, and countless others are not as valuable as that of fellow innocent, Mark McPhail. If there is any reason to be prideful or thankful after Thursday, it is that that Americans burning with anger and despair embodied the civility their government was so woefully unable to reflect. Law enforcement officers at the scene should be commended for their professionalism as well.
Race also inflects the “I am Troy Davis” and “too much doubt” mantras that emerged over the past week. On one hand, the phrases are a simple display of solidarity, invoked by people of all backgrounds who view the execution as a personal affront and miscarriage of justice. For many who claim them, the words do not reflect absolute conviction that Davis is completely innocent, only that he did not deserve to die in this manner. No murder weapon was ever found. No DNA evidence exists. Police misconduct made a mockery of the suspect identification process. Seven of the nine witnesses recanted their testimonies. None of this was enough to spare Davis’s life, let alone reopen the case.
On the other hand, for black and brown people, the phrase, “I am Troy Davis” takes on a different significance. It shouts the truth that nobody is safe from a punishment system that cannot tell one working class or impoverished black or Latino person from the next. As Marc Mauer reports, “1 of every 3 African American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as can 1 of every 6 Latino males, compared to 1 in 17 White males.” The stereotypes of the inner-city “thug” and the “illegal alien” pervade popular discourse on crime and race relations. Every subject who meets the race/class criteria is presumed guilty, by definition, of cultural pathology and criminality.
The punishment complex simply formalizes the social and cultural guilt poor blacks and Latinos are already marked with, using the ‘criminal’ stain to draw the eye away from centuries of institutional racism, exploitation, and discrimination. “I am Troy Davis” is nothing if not an expression of deep fear and justified paranoia. Imprisonment is warranted for those who pose a danger to society. But too often, all it takes for a black or brown person without privilege to be locked up without recourse is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And if his execution does not come gradually, through the ills of denied civil rights, underemployment, shoddy health care, and decrepit schooling and social services, the punishment complex will intervene to hasten his social and biological death.
The coming days are for reflection, self-evaluation, and action. The pace of the journey away from capital punishment can and must be quickened. But as we stumble away from our current lot, with our eyes on a horizon free of the death penalty, we must be careful not to ignore the ground on which we walk. It is filthy, littered with racial injustice and exploitation, and the dust and grime we kick up sticks to us as we try to move on. Let us leave this place behind, and leave it clean.
Image courtesy of Friends of Justice