Sunday, September 14, 2008

fail to take action

UPDATE (9/23/08): The U.S. Supreme Court has stayed the execution of
Troy Davis,
less than two hours before his scheduled death

Place de la Concorde, in Paris

[Update: As Cara at Feministe points out, you can still take action for Troy Davis.]

As a white American, I regret not saying something earlier on this blog about the imminent execution of Troy Davis. He's an African American man sentenced to die on September 23, on the basis of little if any evidence, and on largely recanted testimony. I'll explain below what I consider significant about how Davis' race is different from mine. I'll also ask you, dear readers, what anyone can still do for Troy Davis, given that his most recent effort in the appeals process was just denied two days ago.

Davis was convicted for the 1989 murder of a white police officer in Georgia. Amnesty International provides this summary of his case:

Troy Davis came within 24 hours of execution in July, 2007 before receiving a temporary stay of execution. But the Georgia Supreme Court denied Mr. Davis’ motion for a new trial and now he faces execution on September 23. Troy Davis was sentenced to death for the murder of Police Officer Mark MacPhail in Georgia. The case against him consisted entirely of witness testimony which contained inconsistencies even during the trial. Since then, all but two of the state's nine non-police witnesses from the trial have recanted or contradicted their testimony. Many of these witnesses have stated in sworn affidavits that they were pressured or coerced by police into testifying or signing statements against Troy Davis.

As Time magazine points out, in one of the few nods of attention to Davis's case by the corporate media, "two of the jurors who sentenced Davis to death signed sworn affidavits saying that based on recanted testimony, he should not be executed. 'In light of this new evidence,' wrote one juror, 'I have genuine concerns about the fairness of Mr. Davis' death sentence.'"

Davis himself writes,

Because of the Anti-Terrorism Bill, [and] the blatant racism and bias in the U.S. Court System, I remain on death row in spite of a compelling case of my innocence. I have a private law firm trying to help save my life in the court system, but it is like no one wants to admit the system made another grave mistake. Am I to be made an example of to save face? Does anyone care about my family who has been victimized by this death sentence for over 16 years? Does anyone care that my family has the fate of knowing the time and manner by which I may be killed by the state of Georgia?

I truly understand a life has been lost and I have prayed for that family just as I pray for mine, but I am Innocent and all I ask for is a True Day in a Just Court. If I am so guilty why do the courts deny me that? The truth is that they have no real case; the truth is I am Innocent.

Where is the Justice for me?

I wish there was more of that justice in me, Mr. Davis. But I'm a white American, so if there's much of any sense of justice in me for you, it's mostly there because I've worked against my white training to put it there. To the extent that I've been trained against empathizing with you because of our racial differences, and to the extent that I've been trained to trust that the justice system works, I'm that much more discouraged by my culture and upbringing from trying to save your life.

I'm pointing out that I'm white and Davis is black in order to emphasize how my becoming white has trained me to be morally lazy in such cases.

I usually think that I'm using my particular skills and talents in writing this blog in order to take action--anti-racist action. My general intent has been to encourage other white people to untrain themselves from their instilled racist tendencies, and then to act in whatever particular non-racist or anti-racist ways they can in their own lives.

However, I could write more posts here that encourage specific, direct action, and I didn't do so soon enough in this case. I did individually sign a petition, make phone calls, and send a letter (PDF) for a man convicted by the white supremacist "justice" system. This is a system that I've come to feel responsible for acting against because it unjustly enhances my white life while it degrades and destroys non-white lives.

But I have a voice and something of an audience here, however limited, and I didn't use that voice soon enough. American men in general aren't supposed to admit to feeling ashamed, but I'll certainly admit to it in this case.

A lot of people also took their bodies out in public and protested for Davis' life. Even in Europe. But I didn't. Did you?

The most the recent activism for Davis has been aimed at the Georgia State Board of Pardons & Appeals. However, they decided two days ago to deny Davis' latest appeal. The next step, as I understand it, would be a review of the case by the U.S. Supreme Court, but that court

In the case of Troy Davis, a young black man facing imminent execution after an absurdly unfair trial, white people have a stronger responsibility to fight for his life. That's because the same white supremacist judicial system that makes their lives easier, just because they're white, also makes it more likely that black men like Davis will have their lives destroyed. Destroyed for crimes they didn't commit, or for crimes that are grossly outweighed by the penalties handed down for them.

If the American judicial system succeeds in killing Davis, millions of people around the world will rightly consider it another example of the disregard that white Americans in general have for black Americans.

I think all Americans who know about Davis's situation and are able to take action should have done so by now. However, if we're white, this has been a chance to take direct action against an institutionally entrenched form of the ongoing white supremacy that unfairly enriches our lives, while tearing down and destroying the lives of others.

So where do we go from here? What can we do for Troy Davis now?

If you know of ways people can act in this case, please let us know in a comment.

In the meantime, you can also watch these action-oriented sites for updates:


  1. Hey, Macon. Really great post. And it somehow highlights the fact that I've been feeling depressed or something lately. There are just so many horrible things going on and so little we seem to be able to do about any of it. I've been neck-deep in the struggle since 1970 and things are getting worse instead of better. I can't even BEGIN to imagine how African-Americans must feel after five hundred years of waiting for Godot (or anybody) to arrive. I know we just HAVE to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Endlessly. Because we HAVE to. But I'm already grieving for this guy and he's still alive. Where did my hope go? It was here just a minute ago. I think...

  2. As we discuss the death penalty in my class, these are the types of cases I bring up to my students and ask them that, in order to continue supporting the death penalty in this country, you have to be able to live with this. You have to be able to live with the fact that we have put innocent people to death, the system is far from infallible, and death sentences are handed out disproportionately to African-Americans.

    Do you know what they say? Well, it's not perfect but if you commit a heinous crime then you deserve to die. Then, of course, and realize that the effort is futile.

  3. As a white American, I regret not saying something earlier on this blog about the imminent execution of Troy Davis.

    I understand the corrupt nature of the American Justice system but sometimes the framing of ideas in this way can be problematic. Yes it unfairly targets and kills blacks and this benefits whites but to say that you as an individual feel responsible, I feel detracts from the systemic nature of the inequality. I further believe that it is important to point out that the death penalty in and of itself is criminal and also reflects a class bias. There are many issues at play when someone gets sentenced to death. We need to stand against the death penalty not only because it is racist, but because it is classist and sexist (more men get executed) If we value life at all, these killings need to stop.

  4. Thank you changeseeker, and I hope you find your hope again, and that it inspires more action from you.

    white trash academic, those sound like frustrating encounters with your students, but it does seem that you're pushing them to rethink the issue in ways that most of them have yet to try. Which sounds to me like good work on your part.

    Renee, I agree with the points you raise, and that this post could better acknowledge them. It is of course true that the death penalty itself is horrific, and that it's unfairly enforced at an institutional level in terms of several categorical biases, not just racism. Protest in this area does seem limited if the cases that gain such attention are focused time and again merely on race.

    In the context of this blog, my post is largely about the training of white people such as myself into reluctance to do anything in such cases, whether or not we work as a functioning part of the judicial system. And I'm not blaming myself in the post for Davis's impending execution itself as much as I'm blaming myself for not using my blog sooner to encourage others to do what they can to protest and perhaps stop his exection.

    I do see how there's a danger of focusing too much on the individual rather than the institutional level here, but I don't think that my saying that a white person who lives and works outside a racist judicial system should do something in an effort to counteract its abuses necessarily constitutes a denial of the institutional nature of those abuses.

    I doubt if most of my readers work within the judicial system, and thus have little idea how to counteract the death penalty at the level you seem to be asking for. Is there any action you'd recommend for individuals outside of such institutions that would do so?

  5. >A lot of people also took their bodies out in public and protested for Davis' life. Even in Europe.

    Europe/the EU is opposed to the death penalty with the goal that the death penalty will be abolished world-wide as it is abolished in Europe.

    >millions of people around the world will rightly consider it another example of the disregard that white Americans in general have for black Americans.

    I know that you like to make assumptions but I know that people outside America don't consider America so simple-minded like you do and that the out-side opposition to the death penalty is much more complex. It is not only about the racism in this case and that America will murder somebody who is innocent, but the disrespect of human rights in general and American arrogance in particular.
    White Americans seem to lack one basic understanding: You will be next. Despite your white privilege.

  6. Hey, thanks for, yet again, highlighting this specific issue. I have received at least one email from Amnesty International about this, but not done anything. The amount I do concerning any issue varies a lot, but things like this are particularly easy to ignore, as it's not something that's likely to affect me, as a white British woman. I'll be sending the letters/emails about this.

  7. I don;t have any suggestions outside of the one that offered other than to point out that it should be a sustained effort. Continually write letters and protest, blog to raise awareness. Focusing on one person at a time means that many people are put to death. If you are against the death penalty for one, you should be against the death penalty for all. I believe that for some it is kind of like the cause celebre and then they move on to some other pressing social injustice bandwagon. To overturn something that is clearly inhumane requires a sustained grass roots movement.

  8. >If you know of ways people can act in this case, please let us know in a comment.

    There you can read what you can do:

  9. as i am sure you are aware troy has been granted a stay of execution... i am overjoyed...

    thank you for making me aware of the grave injustices being carried out in this case... i posted about it today before the stay,, and since have emailed and sent a snail mail request to find out what we can do to help him win a new trial... will keep you posted if you desire....... here is a link to my post earlier in the day:

    troy anthony davis

  10. One thing before I go into the reason I'm making this comment: I understand the term racism as being a systematic discrimination by whites against people of color, with whites holding most of the political power. In that same vein I do not view gender bias against men as sexism, but only as gender bias. Men still hold institutional power and it is only sexism when it is aimed at women. Also, I don't think the state arbitrarily chooses to execute many more men than women--I think the rate of violent crime perpetration is actually higher among men than women, so you're always going to see a higher number of men on death row.


    What I was originally going to do was add another data point to the concept of the death penalty as racist. I lived in North Carolina in the late nineties. During that time we had two local high-profile murder cases. One was for two young black men (I think they were teenagers, age 17 and 19 IIRC) who were brothers, and the other was for a white guy and some accomplices, also white.

    The young black men were on trial because they had been pulled over by a (white) cop for not wearing seat belts. The cop radioed in the plate number before stepping out of his vehicle and found the car was stolen. He called for backup--another white cop. The cops got into an altercation with one of the brothers and the other brother grabbed a gun and there was shooting. I was unclear as to whether only one did the shooting or both did, but both cops were killed. The young black men got the death penalty.

    The white guy and his friends had plotted beforehand to kill his grandmother and his nephew for insurance money. They stabbed a middle-school-aged or younger boy and an elderly woman to death and then burned their house down. The worst sentence handed down in that case was life in prison; everyone else got lesser sentences.

    Pick your jaw up off the floor. It gets worse. Not only were the black men sentenced to death but during their trial, their religion was illegally used against them. It was brought up that they were both Rastafarian. Not only that, it was alleged that Rastas want to kill off white people.

    Years later--just a couple months ago, in fact--I was flipping through a photo book about human rites of passage. Lo and behold I turn a page and encounter a full-color shot of three kids with scarves on their heads, one white, two black, and the white girl was passing a bomber joint to the two black kids. It was three elementary-school-aged members of the Rastafarian Church down in Jamaica. I'd be shocked if they were older than ten.

    But I looked at that photo and I remembered the death penalty case and I thought, "If Rastas want to kill white people, why do they let white people attend their church???" I had never really believed it anyway--I mean, I'm a religion geek and I would have heard something outside of that court case--but here was solid, unambiguous proof.

    I hope those young men got their sentences commuted. They did deserve prison time, but that whole trial was a sham. I tried looking them up on Google but I don't remember their names anymore.

  11. "The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected an appeal from death-row inmate Troy Davis, refusing to consider his case even though seven of nine key prosecution witnesses have recanted their testimony since the 1991 trial.

    The court turned down Davis’ appeal without comment."

    Go to the amnesty international website and sign the petition

  12. Here's a link to Amnesty's list of actions that you can still take for Troy Davis.

    In addition to listing various ways you can act, that page also notes, "The Georgia Board has the power to step in at any point, so we encourage you to continue to collect letters and petitions asking them to issue clemency. These letters are being collected in Amnesty International's Atlanta office to be delivered to the Board at the appropriate time. Please do not send your letters directly to the Board. Take action below, or fax your letter to 404-876-2276."


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