There is a new day in September to add to our collective memory, to mourn the loss of life. On September 21, 2011 at 11:08pm, Troy Anthony Davis was murdered by the state of Georgia. Murdered by the hegemony of racism. Murdered by a nation that claims to be the emblem of modernity, but still allows disgustingly cruel and unusual forms of punishment to prevail.
I first heard about Troy Davis when I was an undergraduate at DePaul. I met a student from the Campaign to End the Death Penalty group at one of the first Activist Student Union meetings I attended, and in another pivotal moment in the process of my politicization, I saw the connection between abolishing prisons and the death penalty and the kind of social justice work I was beginning to believe was necessary.
For years, I would follow the few and far between stories about Troy–including the first delay of his execution—but the emails I started to receive this past month from the NAACP were thick with urgency. Activists and concerned citizens across globe wrote letters and made phone calls in an effort to stop the impending execution. I feverishly posted petitions to facebook, hoping another dozen or so electronic names would make a difference.
I woke up the morning of Troy’s execution and went straight to the computer where my partner was already awake and checking the headlines.
“Did the guards show up?” I asked, referring to the plea for a general strike of prison guards, so as to disable the killing.
Mike nodded. The guards showed up, the murder was still on.
The Minneapolis day was grey, and matched the somber feelings that I know filled so many hearts and minds. I debated whether or not I should try to find a way to talk about it in the Media Literacy class I teach. For better or for worse, I felt too emotional to discuss it out loud that day. My class was to end 45 minutes before he was scheduled to be killed, 7pm EST. I didn’t know how to talk about something so…imminent.
After class, I waited for the bus and counted down the minutes. It was 5:55pm in Minneapolis, which meant it was 6:55pm in Georgia. I don’t have a fancy internet phone, so I didn’t have any way of knowing that the execution had been delayed.
On my walk home off the bus, I tried to block out of my mind what was happening hundreds of miles away. I felt so powerless. And the sky was heavy with black clouds.
I never had much luck with prayer. When I did it regularly and believed it would do something, I was miserably unhappy. When I stopped putting faith in talking to God, specifically, I found another way to build a relationship with something bigger than myself in a way that I felt might be actually productive: yoga. I know this sounds really silly to some of you, but there are moments during a yoga practice when the energy you’re creating in your body and in the space feels so tremendously powerful. And although you’re supposed to “clear your mind” during class, many teachers encourage “dedicating your practice” to someone who doesn’t have the luxury of nurturing their body and soul in the yoga room. Most of the time, I dedicate my practice to my mom, sending all the feelings of detoxification and healing into the world and over to her. Yesterday, I knew that the yoga room was the only place I could be on the day of an innocent man’s death.
In a 105 degree room, I breathed in the struggle of all of those who fought and continue to fight for prison justice. I breathed out the defeat, the sorrow, the pain. When I found peace in a pose, I sent it to the Davis family. When I felt resistance in a muscle, I re-worked it into fueling my commitment to maintaining resistance against oppression. 75 minutes later, dripping in sweat, muscles sore, and heart beat soft, I stayed in savasana for over 15 minutes and sent it all out.
When I got home, I stayed outside my apartment and called my mom. I sobbed on the phone, shaking in the biting fall air.
“I’m so sad,” I told her, and just kept repeating it over and over. Sad for Troy (and sad for a myriad of other reasons I won’t get into on the post).
Mike came outside when he realized I was home. He told me the execution had been pushed back and I felt the most intense amount of relief. I sobbed some more, “I thought he was dead, I thought he was already dead. Oh God, I’m so glad he’s not dead,” I fell into his arms.
After showering and trying to regain some sense of normalcy, I hopped on the computer to read the latest developments.
“Wait,” my eyes widened at the status update of friends also following the story, “Wait, they….”
Mike looked at the screen, “They said it was delayed, but not by how long….”
“They did it. He’s dead,” I clicked on the link to Democracy Now, who provided incredible non-stop coverage, “At 11:08pm.” I looked at the time on my computer. 10:58 CST. 50 minutes before, he was killed.
Mike and I watched in silence as Amy Goodman interviewed people outside of death row. Silently we witnessed one of the many great injustices that has taken place in the name of the US government.
The president of Amnesty International, Larry Cox, said last night that if he was only concerned about the political cause of prison abolition, he would urge that executions be public, so that everyone could see how brutal and horrific it is. But because he also cares deeply about the family and loved ones of the murdered, he said he would never support that—it’s too ugly.
I share my own personal experience on the night of Troy’s, albeit also wrestling with the tension between political value and personal importance—in some ways, I don’t think my personal story means shit. What does the pain of a white girl in Minnesota have to do with a black man’s state-sanctioned murder? But once in a while I remember how important it is to feel. Becoming a radical leftist has sometimes meant sitting on emotions in the name of politicized struggle. I didn’t have time to be a bleeding-heart liberal–I had to fuel anger and rage into my activism and organizing. I had to be militant and hate the war more because of capitalism than the number of dead bodies (for example).
But for all my radical dedication to prison abolition, Troy Davis’ death made me feel. Deeply. And no amount of logic will ever trump how that affect will motivate me in the struggle to end the death penalty, and dismantle the prison industrial complex.
In his final letter, Troy wrote: “….this is not a case about the death penalty, this is not a case about Troy Davis, this is a case about Justice and the Human Spirit to see Justice prevail.”
Troy Davis, may you rest in peace, but may you also rest in power. Your supporters and those of us committed to seeing an end to injustice will be strengthened by your case, and it will also be this day in September that we will never forget.