Thursday, September 22, 2011

Troy Davis / View from the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison

It seems appropriate that the county in Georgia that hosts the state's death row is saddled with an undignified name like "Butts." There I was, two hours before the scheduled execution of Troy Davis, a man whose murder conviction was certainly not a case of "reasonable doubt." The holes were tidily summarized in a September 21 editorial in the New York Times:

"The Savannah police contaminated the memories of four witnesses by re-enacting the crime with them present so that their individual perceptions were turned into a group one. The police showed some of the witnesses Mr. Davis’s photograph even before the lineup. His lineup picture was set apart by a different background. The lineup was also administered by a police officer involved in the investigation, increasing the potential for influencing the witnesses…

"Seven of nine witnesses against Mr. Davis recanted after trial. Six said the police threatened them if they did not identify Mr. Davis. The man who first told the police that Mr. Davis was the shooter later confessed to the crime."

I estimate that the assembled crowd at Jackson's Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison (one of the most convoluted names one could imagine for a death row prison) was about two-thirds African American--a group with bitter, first-hand familiarity with a justice system that incarcerates a disproportionate percentage of blacks. The strains of "We Shall Overcome" were heard more than a couple times, connecting the day's protests to the Civil Rights era the older African Americans in the crowd vividly recall (a possible sign of a generational divide became apparent when it seemed many of the younger people in attendance did not know the words to that anthem, although maybe they were just shy about singing).

There were also numerous white faces--maybe about a third of the crowd. Among the whites were many men sporting pony tails (I was in that number), and men and women with wiry gray hairs. Many exuded that unmistakeable hippie/baby-boomer vibe that one would expect to find at such an event. Several--for want of a better phrase--masculine-looking women with tattoos and close cropped hair were also in attendance, the marginalized fringes of society who could swiftly identify with a black man perceived to have been railroaded at least in part by prejudice. A group of Emory students arrived, including a sari-wearing young woman who had a white, three-legged poodle with the fighting spirit of a wolf. Some other students who looked young enough to be high school-aged were also on hand. A woman wearing a hijab held one corner of a banner. I heard some Spanish spoken around me. An impromptu drum circle beat time, a woman played a fiddle, and as night fell the crowd's chants assumed a tribal quality.

Lots of white text on blue "I Am Troy Davis" Amnesty International T-shirts were visible, and the NAACP's posters of Troy Davis were probably the most common images held aloft by the protestors.

From 5 PM until about 6:30 the protest had an organized quality to it, with the crowd cheerleaders sometimes bossily instructing people on how to chant. One woman, clearly unhappy with many of us, shouted in obvious frustration to the crowd, "We don't want Troy Davis to die! If you're standing here and not saying anything, then you might as well not be here!" This struck me as unnecessarily divisive and insensitive; I'm not a chanter by nature. I'm usually repelled, in fact, by any sort of "groupthink" activities, no matter how noble the cause. I don't think that makes my presence at the prison as unimportant as the complete and total non-involvement of some couch potato sitting in his living room half an hour away. This realization was multiplied when, in the middle of last night, ABC News contacted me in order to request the use of footage I shot of the protest. Is it true that "I might as well not be here" considering I was able to contribute that? C'mon, people, we all protest in our own ways, and we are best when we stick to our individual strengths.

An attempt by one group to lead a cheer ending with the word "Bullshit!" was met with a few disapproving stares; there were children here after all. That effort died out quickly.

I made the drive down from Atlanta because I knew that whatever Troy Davis's ultimate fate, that day would mark an important chapter in the history of capital punishment. There's a history of injustice here; Georgia was the state that in 1915 saw a group of Marietta men break into a prison (with suspiciously little difficulty), seize one Leo Frank (a Jewish man who was almost certainly innocent of the murder of which he was accused), drive him out into a forest, and hang him. Back then the lynch mob happily posed for pictures in front of their handiwork, as was the style at the time; today many of the descendents of those same eager-to-take-credit individuals hide their shame and family's culpability.

One hundred years ago, in 1901, 130 people were lynched in the United States, most of them black and most in the south. Lynchings continued at least into the 1960s. Thus, it's no surprise that signs comparing Mr. Davis's situation to a lynching were numerous--lynch mob rule in the south is still modern history.

As I said, I have a stubborn psychological aversion to crowd behavior. I found myself enjoying some aspects of protest at one moment, but finding something to criticize the next.

I was not able to go so far as to identify with the "Free Troy Davis!" chants, as they presume Mr. Davis's innocence, when it seems the primary issue here is one of the death penality and reasonable doubt. It's one thing to note the many holes in the Davis case and to segue from that frustration to objections over the death penality, but it's quite another to say the man should walk free. One step at a time, please. However, considering the fresh wounds much of America experienced over the Casey Anthony trial, where a woman who seemed to have far more evidence stacked against her regarding the death of her child nonetheless walked free, perhaps the zealousness of the crowd can be forgiven. For sure, people are genuinely bewildered by how justice works in America.

Some signs read "Innocent until proven guilty," but Mr. Davis has had the misfortune of already being "proven" guilty via various miscarriages of justice, and so now the justice system has reversed that idealism; he is now guilty until proven innocent.

Law enforcement was friendly during the early part of the evening, instructing the protestors on where they could stand (i.e., what was public property and what was private property). There was cheery banter and even laughter exchanged between protestors and officers. However, as the sky began to darken, a menacing line of officers in riot gear (deemed "Storm Troopers" by some in the crowd) marched in lockstep formation into position, blocking the entrance to the prison. One officer leaned against a rail fence, his binoculars trained on the protestors.

At 5 PM I estimated only a hundred people at the event, but by 7 PM, the slated time of execution, the number of protestors was certainly in the several hundreds. The air between the protestors and the riot police on the ground, and a hovering police helicopter high in the air, was traversed by dozens of enormous, darting dragonflies, hunting against what was turning out to be actually a very pretty evening sky of pastel pink clouds against cerulean blue.

A bewildered shirtless jogger, perhaps about 60 years old, shuffled past between the two standing factions, a comical moment amidst the seriousness of the event.

A man broke through the police tape accompanied by a roar from the crowd; he was promptly apprehended and marched off by officers. Later, a few other men walked across the street and were apprehended and arrested without any drama. Each arrest was met with applause from the protestors.

Jackson is a big trucking center; getting off the exit ramp my car was in the minority amongst the big rigs. Throughout the protest, truckers rolled by blowing their horns in solidarity. Numerous drivers passing by honked their car horns in support as well. Sometimes the crowd responded to these drive-by acknowledgments with a cheer, but other times, as the hours dragged on, the protestors seemed too tired to respond. After hours of standing and sitting and standing and sitting, getting little clear news on how events were unfolding inside the prison, it looked too easy for those drivers to pass by merely honking a horn. Like the woman complaining about our poor chanting skills earlier, I found myself criticizing the drivers' mode of protest.

Here are some things that occurred to me about organized protest in general. Once one agrees to abide by all the rules of protest laid down by "the system" one is protesting against (e.g., obeying rules on where to stand, how loud one can be, the time of day one will be present), one has already lost the battle. The protest has been castrated by the protestors' agreement to the terms made by those who hold the reins of power. During the George W. Bush presidency, crowds protested the Iraq War in generally peaceful, law-abiding ways, and look where that got us. I feel increasingly that whatever form it takes, protest must always be novel and, to some degree, startling. What worked during the biggest years of the Civil Rights era probably no longer works today.

I also don't relate to the concept of using children in protest. One African-American toddler had a sign taped to his back: "Am I Next?" That was too much. After a handful of peaceful arrests of protestors who crossed over to the officers' side of the road, two white kids, probably around 11 years old, went over with signs. They were simply turned back by the officers--obviously they wouldn't arrest kids. As an atheist, I find the religious indoctrination of children to be offensive; I felt similarly watching children at the protests. But then again, all parents are indoctrinators; I suppose that's their job, their nature, the inevitable way parenting works. If I ever have kids, I'll no doubt indoctrinate them into a philosophy of anti-indoctrination. Which is confusing, so let me return to protest.

If protest does not in some way disturb, it fails to draw attention to its cause. Consider that the misguided looters of the London Riots nonetheless triggered passionate debate about the divide between rich and poor, whereas in London thousands marched against the Iraq war, seemingly without effect.

Since rioting is not usually a sensible mode of protest (consider how promptly villainized the London rioters were), it seems the most interesting protests these day occur online, in the actions of Wikileaks and hacktivist groups like Anonymous. While we are rightly cynical about the efficacy of creating a Facebook page for a cause, since it's too easy to click "Like" and be done forever with that, stupidly satisfied that one has made one's voice heard, the online information war hijinks promote more interesting, attention-grabbing debate.

The execution was delayed, and darkness fell. Evidently anticipating the potential for trouble, around 8:20 PM a fifteen police car-long procession roared down the street, sirens blaring and lights flashing, an obvious show of force impressed upon a crowd of men, women, and children in varying degrees of passion and boredom. Another line of police cars arrived in similarly dramatic fashion around 20 minutes later. The amassed forces facing off against the protestors numbered around a hundred individuals. There was much fussing from the crowd about the unnecessary show of force, and worried murmurings about the possibility of violence. One Emory student instructed us to lock arms and sit on the ground if the officers should charge us.

Then…nothing. The two lines faced one another, but there were no fireworks. By 9:15 the crowd had become visibly bored. Who knew, I said, turning to a protestor beside me, that standing before a line-up of a hundred guys with batons and shields could be so dull? She laughed heartily (perhaps out of bottled-up nervousness) in agreement.

Standing outside the prison, one is affected by the incredible realization that not far away a man is contemplating what may be the final moments of his life. By coincidence, I had listened to Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison the day before, and I recalled the literal gallows humor of the Shel Silverstein-penned "25 Minutes," wherein a man on death row counts down the minutes to his execution:

"I can see the mountains I can see the skies with 3 more minutes to go
"And it's too dern pretty for a man that don't wanna die 2 more minutes to go"

It's a strange feeling, knowing that not far away a man is alive, and very soon he might not be. My father died of cancer in 2002, but I was not present when his final moments came and went. My first death watch was for Troy Davis.

Despite the numerous smart phones and tablets, information seemed hard to come by, and sometimes one wondered if one was hearing rumor or truth. Around the time of the scheduled execution at 7 PM, a rumor that Mr. Davis had been granted a stay of execution rolled through the crowd with a mighty roar of joy. Strangers hugged one another and people openly wept. However, moments later, the crowd was informed that this was only a delay, not a stay of execution, and that Mr. Davis might still be executed later in the night. This reminded me of the Sago Mine disaster of 2006, where joyfully received misinformation about the number of survivors was turned into a horrible, inside-out reality. After that, a rumor that "Obama called Clarence Thomas" rolled through, but without any supporting context or explanation of what that even meant. By 10:00 PM we were told the Supreme Court was actively debating the case, and that Mr. Davis was lying on a gurney awaiting its decision.

At 10 PM, with tiredness setting in and no certainty when the Supreme Court would end its deliberations, I rose and left the thinning crowd of protestors and the hundred men in riot gear who were likely more bored than we were. I read later that the crowd dwindled to about 50 at that time. Sometime after my depature the Supreme Court announced that the execution would continue. At 11:08 PM Troy Davis was dead.