“The ‘I AM TROY DAVIS’ slogan is one infused with meaning. On the one hand, it is a deep call to solidarity. On the other hand, it is a stunning awareness that I could also have been Troy Davis. What’s to say that just because I was born a mixed kid (with mostly white phenotypes) and grew up in an environment where the chance of this happening to me is unlikely, that I deserved this? We all have the potential to be Troy Davises. That’s why we need to stand up and speak out against the injustices that are happening in our nation and globally.”- Deborah-Ruth Ferber (Peace Studies Student and Activist)
The day is Wednesday, September 21, 2011. I am attending a small Christian private university in Ontario’s capital (Toronto) hailed as the most multi-cultural city in the world by the United Nations many times over. In the 3 years since I moved to Toronto to attend school (as of this writing in 2014 this will be my 4th year here) I have had many experiences of being the only visible minority because I was the only white pigmented person on the city bus. Yet although many Torontonians close their eyes to the blatant injustices that happen even in Canada’s largest city, I cannot ignore the fact that disparity of wealth, human rights violations, and racism still run deep. Perhaps below the surface. Perhaps not in quite the same ways as I experience when I lived for one year in Indiana, but all of the same issues are still there.
This year is to be my graduating year and in May 2012 I will walk off the graduating stage from University and enter into my first year of studies in Indiana as a peace studies major. At this point, I knew about the death penalty and as a committed pacifist I felt it was wrong, but it remained quite elusive to me. In Canada we do not have the death penalty. In Canada, prisoners may serve a life sentence (by which they mean 22 years or less) and in Canada minors are considered young offenders with rehabilitation programs offered to them more consistently than the slammer. Yet, lest you think Canada’s justice system is way better than the states, it is not. And this year through my studies and through conversations with victims and friends and families of victims, I have learned how deeply flawed our criminal justice system in Canada is as well. Yes, we may not sentence anyone to death, but there are a lot of other ways to sentence someone to emotional shunning, silencing, and heresay which are so akin to the emotional distancing that causes social death for so many individuals. Out of jail, but still not able to land a job or care for their families despite the fact that they have “done their time.”
Yes, the death penalty may not be an institution in Canada, but to say it is a non-issue, while nothing could be further from the truth. For anyone with a sense of human dignity and worth must understand that when one member of society (regardless of citizenship, race, ethnic or economic composition) dies due to a grave injustice, that a part of us also must die with this individual.
Troy Anthony Davis, is an example of such an individual who due to forces beyond his own control (such as being born of-colour) was wrongly accused by a system which totes justice. Jen Marlowe (an human rights activists and film maker) as well as Martina Davis-Correia (an advocate for abolishing the death penalty and Troy’s sister) journey with their readers into the depths of despair and grave human rights violations stripping Troy of all dignity and sense of self.
Marlowe’s writing captures the reader’s attention jolting them to alertness in Troy’s gripping and chilling tale. Marlowe and Davis-Correia take their reader down a pathway that explains human rights exploitations due to racial divides within a system that is supposed to protect the most vulnerable members of society. This hauntingly convincing book empowers all readers to take a stand for fighting against the death penalty and against the system which costs the states $18,000 per execution1 and pits “two innocent, victimized families against one another.”2
Yet, Troy’s story is way more than just carefully and systematically weighing the pros and cons of a long established and controversial legal process. It is also a story of one man’s humanity, and of the blatant injustice, flagrant racism, and one family’s decision to courageously stand against it. Troy may have had a voice, his family may have had a voice, but they are not the only voice crying out in the wilderness. They are one of many individuals and families who are fighting to end the death penalty and are joined in solidarity with families of individuals who have been murdered, friends of the accused, national and international human right’s activists and advocacy groups, and members of society at large. They may be one voice propelling the system further into change, but they never have to fear being alone for many stand with them.
Throughout her writing, Marlowe brilliantly weaves in and out of time displaying a high level of understanding of how the past influenced the Troy Davis case. From growing up in racially charged Savannah (Georgia) to being at the wrong place at the wrong time, to choosing the wrong day to go to Atlanta for work, Marlowe shows how the system was pitted against Davis from the start due to his race and social standing. In her book, Marlowe notes, “more than half of Georgia’s death row inmates never finished high school and several had IQs that indicated mild retardation or borderline intellectual functioning. She [Martina] saw men who came from extremely damaged families; who got in with the wrong crowd, who were very, very poor.”3 If this is not a wake-up call to the American nation then their deafness cannot be cured. For, it is often the “least of these” whom Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and many others admonish us to care for who end up in these situations. Not the powerful, strong, and intellectual giants. As the old death penalty adage goes, “Capital punishments means them without the capital get punished.”4 Troy’s case and the case of so many others who are executed and lethally injected year after year shows just how “arbitrary, racist, economically biased, and shame filled” each case and each execution really is.5
The day is March 26, 2014. It is 2 years 6 months and 5 days after Troy Anthony Davis was given the death penalty despite sufficient evidence to the contrary and witnesses claims of being harassed, intimidated, and manipulated to give false testimony against Davis to the police (many of whom later recanted). The death penalty still exists in several of the states, although many individuals and organizations from within those states are beginning to reconsider. I have since gone on to work primarily with the demographic of adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Ontario’s capital of Toronto. I still experience blatant racism and injustice in my city – economically, due to a lack of gender equality, and due to religious differences. Foremost of all, I have noticed how adults with developmental disabilities are often treated unfairly and not given a voice, many of whom lack the necessary foundation for getting expert advice. My heart aches to think of what it would be like if someone from this demographic in Canada was unfairly served the death penalty. I still maintain my peace activism activities. This is my life in 2014. It may be 2 and a half years later but I truly do believe that the Davis case has the potential to be a catalyst for change.
In fact, I Am Troy Davis, has already served as a catalyst of change amongst my friends and me. Since I am from Canada and the majority of my friends are from Canada, the death penalty is not something we frequently discuss. Other injustices, sure, but the death penalty, not so much. It seems we largely ignore that part of injustice from our neighbours in the South. Yet, as I began reading this book, something happened. My friends and I began having many different conversations about the death penalty and the implications it has on American society and our worldviews at large. Many of my friends expressed discouragement, anger, and disbelief that such a case could happen. One of my friends stated over dinner yesterday, “how could this be possible? Isn’t America supposed to be a Christian nation? How can Christians kill each other?” Her question haunted me as I went to bed last night, and it should haunt you too. How can Christians pour the lethal injection into the soul of a completely innocent and healthy man when many men, women, and children worldwide will die today due to illnesses that could easily be cured in minority world countries or due to not being able to access and pay for their medications even if they do live in a first world country? I’d also like to extend the question to you today, how can we as Christians sit by and idly watch as our brothers and sisters in America and in many other countries undergo the death penalty today despite lack of evidence, pleas of their innocence, and a racially charged system? I’ll let you answer for yourself, but for me the answer is clear: Christians (and people from the majority of other religions) are called to take a stand for the innocent and to execute justice and fairness (not human life). Please join me to help end the death penalty once and for all. Please join with me in saying, “I am Troy Davis. We are Troy Davis. Troy Davis is my name.”
1 Jen Marlowe and Martina Davis-Correia, I Am Troy Davis, (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013), 148.
2 Marlowe and Davis-Correia, Troy, 171
3 Ibid, 144.
4 Ibid, 3.
5 Ibid, 194.
Marlowe, Jen and Martina Davis-Correia. I Am Troy Davis. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013.