There has been an enormous amount of attention paid to the execution of Troy Davis and the international outcry that developed in the days preceding his murder. As a native of Atlanta, I was long aware of the case and the campaign attempting to get Troy off of death row. However, the campaign was largely dominated by non-profits and from my understanding, lacked any formal or public critique of Troy’s imprisonment and murder as directly caused by a racist and capitalist social order. As a result, I decided to orient myself towards other political action that had a more explicit political critique and would allow me to meet and develop alongside radicals, not those forever tied to the non-profit industrial complex.
But as news came of Troy’s impending execution, everyone I knew, radical or not, felt the need to act. Not only did we recognize the importance of being able to temporarily suspend our own organizing when sudden and important moments occur, but we also saw how many people who had never acted before were outraged and pouring into the streets (or the sidewalks at this point, because we hadn’t yet learned to take the streets together). In this piece, I will first attempt to reconstruct my own experiences in the week leading up to Troy’s murder specifically the protest outside the prison on the September 21st. I will then address some of the critiques that have been made about the movement in relation to my own analysis not only as a witness, but as a committed revolutionary. This is a long piece, but bear with me, as I strongly believe this was one of the most important political ruptures many of us have ever seen, especially here in the South.
On Wednesday, September 21st, I drove to Jackson, Georgia with two friends, including one of my closest comrades, S. We had no idea what to expect, and we were stunned to see so many people already there once we arrived. There were lots of cops walking around alongside protestors, but no action was taking place as far as we could see. We asked where we could join the protestors who were already there, and the police told us that they were on the other side of the street and we could not go over to be with them. We could not even see them from where we were, and so there was an enormous amount of confusion about what to do. We were directly across from the gates to the prison, which opens to a long driveway. So in truth, we weren’t even close to the actual prison (I had this wild hope that if we chanted loud enough, the prisoners would hear us and begin chanting too). The police told us we were not allowed to stand across the street, and kept pushing us back down a small road that led to a church where a lot of events were going on for Troy (hosted by the NAACP). Almost immediately upon our arrival, they arrested a middle aged black man for telling a cop to get his finger off the trigger. They didn’t read him his rights (nor did they read anyone their rights throughout the night).
We walked to the church, where the NAACP was talking, talking, talking and not doing one goddamn thing. They had physically separated themselves from the prison, the police, and the public, crowding into a small church where they listened to big shots instead of hearing their own voices. We needed those people inside, sitting in the pews, to march out of the church up to the road and take over the street with us. Our group waited and talked about what to do, and eventually, got word we could protest back in the original spot we were told to leave. Over time, more and more people came from the church, and the crowd swelled. At its height it was a thousand or more. We were chanting, talking, and making lots of noise. At one point, a young black man tried to gather people around and started talking about how he didn’t want to just sit and watch this happen, how he wanted to act. People were agreeing with him, nodding their heads and shouting amen. He said he was going to try to walk across the street and hoped people would follow. Almost immediately, he turned around and took a few steps, with many of us following. But we never found out how many of us were actually going to attempt to cross the street with him, because within seconds the cops leaped on him, swarming him and the rest of us, pushing us back, back on top of the people behind us. He was doubled over, they were on top of him, there were screams and panic and he was quickly tased and dragged away. In a matter of seconds, a crowd of riot police had taken formation across the street from us.
As we grew, so did the riot police. At a particularly startling moment, about 50 marched up, with their shields and batons in hand, and started marching in place, doing drills. It was absolutely terrifying. At their peak I would say there were between 100 and 200 of them. We were separated by a four lane street/highway, and from 4 pm until 12 pm when I left, they never stopped staring us down and we never stopped staring them down. The division between us and them became not only political but physical, and I think actually being able to visualize this separation illuminated to a lot of people in the crowd the role of the police and state terror in repressing the people.
Ten minutes before 7 pm, when Troy was schedule to be executed, folks started to quiet down and began holding hands, praying together. I was in a circle of people in which everyone was touching each other in some way, hand on shoulder, hand on back. Many of us were kneeling. Someone started giving a small sermon, and although I am not religious, it was one of the most spiritual moments of my life. He said that violence wasn’t just killing an innocent man, but violence is poverty, imperialism, war, racism. The amens got louder and louder the more radical he became. No eye was dry. I sobbed, feeling the mix of sweat and tears roll down my face, and I could feel the shaking and quivering rolling through every body I touched. As we closed our eyes, feeling the time approach, there were solemn hymns rising from the crowd. I couldn’t breathe. And then suddenly, there was shouting, and people started screaming, “There’s a stay!” “There’s a delay!” Everyone started yelling, hugging desperately, huge smiles mixed with tears, the incredible confusion of terror replaced by elation. Over time, we learned that it was a delay, not a stay of execution. People were frantic to find out more information, but everyone’s phone had horrible service because we were all attempting to get online. We shared information as much as we could, and it was amazing to watch as things got passed through the crowd, everyone relying on everyone else for information, solidarity, strength. In the next few hours, the crowd began to dwindle. Many of the HBCUs had brought busloads of students, and they began to leave. That reduced our numbers by lots. But many of us remained, strengthened by our resolve to stay until the very end.
It was during the time between 7 pm and the time when the actual execution occurred that I witnessed some incredibly important conversations taking place. One of these conversations was between me, S, and several young black women that we happened to be sitting beside. We started discussing the role of the police, asking and debating questions like – Who do they serve? What is their consciousness? What should our position be towards them? Later, as I walked around the crowd, I heard a middle aged black man on the phone saying “This isn’t only about us man. There are white people here, and they are feeling this just as strongly as us. This isn’t about black and white here.” Which got at the most spectacular part of all – the crowd was completely integrated, black and white together in a way I NEVER seen. I saw black preachers holding their arms around my white male friend who was sitting in a ball on the ground, devastated. I saw white women and black women making up chants together. I saw people sharing water and food and everything they had with people they have never met, who looked nothing like them.
I should note here that I am well accustomed to the suggestions that white and black must fight together that usually come from the mouths of white middle class liberals. I am always highly suspicious of these statements, very conscious of the white privilege that takes place in every arena, radical or not, that many refuse to recognize. I am not arguing that there was not white privilege in this space, but that there was a sense of community and shared identity that was groundbreaking. And I think we were all aware of it. I heard so many discussions about race, and so many people reflecting on the solidarity within the crowd. One woman cried hysterically, repeating over and over, “Why? Why? Why? Because we’re black, because of the way we were born. That isn’t fair!” But race was not the only thing discussed. I also heard people talking about overthrowing the state, a black woman condemning Obama and saying we should never vote for him again, many others calling for complete boycotts of Georgia. These weren’t just a few people in the crowd, these were many, and the sentiments grew with the passing of the night. There is no doubt that the non profits have completely taken the spotlight of the Troy Davis issue, but yesterday’s event proved that no matter how hard they try, they cannot control the everyday people who also care and want to act. Because we were separated from the people who got to Jackson earlier, I think there were actually a lot less Amnesty and NAACP people in the crowd than normal. Because of this, and because of the energy of the crowd, they weren’t able to gain control. There were no speeches by Amnesty people, there were no chants that were stopped, it was real people power. This is why it’s important to separate the non profit wing of the Troy Davis issue (Amnesty, NAACP) from the thousands of other people across the world who are enraged and who have decided to act. They do not represent us, and last night, we refused to let them even try.
Just before 11, we received word that Troy would in fact be executed. We again joined together to pray, holding hands, singing. We cried even harder this time. At 11:08, Troy Davis was executed by the state. Candles were passed around and we began singing –
All over Jackson, Georgia, I’m going to let it shine
All over Jackson, Georgia I’m going to let it shine
let it shine, let it shine, let it shine
All for justice, I’m going to let it shine
All for justice, Georgia I’m going to let it shine
let it shine, let it shine, let it shine
All for freedom, I’m going to let it shine
All for freedom, I’m going to let it shine
let it shine, let it shine, let it shine
All for Troy, I’m going to let it shine
All for Troy, I’m going to let it shine
let it shine, let it shine, let it shine
Each new phrase, someone would shout out the next line, whether it be “justice” or “liberation.” For the first time in my life, I truly sang with every inch of my body.
At 11:45 PM, the crowd had significantly dwindled to a few hundred, but the police still remained on the other side of the street. They were not advancing, and many of us had agreed to sit down and link arms if they did come forward. Suddenly, a middle aged black man who was later identified with the NAACP came across the street and told us that the Davis family wanted us to leave, to go to the church, which was off the main street. Going to the church would mean leaving the front lines. He told us if we didn’t leave, we would be in danger. This is in spite of the fact that the police hadn’t gotten close to us in over five hours. Many people got up to leave, guilt tripped by the argument that the Davis family wanted us to leave (or so we were told, despite the fact that Troy Davis always said that it wasn’t about him, but so much more), but many others began arguing with the man, telling him we didn’t want to leave, that we weren’t leaving until the cops left. As he yelled at us, the riot cops advanced on us at an alarming rate. They were suddenly upon us, pushing us backwards. S and a few others were sitting down on the ground. The NAACP man told her to get up, but she refused. Soon, several cops were upon her, and after saying one thing to her without allowing her to respond, they had snatched her away. I reached out desperately for her, screaming, crying, watching as she disappeared behind a line of police. I couldn’t see her, and they swarmed around me, screaming at me. I began screaming back, screaming at the NAACP man and all his little cronies who had so blatantly orchestrated this assault. Others were screaming at them too. The truth is, I remember little of what happened. I blacked out within my rage and fear. I was later told there was a helicopter circling above us, it’s light shining down directly upon us. My friends tried to pull me back, but I was hysterical, felt I could not leave S alone with those murderers. Eventually, my friend got me to step back, more or less threw me into his car, and we drove the jail where S and 8 others were being held. We waited around 4 hours and finally got her out and made it back to Atlanta by 5 am. She was remarkably okay – she’s an absolute soldier.
When I shared these initial reflections, many criticized my belief that the NAACP was working with the police. We will never know the absolute truth, but I strongly stand by my assertion that throughout the entire day, the only people policing us were the police and the NAACP officials. Time and time again, the heads of the NAACP came to the front of the crowd, pushing us backwards out of the street, telling us not to cross some invisible line that wasn’t even being enforced by the police. We repeatedly refused, and at one point, some of them literally had to be held back from us by their friends, as if they were going to attack us (we were all women, I should mention). Leading up to the final confrontation, we had literally not interacted with the cops in hours, and yet at the very second the NAACP told us to leave or we would get hurt, the police advanced. My beliefs are strengthened by the reflections of a comrade, a young latino man, who wrote: “ After being pushed back towards the church and away from the prison, I was standing in a truck parking lot across the road. The NAACP member alongside two troopers interrogated me regarding my presence. As soon as I told them I had a car parked, they told me to get to it or get arrested. I could not speak a word in response without getting shouted down with arrest threats. My car was in the direction of the jail, so I had to walk through the sea of advancing police. When I got to my car I was heckled by police. They used profanities and told me I was lucky I got to my car before they did. When I didn’t respond, they tauntingly asked me if I spoke any English. As I left in my car, I heard the NAACP member laughing with 2 officers. I also heard them thank him.”
I am not suggesting that the NAACP are a nefarious group that consciously understands their behavior as siding with the police instead of the people, but that their political beliefs lead to no other possible actions than the ones they enacted. They are a non-profit, liberal organization that is seeped into a capitalist, racist, and patriarchical system that they seek to reform, not revolutionize. The result of this reformist inclination is the suppression of the power of the people and an understanding of a movement as one tied to voting, non-violence, and hierarchy.
Troy Davis was murdered because he was born a black man in a nation that was founded on racism, patriarchy, and capitalism. The president of this country, who people continue to tout as representative of our supposed racial progress, said nothing. Not one word. He sat silent and watched a man die. Every single person involved in the radical elements of those protests will remember that on November 4th. Even as they wore their Obama t-shirts, their consciousness, their reality, changed in those short days. The fists they raised in the air, the songs they sang, the shouts they screamed, they were the seeds of resistance, they were the seeds of something that can grow.
The vast majority of the campaign was dominated by the non-profit industrial complex and individuals who refused to make any genuine and accurate analysis of these three forces because doing so would be in itself a self-critique of their own “work.” Additionally, these groups attempted to focus solely on Troy’s innocence, rather than rejecting the racist death penalty altogether, the criminal justice system itself, or white supremacy. When people in the various protest crowds tried to get on the bullhorn or push the discourse to the left, these groups tried their absolute hardest to stop us. Our attempt to chant “No Justice, No Peace, Fuck the Police” was met with absolute furor. But what’s important here is not that the non-profits attempted to control a movement – they’ve been doing that forever and won’t be stopping anytime soon. What’s important is not that they failed to critique capitalism or racism, or that they tried to stop us from chanting “fuck the police.” What’s important is that people were chanting this in the first place.
In a recent post on Bring the Ruckus’s blog about the execution of Troy, the author wrote:
“Why is their such outrage over the execution of this one black man’s life? And why do we as a community and a country continue to ignore the names and faces of black people who are killed everyday.”
And in response to the repeated cry of “I am Troy Davis” throughout the movement, the author maintained:
“No one can claim they are Troy Davis unless they have experienced living in a constant state of fear of being stopped and searched because you look like a “criminal”, or have had to say good-bye to friends and loved ones to be locked up in a cage and taken away for good. The only people who can legitimately represent being Mr. Davis are the black men, women and in-between who are constantly harassed by the police and live in fear that they too will suffer death at the hands of the state–on death row, in the streets or in their homes. The individual decree by non-black peoples of the world declaring “I Am Troy Davis” unfairly places Mr. Davis as a token for white liberals and leftists, allowing for individuals to seek personal redemption for the guilt of Slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the War on Drugs. The individual nature of the whole campaign, through the petitions and calls to various officials, has further emphasized the individual, leading to a sort of political impotency placing all the power in the hands of the state and the system. Let’s take power instead of asking for it and break down these systems that insist upon killing black and brown bodies.”
While the author makes many valid points, particularly in calling out the corrupt and racist “innocence” rhetoric, I believe both the actions and political discussions that occurred in the streets leading up to Troy’s execution were far more nuanced and radical than those described. I stood on the front lines and heard these discussions with my own ears, and I know first hand that they were not limited solely to discussions of innocence. We must look further than what the non-profits and official speakers were saying, because they were only one part of the crowd, only one part of the movement. What I heard were debates about capitalism, violence, revolution, and reform between white, black, brown, women, children, men, and queer folks. The real content of those crowds were made up of everyday people who didn’t care whether Troy was innocent or not. That is not what was important to the prison worker who left her job to cross the street and protest alongside us, or the young black family who were sitting down to dinner and saw the protests on the news, quickly deciding to jump in their car and drive to the protest with their two-year-old son.
Perhaps the clearest moment of this tension was seen on Tuesday night, the day before Troy’s murder. There was a rally at the Georgia capitol that featured endless speakers from Amnesty and the NAACP. Much of the youth stood in the back, in the street, and attempted to start several chants, each time getting shut down by the speakers. When the speakers had finally finished, almost half of the crowd broke out into a march, refusing to go home, refusing to be silent. We marched across downtown Atlanta, taking the streets, walking through the dark, rainy night. Our screams pierced the silent night; we blocked roads, stopped traffic, and didn’t stop even when our legs and feet ached. We were untamed, we did what we wanted, said what we wanted, screamed what we wanted, and no non-profit could stop us. This is the kind of activity we must pay attention to. This is the kind of activity you wouldn’t know happened if you weren’t there. This is the kind of activity that no television or newspaper is going to cover, but that’s going to stay in the collective memories of those who participated forever.
As revolutionaries, we have the responsibility to demarcate between the discourse and actions of non-profits and those of the people. In every large movement, there will be a large spectrum of political thought, and it is our job to recognize where seeds of radical thought exist and engage directly with it. We cannot reject a movement altogether just because it contains elements that are not revolutionary. We must pay close attention and attempt to discover what else is there. There might not always be something for us to harness onto, and in these situations, we have to make the difficult decision of whether the battle is worth fighting. But we can’t refuse to fight before we’ve even tried.
“There are so many more Troy Davis’… We need to dismantle this Unjust system city by city, state by state and country by country.” – Troy Davis, September 10, 2011