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Final judgments: where peaches rot on the vine

September 20, 2011


1. The most lasting memory I have of Georgia, the state where my family emigrated to from Iran, was watching a black man flee from police while I was walking home from elementary school with my brother. We both watched open-mouthed as a tall, sweaty man with dreads emerged from a pair of awkwardly trimmed bushes near Heaton Park Drive, stared at us in panicked distress, and bolted toward a nearby forest. A rotund, breathless white cop ran behind him.

(Over time, scenes like this were not infrequent and I would recall them them with more clarity, like on a high school trip to Philadelphia where we watched a black man get arrested with five police officers on top of him and a helicopter crew hovering overhead. And so on and so forth.)

Meanwhile, when some of our white classmates took turns mocking our  foreign names and the foreign contents of our lunchboxes, we’d get invited to sit with the black kids.

In Georgia I would learn English, the national anthem, and represent my school at the Black History Bowl. But one learns black history in the American South with unsurprising directness. It was like studying the decrepit anatomy of a withered white master reaching out from behind the safe curtain of the ‘olden days’ to stick a dirty fingernail into this or that. You recoiled, but the hand was always there polluting everything.

2. During this time, I never once visited Savannah, but I knew two things about it: (1) there was an art school there, and (2) it was one of the first American settlements that actually banned slavery. It wasn’t because the colonists in Savannah cared more about racial equality than colonists in the rest of the U.S., but because the Royal government believed that ‘the presence of slaves would make Georgia vulnerable to foreign enemies.’

This didn’t sit well with the white denizens of Georgia, who claimed the ban put them at an economic disadvantage to other colonies. They pressured the settler Trustees into repealing the 1735 ban, and beginning on 1 January, 1750, Georgia law allowed the use of slaves for ‘primarily agricultural purposes’:

After the Trustees relinquished their charter and Georgia became a Royal colony, the General Assembly met in Savannah as the Colony’s governing body. One of the first acts passed by the General Assembly was the adoption of a legal Slave Code ‘For the better Ordering and Governing Negroes and other Slaves in this Province’ on March 7, 1755. Georgia’s first slave code was based on South Carolina’s 1740 slave code, commonly known as the ‘Negro Act.’

3. Which brings one to the case of 42-year old Troy Anthony Davis, about whom Democracy Now!, the first place I ever heard that name (starting in 2007 with a story called ‘Is Georgia About to Execute an Innocent Man?‘) has done no less than 21 segments as of this writing.

Dave Zirin writes in The Nation:

The facts speak for themselves. Back in 1989, nine people testified that they saw Troy Davis kill Officer Mark MacPhail. Since that time, seven have recanted their testimony. Please allow me to repeat: of the nine people who testified that Troy killed Officer Mark MacPhail, seven have recanted their testimony. Beyond the eyewitnesses, there was no physical evidence linking Troy to Officer MacPhail’s murder. None. Three jurors have signed affidavits saying that if they had all the information about Troy, they would not have voted to convict. One juror even arrived in person to the Board of Pardons and Paroles to say to their faces that she would not have voted to convict if she’d had the facts. Another woman has even come forward to say that a different man on the scene that night, Sylvester ‘Redd’ Coles, bragged afterward about doing the shooting. Of the two witnesses who still maintain that Troy was the triggerman, one is Sylvester ‘Redd’ Coles.

Others, like E.D. Kain, have pointed to guilt or innocence as an insufficient basis for the execution:

In the end, I am not concerned so much with whether or not Davis is guilty or innocent. I am concerned with the uncertainty of his guilt. ‘I’m not for blood. I’m for justice,’ said the mother of the slain police officer. But we extract one or the other, not both. In a case where the blood may be that of an innocent, how can we call it justice?

If Davis is not guilty and we kill him nonetheless then we have simply stacked one murder on top of another. The life of Mark MacPhail will not be avenged. If Davis is guilty, surely serving out the remainder of his life in state prison should be enough. Justice does not require retribution.

4. Despite 633,000 petitions delivered to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles on Friday, massive global mobilization campaigns, and a list of prominent Davis supporters against the Parole board ruling that includes Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, Cornel West, the NAACP, the Pope, 51 members of Congress, musicians such as OutKast’s Big Boi, and even well-known death penalty supporters, Davis is set to be executed in Savannah in exactly 24 hours. Some of Davis’ supporters (I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say he has millions) have publicly called the prosecution’s handling of his case as a ‘lynching.’

(There is an online Lynching Calendar database that has recorded the names of ‘African Americans who died in racial violence in the United States during 1865-1965’; I counted 18 names for Georgia.)

5. Meanwhile in Texas, the state most associated with judicial execution, a former sergeant first class in the U.S. Army has been granted pardon for the third time. Cleve Foster was sentenced to die for the rape and murder (along with Sheldon Ward, now deceased) of a 30-year old Sudanese woman. Nyaneur ‘Mary’ Pal’s body was found in a ditch on Valentine’s Day in 2002. Foster was set to be executed this very evening (for a vicious act—’rape-slaying’ has now become its own word—no one seems to dispute him committing, notwithstanding one’s position on state execution) but the U.S. Supreme Court has intervened to grant him a stay of execution while his lawyers launch more appeals.

E.D. Kain on the complications of mass appeal to a system that has historically eclipsed justice for the black members of its population:

And though we accept the limitations of our government and of the good judgment of our leaders, we nevertheless believe in the infallibility of this system we call justice, but which is not justice, to hand down the most final sort of judgment a man could ever know.

[Related: Being black in the ‘post-racial’ age]

[Related: ‘A gesture can blow up a town’]

[Related: Walking dead man]

(Art by Ala Dehghan, from The White Rope series. Iran, 2008.)

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