For Troy Davis
On the Day of International Memorials for Troy Davis
Riverside Church, NYC.
Saturday, October 1, 2011
The most befitting thing I can say on this day comes from James Baldwin. “To be black and conscious in America is to live in a constant state of rage.”
I was enraged by the state sanctioned execution of Troy Davis. Not 24 hours later, my fire-hot rage would turn to stony indignation upon learning that the same set of bureaucrats who refused to stop this execution, removed the death penalty from the sentence of white man who professed to the guilt of the violence he was charged with. These two incidences, clearly linked to send a message to us, were an articulation of the obvious–black bodies, irrespective of facts, are always criminal. Public displays of violence against black bodies, in so far as it re-iterates the role that Black suffering plays in making white supremacy coherent in every day life, is the preferred method of articulating patriarchal white supremacist control.
So while we mourn his death and all of the things it raises for us―racism, the death penalty, the prison industrial complex, police brutality, the historic trauma of lynchings, etc., I want us to move beyond discourses of innocence, for while it may make us feel more righteous in our defense of Troy Davis, and the many like him who have been executed or who currently languish inside prison walls, we must come to accept that to be Black and “innocent” is an oxymoron in the world we live in.
Once in New Orleans in 2008, a city where I once lived, I was riding a bike in the French Quarter, slowly alongside some colleagues, none of which were Black, who were walking. We were in town for a conference, and I was showing them around when a white unmarked Crown Victoria pulled up, cut me off by stopping abruptly in front of me. Two, what I think were Blackwater private security officers, jumped out, pulled guns, demanding I drop to the ground. My friends stood to my right, and when one of them asked what was going on, the officers asked “Is he with you?” When they responded “yes,” they backed away, and said that there had been a number of robberies by “thugs on bikes.”
Blackness itself is criminal, and my having a college degree, how I was dressed, or any of the others thing Black folks intentionally do to avoid being seen as criminal by white people or the state at large, and none of these would protect me. I also know, had I not had non-Black people to “claim” me as “their” Black―what if I was just taking a slow bike ride down Dauphine through the French Quarter that night―I would have met with a very different fate.
Even the Left in the US engages in other forms of innocence frames outside of prison reform contexts, that still reference and reduce Blacks to criminality. Often the anti-war, or anti-globalization movements, including the current mobilizations on Wall Street explain acts of police violence or arrests as “just for exercising our right to protest.” These statements are an exercise in bad faith―they suggest that the police have some legitimate reasons for arrests, or that white bodies simply protesting the seat of American capital are innocents, not criminal. What would it mean to embrace criminality, as opposed to trying to rhetorically avoid it by notions of innocence or exercising “rights?”
So not only must we move past the politics of innocence, if we’re invested yes, in saving individuals from jaws of the death penalty, but also in radically altering the conditions that create its existence. We must also look critically at the symbolism of Black subjugation that exist in the death penalty and the prison, but also in everyday neighborhood policing and “stop and frisk” methods, and the communities that become disappeared through gentrification, and replaced by various markers of white dominance―the coffee shop, the dog shit, white babies with Black and brown nannies, or the soul food restaurants that lose all their Black customers. All of these, to me, are forms of terror that speak to the everyday and to the exceptional, and our politics have often failed to move beyond policy, to get to the core logics that make policies possible. For me that means we have to make sense out of Troy Davis’ death as symbol―that public displays of Black death and suffering are really necessary to making white supremacy coherent. From Rodney King, to Hurricane Katrina and the failed levies, to the earthquake in Haiti, to Troy Davis, episodic displays of Black suffering and subjugation are ever present.
Afro-Brazilian scholar João Costa Vargas, in an unpopular (yet no less eloquent) speech he delivered this spring at the Critical Ethnic Studies conference at UC Riverside noted “Why doesn’t Black suffering and death appeal and effectively mobilize beyond the seemingly unique catastrophic moments? Why is it that, when Black suffering and death are expressed, they are almost always forced into a conversation that focuses on the experiences of non-Blacks?”
Let us remember Troy Davis not only by calling attention to the need to end the death penalty. Let us not simply use it as a call to end imprisonment as a form of punishment. Both of these are necessary and critical. But if we are serious about ending state violence, we must also be willing to look to different set of political objectives―where the everyday and mundane, the episodic and extraordinary violence visited upon the Black body (symbolizing degradation, suffering, subjugation and death) does not exist a
s the thing to make all other life relevant.
Writing that influenced my thinking here:
Warfare in the American Homeland, edited by Joy James
Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Y. Davis
Never Meant To Survive: Genocide and Utopias in Black Diaspora Communities by Joao Costa Vargas
On Black Men by David Marriott