Troy Davis: Executions and Precarious Black Life

“Troy Davis reminds us that there are American citizens — and then there are African-American citizens.”

I’ve waited a few days to post anything about the execution of Troy Davis, trying to wrap my head around his execution, as well as the executions of Lawrence Brewer and Derrick Mason. I waited, frankly, because I was deeply grieved, on so many levels, and unsure what to say or what to feel.

For some, the protests should have focused on the execution of Lawrence Brewer, a white man who ruthlessly murdered a black man by dragging him behind his truck. If the goal is to end executions, then it must be argued that even those undoubtedly guilty of a heinous crime should not be killed. Or, to prevent the state-sanctioned murder of a possibly innocent man, Troy Davis, we need to stop all state-sanctioned murders.

I see the point. I’ve long been opposed to the death penalty and for my first year living in Durham, my only experiences of being in Raleigh were at death penalty protests.

But to leave the analysis at that level is to miss something crucial. These three executions all had to do with race. A white supremacist for the murder of a black man; a black man for the murder of a white woman; and a black man, possibly innocent, for the murder of a white police officer. This isn’t just about the death penalty, it’s about life, death, and race in America.

It’s a point made so frequently that it’s almost become common sense: the death penalty is racist in its application. It’s frightening that these facts are ignored, downplayed, dismissed, and pushed to the side in the eagerness to seek “justice.”

Yes, we should seek to end state-sanctioned killing. It’s cruel, it’s unnecessary, it’s ungodly, it’s unjust, it sometimes leads to the murder of innocent people, and it’s racist.

But Troy Davis captured our attention not just because it was the case of another miscarriage of justice, the execution of an innocent person (or at least someone who isn’t indubitably guilty). Troy Davis captured and continues to demand our attention because he shows that, as the article from The Root that stands as an epigraph says, Black life is precarious situated, vulnerable, and not afforded the protection of full, unquestioned, irrevocable citizenship. To quote from the article again,

There’s a very tangible bundle of inequities that defines black Americans — whether the result is unneeded subprime mortgages, disparities in medical treatment, stop-and-frisk laws, racially coded enforcement of drug laws, higher infant mortality, more severe sentences and, yes, the death penalty — reminders, that, yes, we may all be American citizens, but some may be just a shade less than others.

As we recall Christ’s execution, lamenting for the loss of all life–victims, perpetrators, and accused–we must not abstract from the situation that Jesus was executed as an unprotected, dominated, expendable, precariously positioned non-citizen of the imperial power of the day.

It’s not just about power the kill; it’s about the power to decide whose life must be protected.

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