I started a blog post with this title back in July. It was inspired by the gruesome and tragic death of a boy named Leiby Kletzky.
On an early summer evening when the weather was just approaching sultry, after an outdoor neighborhood screening of Men in Black, I sat on the pier with some friends. Two cars pulled up, and like clown cars, a dozen hassidic men poured out. They wore the traditional garb – black pants, black vests, white shirts. Tallit fringes hanging down. Side curls dangling. My friend wondered aloud what they were doing, and I offhandedly guessed it was probably some prayer thing. It was a Tuesday, and as I ran through possible obscure Jewish observances, the men did a strange thing. They approached us. It was strange because we were mostly all women, and they approached directly, and that’s basically unheard of. Soon they were shining their flashlights on xeroxed copies of a flyer with a child’s face on it.
“Have you seen this boy?” they asked.
We had not.
The next morning pieces of little Leiby’s body were found in a dumpster. As I recall, they later found the rest of him in the refrigerator in his killer’s home. The news rocked Brooklyn and most of New York. It was especially shocking, because the killer was a member of their own insular religious group.
At the time I was doing battle with city sponsored health insurance. It was a battle because I earn too much to qualify for any state- or city-sponsored plans, and I earn far too little to be able to afford any private plans. For days that week I sat at my dining table with papers and pamphlets spread out, trying to understand the whack intricacies of the health care system. I tried to figure out how to avoid spending $400 out of pocket to have a teaspoon of blood drawn, which is something I need done every few months.
In between sitting on hold for fifteen minutes at a time, I’d do bits of research for the novel I’ve been writing. My novel has a major food-industry component. It takes place in a devastated near-future world where the synthetic food industry has a hold on every ingestible morsel including water, and they control the economy of a fearful and recovering country. My research is fairly straight forward. All I have to do is mirror exactly what’s already happening, exaggerate it only slightly, and fictionalize it.
So the morning of Leiby’s death, on hold with one health care racketeer after another, digging up what I could on hormones and chemicals used in dairy-specific factory farms, I hit a wall. I think I went into the kitchen and broke a plate, just because it felt good, but that could have been some other day. (Our set of 12 is now a set of 9…) Then I went back to my computer and started writing something with the title “Everything is Broken”. I was trying to get to the point that so much is within our control. That we have the power and the right and the way to fix so much of what’s broken. But then something happens, like Leiby’s death, and the illusion of influence is shattered. That really we’re all at the mercy of everything: of each other, of our government, of sick madmen who masquerade as regular people. A little while later, my throat raw from chain smoking through my typing ardor, I had seven or eight pages (single spaced, 11 pt Cambria) of incoherent, half-hysterical babbling.
Everything’s brokenness proved, at the time, to be too much to cover in one sitting. I saved the file in a ne’er looked-at folder I call “Nonsense Stuff”.
Fast forward through my summer. Through ten days on Fire Island. Through barbecues. Through days spent knee-walking around a sunny yard on Long Island with my toddler niece who becomes a different person every three weeks. Through a handful of weddings at which I danced my ass off. Through various mornings fighting with myself (and losing) to choose skim milk in my coffee over cream. Through trips to the farmers’ market fondling tiny tomatoes. Through a few great parties we threw and a few we attended. Through the heat, and then the rain, and then a quick cooling off of everything till it became my favorite season: a brief three week period I call sundress-and-boots weather. Till yesterday.
Yesterday our country – the country that is mine and yours – put a man to death. We strapped him to a table, and pushed poison into his veins until he died.
This is Troy Davis.
He was convicted, in 1991, of killing a police officer in Savannah, Georgia, which happens to be a city I love and know well. His conviction and his death have stirred the souls of so many people in this country and all over the world.
If you’ve been under a rock for the past twenty-four hours, the outrage, in short, is about this. There were nine eyewitnesses who testified against Davis in the case. Seven of those nine witnesses have recanted their testimonies since the case was originally tried.
Those who have recanted their testimonies have said things like this…
The truth is that Troy never confessed to me or talked to me about the shooting of the police officer. I made up the confession from information I had heard on T.V. and from other inmates about the crimes.
I was real young at that time and here they were questioning me about the murder of a police officer like I was in trouble or something. I was scared… [I]t seemed like they wouldn’t stop questioning me until I told them what they wanted to hear…
They asked me to describe the shooter and what he looked like… I kept telling them that I didn’t know… After the officers talked to me, they gave me a statement and told me to sign it. I signed it. I did not read it because I cannot read.
So despite all that, no stay of execution was granted. I, and more than 50,000 other people, emailed and called the Parole Board which, in Georgia, is the institution that would grant a stay. That seems so weird, right? That the parole board wouldn’t say gee, that’s odd, maybe there’s no case. Maybe the outrage of dozens of thousands of Americans should influence us here. Maybe the vigils all over the country right now aren’t just a bunch of liberal belly aching. Especially since there are witnesses who have lots to say about a specific someone else’s involvement in the murder. It’s so weird. Until you realize that the parole board – a cog in the machine, put there to add an essential layer to our checks and balances system of governance – is made up largely of ex-cops and legislators. Robert Keller: former ADA; Gale Buckner: former police sergeant; James Donald: former Commissioner of the Dept of Corrections… I suppose these credentials qualify them for the gig, but these same credentials also inhibit them from being a fair and balanced body to judge.
Maybe Troy Davis did it. I don’t know. He could have done it. He’d already been convicted for some other crime, and it sounds like he kept questionable company back in the day. But how could his execution have come to pass with so much fucking doubt? With so many of the witnesses that helped get him convicted coming around to say listen, I was a kid, I was scared, I lied. I lied when I said I knew he did it.
At a base level, I am not opposed to the death penalty. Yep, that’s right. This liberal, cranky, 100% recycled material earth shoes wearing, NPR-sustaining-member, with a pantry full of organic foods … does not oppose the death penalty. In concept. What I should say is: if we had a system that could handle a responsibility of this magnitude, I would not oppose the killing of monsters. Leiby’s murderer? I am not comfortable with my tax dollars paying his room and board for the next fifty years. Get him off my planet. The serial baby rapists? Slit their fucking necks for all I care, and dump them in a ditch. Hang them in town squares and let people throw rocks at their rotting corpses. I’m not even kidding about this shit. It doesn’t bother me in the least to scrape the scum from the bottom of our humanity boat and fling the muck starboard.
What bothers me is that we’ve shown that we can’t properly handle the responsibility. That capital punishment, in our twisted hands, is a crime. That last night’s execution was murder.
We’ve proven time and again that what we wave is an arbitrary justice wand, and the people who bear the brunt of this broken system are so often innocent. 138 people have been exonerated from death row since the 1970s.
And look. Here’s where the problems start. Last night, as Troy Davis was drawing his final breath, and everyone was looking over here, over there Georgia governor Nathan Deal made his first appointment to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, the selfsame branch that had the power to grant Davis his stay. He appointed this rich white guy. A religious nut job whose major successes have involved spending two decades developing relationships with banks and bankers in Georgia’s House of Representatives. He’s just about one of the last people I want making judgments about the innocence or guilt or readiness for freedom of Georgia’s incarcerated. I do not trust his judgment. But it was Governor Nathan Deal who appointed him. Deal, who was himself involved in two controversies around improper acquisition and use of funds, and a major bending of rules from which he personally would come to benefit. So who’s to blame? The people who voted for him? The people who didn’t turn up on voting day at all? Or the system itself? It’s broken. Undeniably so.
Last night, like probably so many others, I fell asleep thinking about the Davis situation. When I woke up this morning, he was the first thing I thought of. I overslept and woke up groggy and thick-headed. I came downstairs and cried into Andrew’s chest hair for a good long while. Yeah, there’s more than a little happening in my own life that’s frustrating and disappointing and nervous-making, and probably it’s all been building. I won’t pretend that my tears were for Troy Davis alone, even though it felt that way. While I was trying to explain to Andrew what, very specifically, felt so bad, what came out is that I feel personally culpable. I feel so fucking powerless. I feel like it was my hand, and yours, pushing the plungers on the toxic cocktail.
Through all the marches and protests I’ve attended. Through all the heated dinner-table scuffles I’ve had with my Fox news Republican dad. Through all the letter-writing and opinion-wielding, I’ve maintained a love for my country. I am a patriot. I feel blessed to be from America. I feel blessed for my freedoms – like the fact that I can shoot off this blog post and disseminate it and (basically) not worry about any major repercussions. I can shake my fist at a single-minded media machine created by my country, and at the same time continue to love my country.
When I’ve driven through the rolling hills of Pennsylvania and the dry flatlands of New Mexico, I’ve felt great pride that this is all mine. This summer I visited a coal country canal, and was delighted that from the tow path I could see, all at once, the entire history of America’s transportation revolution: pedestrian, horse and cart, bicycle, waterway with boats, train tracks beyond, highway with cars and trucks through a sparse wood, and an occasional airplane above. America felt like a beautiful joyful thing in that moment. A place to be proud of. Even then it felt a little straw-graspy, because take one step out of these tiny preserved havens and what do you have? One long string of deccimated eco-systems; paved over grasslands; bendy cookie-cutter neighborhoods with people desperate to have all exactly the same stuff as one another, except slightly better then their neighbors; and more Wendy’s and Chilis and Walmarts and Home Depots than any universe should ever have to bear, all stuffed to the gills with unnecessary products that are mined, manufactured and disposed of toxically and on the backs of the world’s poor. But still. For some goddamned reason, I’m proud to be American.
This morning, though, I was devastated. I am devastated. I’m crushed that this is where we are. What happened with Davis has been a straw on my camel’s back, and I’m not sure I can hang on by this filament thread of pride any more. The whole world watched while we murdered a man who might have been innocent, and there’s not a damned thing we were able to do to stop it. I feel guilty because I could have been writing letters all along. I feel culpable because I’m sure there are a dozen cases like Davis’ still in the works, but by the time I’m done with this blog post I’ll have to get on with the business of accruing billable hours so I can get my rent paid. I feel personally responsible because I’m somehow a part of this world where Troy Davis’ blackness probably worked against him. That his lack of whiteness was as much a death sentence on September 21, 2011 as it was in 1991, in a racially divided city when he was convicted.
The system that failed here is our justice system. It’s the construct our entire country is built on. It’s what’s supposed to make us a fair and just system, and unique in the world for our democratic principles. I think what we proved this week is that there is no justice system. That Davis’ death goes way beyond the rules of capital punishment in America. That every goddamn piece of our infrastructure is broken. That we’re all Troy Davis, at the mercy of a system we built with our own hands, and have allowed to take us over.