[Trigger warning for racism, violence, murder, state-sanctioned execution.]
Like many of you, last night I was glued to Democracy Now!'s live coverage of Troy Davis' execution for nearly six hours—from 6pm, an hour before he was scheduled to die, to a few minutes from midnight, as they closed with a slideshow of pictures from Troy's life and Billie Holliday's haunting voice singing "Strange Fruit".
While I was watching, another news story surfaced briefly: at the same time as Troy Davis was scheduled to die, another man, Lawrence Russell Brewer, was executed in Texas. Brewer, a white supremacist, was killed for his role in the 1998 murder of James Byrd, Jr., a black man, in Jasper, Texas. Brewer and two other men abducted Byrd as he walked along a Jasper road, beat him, urinated on him, and then chained him to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him for nearly two miles until Byrd's head and right arm were torn off.
The day before he was executed, Brewer is reported to have said: "As far as any regrets, no, I have no regrets. No, I'd do it all over again, to tell you the truth."
On the internet last night, there were people who took the fact that relatively few people were protesting Brewer's execution, even as the eyes of the world were fixed on Troy Davis, as evidence that anyone would surely agree Brewer really deserved to die, or that anti-death penalty advocates protesting the execution of Davis were all hypocrites, or (ridiculously) that the libruhl media (as represented almost exclusively by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, for six straight hours) only cares about a black man's being killed.
It should go without saying—though perhaps it doesn't—that I oppose Brewer's execution and find no joy in his death. I find it difficult to feel a great deal of sorrow about his death, but I interpret this as a failure of empathy on my part, not as any proof that he deserved to die. There's also the fact that I didn't have much investment in his execution because I didn't know about it beforehand. It's not surprising that I didn't know Brewer was to be executed—it is, after all, something that is distressingly commonplace and doesn't usually receive a lot of attention relative to the enormity of what it represents.
What's rather remarkable is that I did know about Troy Davis' case, that so many people across the nation and across the globe were mobilized in support of justice for a man who was designed to be as disposable and disappearable as possible within the racist US "justice" system. It's truly inspiring, that global movement of people, even as it remains painful that collectively we weren't able to stop this atrocity from happening.
The fact that the Brewer and Davis executions happened to occur on the same day should not distract from the fact that Brewer's execution actually represents an extremely rare concurrence of events, whereas Davis' does not. The odds against a white person being put to death for killing a black person are staggeringly high. According to the ACLU:
While white victims account for approximately one-half of all murder victims, 80% of all Capital cases involve white victims. Furthermore, as of October 2002, 12 people have been executed where the defendant was white and the murder victim black, compared with 178 black defendants executed for murders with white victims.As Amnesty International notes, in the U.S., "the single most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death is the race of the victim."
I know of few reminders more stark that black lives are simply valued as less than: As victims their murders are deemed less serious and must be of the most heinous nature in order for the government to demand a life in exchange, and as defendants it is not even necessary to prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt before taking their lives.
Strange fruit indeed.
[Note from Liss: Support the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty here. The NCADP is the US' oldest organization dedicated to the abolition of the death penalty, founded by a group of prominent civil and human rights activists after the Supreme Court's 1976 Gregg v. Georgia decision, which allowed individual states to resume executions. The NCADP believes "that the struggle against the death penalty will be won state by state when good people of all walks of life demand change."]