Troy Davis was convicted of murder of a police officer and executed Sept. 21, 2011, despite serious doubts about his guilt. He consistently maintained his innocence.
By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser
On the afterschool to-do list for my 13 year-old one day this autumn: attend the vigil in front of City Hall for Troy Davis. “We’ll both go?” he asked. I said sure.
Going to vigils wasn’t a new experience for me and it wasn’t brand-new for him, either. However, we were in the midst of a shift. Whereas when he was a young child, I brought him to political rallies or marches or vigils—strapped in a carrier, riding in a stroller or riding on a bike with training wheels, during the ‘tween years he began to instigate going to anti-nuclear protests and election day sign-holding sessions. We’d done some of these together; other times, he hitched rides with family friends en route to whatever event.
At the last minute his bored, nearly nine-year-old brother wanted to tag along. I hesitated for a moment. Death penalty politics and an imminent execution aren’t generally considered third-grade fodder. But then I thought it better to stand against the death penalty together than simply know this terrible thing was happening. “Sure, come along,” I said.
Walking toward town, we came across their 13-year-old pal, Kate. She said she’d been feeling nostalgic for a time when everything seemed simple—swings on the playground, snacks in small containers, and three stories before bedtime. “Back then, we didn’t know about war or killing,” she reminisced. I thought perhaps bringing her to an anti-death penalty vigil represented terrible timing.
I ventured, “You know, something as simple as bedtime for a three year old or not sharing, those things can be really upsetting, maybe in their way as emotionally gigantic as these difficult things you’re grappling with knowing about, Kate.”
She nodded, and discussion turned to Troy Davis, and black people being disproportionately likely to be incarcerated, and lethal injection. While the racism discussion was lost on my third grader, he grasped this point: “Killing is wrong,” he said. “So killing someone for killing someone is not less wrong.”
About 50 people stood in front of our castle-like City Hall, each holding an image of Troy Davis’s face on a piece of paper. The silence rustled a bit. People walked by. The sun hadn’t yet set. Occasionally, someone walked up to the microphone. One person read a poem. Another read a letter from Troy Davis thanking his supporters, saying they came from places he’d never even dreamed of. He wrote he’d imagined faces he might never see. He sounded like a free man in his heart. His words made me feel better than I could have expected. The work, he wrote, wasn’t about him, but justice. The work would continue.
At seven, in the shared silence, we imagined that Troy Davis was gone. A few minutes later we learned—via iPhone—that he was still alive while the Supreme Court considered whether a stay might be granted. We raised our arms. It was as if good wishes throughout the country had carried enough power to keep this man alive. For a moment, at least, it felt that way.
I kept my hands and eyes upon the three kids the entire time we were standing in front of City Hall. In our pretty, progressive college town, the things being discussed seemed quite far from their childhoods. During the silence they got bored, but refused to leave. We swatted at tenacious mosquitoes. Night had settled upon us. The sky turned sable, the air cool. Each kid held a candle by now, and stared at the flame. I studied the crowd carefully: college students, longtime activists, a couple of babies, and a few passersby who stopped. I started to think about how many people I’ve known whose commitment to social justice began by working against the death penalty.
There were more discussions—and a cookie—as we made our way home. By the time I fell asleep that night, Troy Davis had been killed. Vigils had not stopped his death, nor had phone calls, letters and emails that flooded Georgia over the days leading up to his execution. Troy Davis’s death prompted so many people to speak up for humanity and justice, including three young people on a buggy September dusk. Hearing at a vigil about the freedom Martin Luther King dreamed of was very different from hearing about it in a classroom. Troy Davis’s legacy is theirs now, too.
I don’t regret the third-grader’s participation, or that of the nostalgic-for-childhood young teen. If the only way justice can be achieved is through a community effort, I’d witnessed three kids join the community, the one that that believes justice and freedom are within our grasp.
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