I followed the news of Troy Davis’ impending execution on Wednesday, September 21 in near-horror. Set to be murdered by the State of Georgia at 7pm, this probably innocent man was making peace with his situation as I deleted emails and met with students. As 4pm ticked closer, the effort of tamping down the rising balloon of panic in me was exhausting. I checked the news feeds every chance I had, and seeing that no stay came, I prayed quick, ever more desperate pleas for someone to intervene and stop this injustice from happening. At every turn, I felt like screaming at the nearest person making demands on my time: A man is going to be murdered unjustly in a few hours! How can we just keep going about our day?
And I’m not being self-righteous here, all I did in this case was sign a petition, call the state probation board and a judge, and ask others on facebook to do the same. But rallying against the death penalty is not my cause; it’s not something I’ve ever donated time or money to. I’ve never gone to protest an execution. The end of the death penalty is something I hope to see in my lifetime, but I haven’t given more than ten minutes of my life to making it happen. For whatever reason, Troy was real to me and no different than me, and so I cared this time.
Around 3:30, I headed into a meeting whose aftermath kept me working until 6:15pm. Walking home, watching the pale blue sky preparing for nightfall, it occurred to me that if things had gone as scheduled, Mr. Davis had been killed while I was consummed by work. I had missed my chance to pause and pray for him and his loved ones, as I had planned to do. Shame swept over me, and I paused at home only long enough to change into workout clothes and shoes for a run.
I headed to the woods across from campus. At the point I should have turned around given the time, I had to keep going. I don’t know why, but I turned off on a path I don’t take often, one that is quite steep in places and not well traveled. I lumbered on slowly, trying to let the rhythm of my footfalls on the trail drown out my sadness, my sense of impotence. Absorbed in allowing my body time to release some of the emotion of the day, I suddenly realized it was too dark for me to be in the woods, and a bit later I admitted I was lost, night biting at my heels. I wandered around in an oval, trying to find the trail that had run out on me so I could trace my way back, but it had disappeared. I eventually found a way out: I had to slide, tumble, and fall my way down a long, steep embankment to a creek bed I could just barely see, it’s white rocks glowing in the black environ. Bruised and cut in a few places, I followed the creek bed until the trail I’d come in on came into view.
When I look back on getting lost, I suppose I had options other than endangering myself by going down a brush-covered hillside in the dark. And though at the time I didn’t consciously connect my choice to go that route to the fate of Troy Davis,* now, I think there was a part of me that felt I had to prove something, if only to myself. I even suspect that I wanted to be punished, to suffer the consequences of my foolish choice to go into the woods so close to dusk, and then to go farther on a trail I don’t know by heart. Penance for my reluctance to devote my life to fighting for the things I believe in. I wanted to feel brave, feel like I could fix a mistake and come out ok.
In the end there wasn’t anything I, or anyone else could have done to prevent Troy Davis’ murder, but out there in the woods, alone with the dangers of the dark: unseen ledges and trip-causing rocks, mountain lions, wild boar, brown recluse spiders, I could save myself by not panicking, by thinking clearly, by putting one foot in front of the other.
That’s probably all it takes to stay strong in whatever cause we find ourselves overwhelmed by: don’t panic, think clearly, keep going.
*A careful reader pointed out some time discrepancies in this piece. Upon investigation, I’ve learned that the stay on Troy Davis’ execution last Wednesday lasted about four hours, and that in fact he had not been killed while I was at work, as I had thought, but around the time I made way back to the trail I’d lost. I cannot imagine being Troy Davis in those fours hours. Having prepared for a 7pm death, what must it have been like to hear, at 7:05pm, that the Supreme Court was considering a request to stay his execution? Did he dare hope he had a chance of surviving that day? Did he get to see his family one more time? Who was with him and were they a comfort? The death penalty is arguably a cruel and unusual punishment for every death row inmate, but this pause of the inexorable capital punishment machine, which rendered no justice, must have also been excruciating for Davis’ loved ones.
This entire case has brought the issue of the inequities in the judicial system into stark relief for millions of people worldwide. I hope when we look back at the history of capital punishment in the U.S. that the execution of Troy Davis is a turning point. If you want to find out more about how to join the effort to abolish the death penalty, please visit: http://www.racialicious.com/2011/09/23/open-thread-what-to-do-next/