Through a long series of cancellations, prior engagements, work stress and cell phone charging while reading Apple maps, the wife and I ended up in Atlanta, Georgia this past weekend. We spent the time admiring the shower in the hotel bathroom, watching a baseball game, staring at pretty girls dressed up to attend the BET Awards and being stuck in mid-town Atlanta traffic. But amongst all of that, we found time to visit the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site and it was pretty amazing.
A few years ago before paying a few bucks to go look at dusty old relics, my wife told me that her favorite thing about visiting museums were those sneaky surprise feelings that happen during a visit. Literally anything in there – and sometimes something that you might not even have known or cared about previously – might touch your emotions, pique your interest or grab you. I walked into the visitor’s center of the site not knowing what to expect, and I left with questions that were answered by a pretty unlikely source.
I feel like a person who knows quite a bit about Dr. King, and I hope that doesn’t sound flippant or arrogant, but I’ve read a fair share about the man, trying to learn about the man beyond the canonized image of him that I learned about in school. The end result has been my belief that Dr. King was a pretty rare and special human. There’s a quote that Dr. King said about Gandhi which could just as easily be applied to him rather than the Mahatma:
Gandhi was inevitable. If humanity is to progress, Gandhi is inescapable. He lived, thought and acted, inspired by the vision of humanity evolving toward a world of peace and harmony. We may ignore him at our own risk.
We live in a world where we (and I’m including myself in this) probably idolize people who don’t deserve to be idolized. We celebrate the bad and try to live to those expectations because spectacle is sexier than principle. Dr. King and Gandhi were both living examples of that cosmic benevolence which baffles the rational mind. The cynic in me wants to believe that men such as these aren’t possible – that the default settings of being a human forbids us from escaping the angry, violent and base instincts that most of us operate on by default, but here are two great examples of people that we should aspire to.
The museum is beautiful, filled with the images, moving and still, that sixty years removed seem almost inconceivable to me – people were that cruel, reacted that violently, that ignorant and fearful of someone because of the way that their skin looked. I can’t really fathom it. I know that sort of gut-level racism exits – I’ve seen brief snippets of it – but I can’t rationally understand it.
But there it was in front of me, in the first exhibit. Still photos and reproductions of signs were hung upon a wall, newspaper clippings and excerpts were printed, and a flat screen television showed us images of the harsh world that blacks in the south lived in during the first half of the twentieth century.
Then I saw the thing that struck me – but it wasn’t an exhibit. It was a fellow guest of the museum.
Standing below a sign hung on the wall was a fellow museum guest. She was a girl who I guess was around seven or eight. Her hair was braided and she wore sneakers with pink trim around the toes and a plastic bracket of sorts across the lowest part of her shoelace that lit up when she walked. The top of her head was just below a sign that read “Whites Only” on the wall. She looked at two pictures that seemed right above eye level to her – one of a group of Klansmen standing near a burning cross and the other a rather graphic picture of a group of white men standing around the lifeless body of a lynched black man.
The little girl stood very still looking at the photos while chewing on her index finger. Her feet were crossed below her and she seemed ready at any minute to uncoil her pointy knees into a three hundred and sixty degree jump as children are prone to do. Instead she stood still and faced the picture. I was trying not to pay too much attention to her and instead our eyes me. She looked at me for a moment and then went back to the picture. She looked again, stopping at my face for just long enough for me to smile at her. The sort of smile that someone like me gives a child or anyone whose eyes meet mine: “hello, my friend! I am friendly!” I try to say. She looked around for a moment and then saw her parents at another exhibit.
It should have felt like any other interaction that I might have with a stranger at any other place on the planet where I might be. A glance, a smile, an acknowledgement, reciprocation and a departure – human interpersonal relations perfectly summed up in less than three seconds. But this time it was awkward: the little girl looked more like the victim in the photograph and I looked closer to the group of callous and awful bad guys in the picture.
I’m a white guy. I’ve been one for probably my entire life. I’ll probably be one for the rest of my life, barring any sort of science fiction-type event happening where I switch places with Pam Grier for a few days. But even as a white guy, I try not to think of myself as anything other than who I am for the most part – why should I be proud of something that I had no control over? But I’m a white guy – history’s dominant force in a lot of the world and the guy who looks like those awful people in a photograph to a little black girl.
As I kept walking through that museum I couldn’t help but to worry that for a child that small, that immediate association in a museum – the violent image and the first face she sees after considering the picture would somehow stain her perception of people who look like me even a little. I hope that she considers her fellow humans not for the color of their skin, but for the content of their character, as Dr. King put it.
But it wasn’t just that little girl. I wondered while walking around in that museum about how things like the past deeds of whites effect perceptions of whites going about their day like I was at that moment. I don’t know if there is a right answer or an appropriate answer to that sort of worry and dread. All I know that I’ve had any sort of thoughts about my race in any sort of non-comical way in my entire life, but they arrived inside of that museum.
As the afternoon went on, I finished the exhibits in the visitor center, walked down to The King Center and even over to visit the old site of Ebenezer Baptist Church. Each exhibit moved me in a different way. Each one had places profound beauty and sadness, but my mind went back to the little girl staring at that horrible photograph.
Later the wife and I decided to make our way to our car and eventually out of Atlanta and back to North Carolina. Our map pointed us towards the nearest train station and we began walking down Boulevard Street towards the station. Boulevard is a part of a historically black neighborhood that is undergoing a bit of renewal. We saw people walking along the street, waiting for buses and going about their day. All of the sudden, from a side street a voice cried out.
“Where you guys headed,” the voice said. It was attached to an older black man, maybe in his late forties or early fifties. He was dressed casually and had a grey beard.
“Oh we’re walking towards the MARTA station,” I said.
The man walked beside me as we continued down the street.
“Oh shit this is great, white people walking through the black part of town! Y’all ain’t scared of us like your parents are!” he laughed and extended a fist. I bumped knuckles with him and kept walking towards our destination.
“We’re all people, man. I’ve got no reason to be afraid of you until you give me a reason,” I said. We both laughed when I said that.
The man told us to avoid a tricky part of the journey towards the station – a road zigs when the map says that it zags – and we continued on the walk.
“Have a good day, my brother,” he said as he started to cross the street towards a mini-mart.
“Take it easy, my friend,” I said back to him.
He looked back at me and smiled. “Take care of mama there,” he said referring to my wife. I was flattered; my wife is a foxy mama.
As he crossed the street he cried out “White people up in the neighborhood! Dr. King would be proud of this shit!” he raised a triumphant fist into the air.
I laughed and kept on walking. Later, on the train I thought about the little girl encountering such ugliness in old photographs and the older man who might’ve actually seen it up close. I smiled at them both and received very different reactions. Maybe one reaction was just a little girl fleeing the sight of horror and strangers back to the comfort of her parents, her feeling of home. Maybe the other reaction was from a man whose world has changed around him, from segregation to the site of more and more white people walking through his neighborhood. Maybe this is the innocence and experience that William Blake wrote about.
The train rushed forward and shuttled us north through the city. Throughout the journey the train stopped and all sorts of people got on and off: weary travelers and excited kids, friends heading out to dinner and families going to Cub Scout meetings, people gossiping, sharing the scores of the football games and people living their lives just sharing a train together. Nobody considered that we were all in this cart together, stealing away towards somewhere together, where there is no place for those hateful men of the past who I saw in those pictures. Instead the cart pushed forward; above and below ground, speeding up and slowing down. Eventually, the train stopped, the doors opened and we stood up and walked out together. The light upstairs was bright and we squinted until our eyes adjusted. It was painful for a few moments and then we could see clearly.
I’m not a journalist; I’m a guy who writes simple little things for this blog. Thanks to the readers of this blog, I went down to Jackson, Georgia yesterday to see what was happening at the vigil and protest for Troy Davis. I’ve never been close to anything like what I saw. I’ll do my best to add in names of people and try to recount things that they said, but what I’ve included here are my impressions, and should by no means be treated as authoritative.
I’ve never been one for protests and marches. I guess that in a sense they never felt useful to me. I would see them happening all around me in Asheville and even the really crazy huge ones that I’d see sometimes on the news and the cynical asshole in me would dismiss the people participating. At the same time, I’ve been against the death penalty for as long as I can remember. I guess I just have the rather simple view that people are born with rights, and one of those rights is to live. No person should ever take those rights away from another human being, no matter what they’ve done.
When I started reading about the Troy Davis case, I wanted to get closer to it mainly because it was happening relatively close to where I live and I’m the sort of person who needs to see things up close and personal. So, with the aforementioned help of my readers, I gassed up the car and headed down to the Georgia Diagnostic Prison to lend my voice to those trying to halt the execution of Troy Davis.
The drive was nice, something about coming out of the mountains and through the rolling hills of Northern Georgia always relaxes me. Even the traffic through Atlanta wasn’t at the standstill that it normally is. When I arrived in Jackson, I followed some cars down a small road across the street from the prison and ended up in the parking lot of the Towaliga County Line Baptist Church. As I got out of my car, I felt like I was going to be intruding. I asked two heavy-set black women standing at the door if I could come in, one of them smiled and took my hand, honey this is the church, she said, you always welcome here.
Inside the church a few people sat in pews, well-dressed black families, older people with worried looks on their faces, speakers at the podium and a horde of media types. On stage Reverend Al Sharpton was wrapping up, and Big Boi from Outkast had also said a few words to the crowd. Next a pastor led us in prayer before one of Troy Davis’ attorneys spoke. Then the Davis family addressed the media. Davis’ sister, now wheelchair bound from a battle with cancer, stood up from her chair to show that even she stood for her brother on this day. Several people in the church were in tears. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t moved by this.
On the way down I prepared myself, knowing that I might be close to the family of Mr. Davis, but I wasn’t prepared to be this close. They were beside me, all around me. They were hurting but urging people on. I couldn’t imagine being in their situation, but here they were telling people like me to stay hopeful.
After the family’s statement, there were rumors of people collecting signs and marching up to the prison, so I followed the small crowd out of the church, collecting a poster that Amnesty International provided from a box just inside the church and then began my walk to the prison gates.
Along the way, I noticed that the cars headed down the small road were coming in a long, steady line. I wasn’t one of a small group of protesters; I was the first of many. It made me a little happy to see that the crowd was swelling.
When I arrived at the intersection of the tiny church road and the massive four-lane highway that separated the protesters from the prison, I was greeted by a rather upset white couple. They aren’t letting anyone in, they said. The prison guards had told these two people that they wouldn’t be allowed on the grounds with their camp chairs and lunches. The only thing that we were allowed to bring into the protesting area was ourselves and a closed bottle of water. The couple continued to fret about the police presence and I decided to walk up to the gates of the prison to find out for myself.
I was greeted by a younger cop who looked every bit the cop cliché. He had the thin mustache, the skinny arms and everything. He asked me what I was doing, and I told him that I wanted to attend the vigil. He asked if I was a Davis supporter or a Pro-Death Penalty supporter. I held up the giant Troy Davis poster in my hand and he smiled, asked for my ID and then told me the rules. No food, only closed bottles were allowed in and once I was inside I could not leave and reenter. I said okay to all of the rules and started in.
Wait a minute, I said. There are people here to cheer about someone dying, I asked about his pro-death penalty question. Yes sir, there are, he said. What assholes, I said without thinking. He let out a big smile and replied with a you said it sir, I didn’t. That was the last time that a cop would be anything that resembled friendly for the next few hours.
The free speech zone was a thirty square yard area on the prison grounds. Someone from Davis’ family would later tell me that the prison facility was a quarter mile away from where we were standing. I looked around and saw grassy hills that shot up like tiny hiccups in this flat part of Georgia. I saw a man-made pond just off in the distance on the prison ground and the land made me feel at ease, which was exactly the point. People driving by on the road behind me wouldn’t like a stark and ugly prison building on the street near the Wendy’s – it’d be too real. Instead, there’s a gorgeous park.
I wandered around and didn’t know quite what to do. There was our area to protest, a much larger pen beside us for the media and then about a hundred yards away a small group of people that were pro-death penalty. By small I mean miniscule. Davis supporters amounted to about a hundred people in our little area. There was a whopping crowd of three when I snapped this picture. By the end of the night it had turned into about thirteen people.
I milled around, talking to people who spoke with me. I was a bit distracted and annoyed at the media standing around and generally being jackals, so I didn’t want to act like one of them inside of our area. Then I noticed something, or rather everyone in the area began to see it at the same time – the police weren’t letting anyone else into our holding area or onto the prison grounds.
Across the street on the tiny road where the Towaliga County Line Baptist Church was church buses from the Metro Atlanta, Augusta, Macon and Savannah were emptying out, families were gathering and people ready to protest and they were being kept across the street. It was 5:30 PM and the prison didn’t want people at home watching the news to see the sheer size of people that were coming to pray for a man who could be innocent. I looked across the way and saw a few more pro-death penalty types being let into the gates. I looked back at our group of people. I was surrounded by a mostly black crowd. There were a few white faces mixed in, but it was a tiny piece of the whole. Across the way, it was all fat, older white people (mostly men) wearing American flag clothing and staring over at us incredulously.
I don’t want to say that it was racism, but standing there in the sweltering Georgia heat and sharing water with a few people around me (the police had generously brought three cases of water – about seventy-two bottles – for the crowd of over one hundred praying for Troy Davis) it certainly felt like racism.
But nobody let it get them too down. Despite the police becoming increasingly tense, our crowd stayed in relatively high spirits. A man by the name of Vizion Jones led us in prayer and song. It sounds weird saying this, but as a person who on his very best day considers himself merely a humanist and not really a Christian, the feeling of spirit while surrounded by such deeply religious people was thick in the air. People believed, and it was contagious. I held hands with two women beside me and we sang We Shall Overcome with the crowd.
Vizion was a badass. He knew how to read the crowd and made a point to remind everyone that what people expected out of a crowd was anarchy and unruliness. If he sensed tension from a group of people in a certain section of the holding area, he gathered them together and told them stories about Christ, Gandhi or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he clapped his hands, he danced. He stood on a picnic table and he prayed. He personally thanked and shook hands with or hugged everyone there at least a bazillion times, and was still quick with a smile, story or joke when things felt somber. The cops worried that this small group of people praying and singing would get out of control, but at the center of it each time stood Vizion in his red polo shirt keeping the storm maintained.
As it drew closer to the scheduled seven o’clock execution, the crowd grew quieter. Vizion attempted to keep spirits high, and I still was nervous. The entire thing was pretty scary. I spoke with a few people and we just talked about how unfair the death penalty was, about how it is disproportionately used on African-Americans and how race and class were so intertwined in this country that a person can’t talk about one without the other.
At times it felt absolutely dismal, but then at other times I realized that we were Americans assembling peacefully to protest something that the government is doing that we think is unjust. Most of the people around me were legally considered less than human years ago and yet here they are, peacefully and still actively disagreeing with the state while the whole world was watching. Here I was, a non-believing white man whose parents through away drinking glasses that black visitors to our house drank out of holding hands and praying with black people. There is hope all around us. America always moves forward and progresses. Sometimes it’s painful and it feels like we’ll never shake the dull grey sheet of this world from atop of us and see the light and love that is humanity, but I was surrounded by progress and hope.
But despite all of these good feelings, there was still the seven o’clock barrier hanging over our heads. Vizion gathered us all together in a circle and we prayed and sang. Within moments, Troy Davis’ family arrived at the vigil with us.
But still the time grew closer and we, unabashedly knowing that it was a cliché but still not caring, were waiting for a miracle. The minutes oozed by. We knew that Troy Davis was sitting in some room, strapped to a table. There was an IV in his arm, waiting to administer his doom. We mostly stood in that circle and prayed.
The crowd sang Come by Here, Lord quietly and swayed. Davis’ family began to sob. A few people broke off into smaller pockets, relying not upon strangers but upon those closest to them to bring them comfort.
I wanted to document everything. I wanted to find out names and stories and give hugs and tell people that I felt the same way, but it just didn’t feel right. This was a very human moment; standing somewhere hoping that another human being will be allowed to live and smile and hold hands and tell stories. Those seconds oozed on and I couldn’t sit still. An older man, who I had noticed had been observing his times of prayer earlier in the day stood beside me silently. A younger woman with tears in her eyes walked towards us both. As she spoke, her tears turned into the heaviest of sobs.
I don’t know how to pray, she said. I don’t go to church but we’ve got to do something. I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to be genuine and I wanted to be respectful and I didn’t want to go through my own rather tortured and personal search spirituality that I’ve been on for the last few months. The man beside me spoke: Sister, let’s join hands and speak from our heart. God is good and that’s all he’s ever wanted, he said.
I joined their hands and we bowed our heads. We took turns saying things. He spoke of love and how God was just, and if you aren’t being just then you aren’t on the side of God. She spoke and said that she wanted whatever was out there to be kind to Troy Davis, his family and the family of the slain police officer. When it was my turn I just noted that most important thing that we as humans can give to each other is our time, and that all of these people had given their time and thoughts to both Troy and righting this injustice to him and the others who face execution in America, and that had to account for something. If we failed today that we could move forward with the hope we all felt and make sure that this won’t happen again.
There I was, a borderline atheist, praying with someone who had strayed from her faith and a Muslim. The cliché goes that there are no atheists in foxholes; well I’m here to tell you that there are no atheists, denominations or differences of religion when a human’s life is on the line. I’m sure there’s a story or a joke there, but I don’t know what it is. I do know what happened next.
A huge cheer came up from across the street. It was long and sustained and echoed out all over the place. Nobody in our little free speech zone had been checking our phones. Then the news bubbled up, first from a camera man from CNN who was checking his iPhone: the execution had been delayed by the Supreme Court. I grabbed my camera and my ancient cell phone to alert some other people back home as to what was happening. I just texted one simple word: Jubilation. That’s what it was.
People ran around hugging each other. Women fell on the ground crying. Grown men, smaller in stature than I am, wrapped me up in a huge hug and lifted me off the ground. For a moment, we felt like we’d won. We felt like Troy Davis was going to get to live. Then, like a buzzkill sent from up high, we learned that this was only a delay. We were awaiting a decision from the United States Supreme Court as to what was going to happen – the delay had only been to give the court time to consider and draft an opinion on the matter.
We were still hopeful and we still waited. People who I’d spoken to earlier in the evening approached me every time I had my cell phone visible asking me if I’d heard anything. The singing intensified, building up from the somber and mournful songs of earlier into something that felt like outright joy. The hope never left the crowd, but the delay turned it back up from where it was.
Then the minutes ticked by quicker. The wait was a bit more tedious this time. Little did we realize, but Troy Davis was still somewhere with an IV in his arm waiting on the most important court in our country to decide whether he got to have the needle removed.
People spoke, conversations were had. I had an amazing conversation with a sixty year old woman named Ivory, and she spoke about how things like the internet, iPhones and cable television pacify us, and make us less human towards each other. She asked me about my life and I told her about my wife and dogs. She thanked me for being there and hugged me.
It was about then when the cops started becoming antagonistic.
First, we heard that there was a scuffle outside and someone had been arrested. He was arrested; it turns out, for being too close to the street and trying to move as a car drove past him. A cop dove into him and slapped cuffs upon him. For a moment, I felt like there was going to be a riot nearby. Then I noticed the cops surrounding our pen, where people were praying, singing and having conversations.
About a dozen or so riot cops stood near our zone. I looked up at the street, at the prison entrance, and saw what looked like at least fifty cops in full-on riot gear standing guard. They were wearing so much armor that they looked like Halo characters. We learned that the police had blocked off the exit on the highway – they wanted no more protesters to show up. A few times after this, we heard sirens. The Georgia State Police had between ten or twenty of their cars, with their lights and sirens screaming, race up and down the street. Giant insects flew towards the super-bright television lights. The tension was being brought up by the minute.
Vizion then lead the crowd in a chorus of This Little Light of Mine.
It amazed me how they used song to calm us all down. They saw the forces around us and used songs about love and faith to combat it. I’ve never really felt victimized by police in my life – but my experience there was close.
Now the time kept creeping on. People who were with us in the periphery soon became just another member of the crowd. We were in this together. Davis’ legal team (those that weren’t inside) and members of Amnesty International were mingling freely.
Troy’s sister, Martina Correia, sat and made small talk with anyone around. She grew more and more nervous with each hour.
Even Benjamin Jealous, head of the NAACP, was there. We talked for a moment and he thanked me for driving from North Carolina.
Finally, we received word that the Supreme Court had denied a stay of execution and that the process was beginning.
The crowd was deflated. Tears happened. There were heavy tears, lots of tears. A man standing beside me grabbed me and hugged me, tears pouring down his cheeks. It was Elijah West, Troy Davis’ cousin. I put an arm around the older Muslim man and he told me that I was his brother. I think he meant brother in the universal sense, but I’d also like to think that he thought of me like a number one soul brother-type.
Cameras snapped. Interviews were done. Earlier in the night I spoke with John Rudolf from the Huffington Post. I did a television interview for a Swiss station. The ABC affiliate in Savannah, Georgia asked me about the crowd’s mood. I wanted to be articulate, but it hurt too bad. I put up my camera and didn’t want to shoot the crowd anymore. There was too much pain and I didn’t want to intrude.
The Davis family left and the rest of us followed them out, across the parking lot, through the gates of the prison, parting the sea of body armor-wearing cops, and across the street into the crowd of hundreds singing This Little Light of Mine. Music soothed our insides and we joined in. We held hands and danced down the street to our cars. There were tears. There were hugs. We didn’t know each other’s names, but we went through a lot together.
I sat in my car for a moment, trying to sort it all out. I drove the three-hour trip home, stopping for gasoline and bottled water, trying to sort it all out. I arrived in my home, full of boxes for my wife and I’s move in a few days, trying to sort it out. I woke up after about three hours of sleep and started writing this blog, hoping to sort it out. I still don’t know if I’ve sorted it out. What I do know is that a man, guilty or innocent I’ll probably never know, was murdered by the government yesterday. I know that the world got smaller by one while I stood and prayed with strangers. I know that judges whose names I’ve only heard of in reference to pubic hairs on Coke cans held a man’s life in his hands and helped make the decision to end it. I know that until we stop murdering people we’ll never be the just people that we claim to be. I know that I’ll forever be changed by what I did yesterday, and I know that Troy Davis is gone but he stays with me.
The crowd chanted “I am Troy Davis” at different points throughout the night last night. At first it felt cautionary: if this happened to Troy, it could happen to anyone. Now I think about it and I think of humans gathering to try to save a life, humans praying and talking about making the world a better place, and people being hopeful and inspiring in the face of something as horrible as murder. I am Troy Davis because last night – and that feeling – will stay with me forever.