God gave Noah the Rainbow sign, don't you see?
God gave Noah the Rainbow sign, no more water but fire next time.
Traditional Gospel song
HAVEN’T WE BEEN HERE BEFORE?
James Baldwin was a famously angry writer, a famously angry self-described American Negro writer who once said, “I'm angrier now than I was when I was called an angry young man.” His writing took over my consciousness when I was a young woman trying to find her way from her father’s defeated Conservatism, his inability to see that what suffocated him as a so-called lower class White man was a roaring, insatiable monster that devoured Black men in this country. I watched as my father’s anger was further diluted and misdirected with alcohol and the lies of men in office like Richard Nixon. I needed to find anger, to understand it. As always, I turned to the writers.
This morning, at Riverside Church for the New York City memorial for Troy Anthony Davis who was executed by the State of Georgia on September 21st 2011, I, as a much, much older woman, was looking for that anger all over again.
Now, the Mister and I are not the slogan-emblazoned T-shirt wearing type. Maybe because I am always trying hard not to draw attention to myself because I write stories and I can better hear another’s story when they are not focused on me. I attend demonstrations with my camera and notebook, and try to find those photographs that aren’t intrusive yet still tell the story. I want to listen. I want to see. The Mister is a Brit so his reluctance is self-explanatory. But today we put on the t-shirt. On a field of Black, the white type stated: we will not be silent.
Within moments of arriving at Riverside Church, which is on the upper Westside of Manhattan just above Columbia University, a gentleman, an African American man, approached. “Hey, I love your shirts!” We told him we got them at the ongoing Occupy Wall Street demonstration we had been to the day before. His name was Clarence. It was early and the South Hall where the memorial was to be held was still filling up. Immediately we three launched into a spirited take on current events and the obvious issue of the death penalty, like old friends and not three people who only ten minutes before were strangers. Of course we talked about the dismal state of journalism, and Clarence referenced the New York Times: “A bunch of overpaid stenographers,” he chortled. He was less delicate about his feeling for our president. Clarence won’t be wearing a spangled t-shirt any time soon. His eyes grew brighter when he spotted someone he called ‘a hero.’ Democratic State Senator Bill Perkins from Harlem shook Clarence’s hand warmly, they spoke awhile and the senator promised to catch up with Clarence afterward. Clarence told us that Senator Perkins was one of the reasons we did not have a death penalty in New York State, something for which I am deeply grateful.
Lee Wengraf, from the Campaign To End the Death Penalty began the program. I met Lee some time ago when I was attending the NYC chapter of CEDP’s book club. I learned a lot in that time, eager to read books about the men and women facing this heinous institution, the truth about the prison industrial complex and its stranglehold on justice in this country. I met those who have been exonerated from death row, and heard them talk about their experience. I witnessed their continuing support to end capital punishment. Through one route or another I came to the struggle of a certain Robert Will on Texas Death Row. I volunteered to type his handwritten updates from the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas. I sent him the books he requested. Soon we were writing more personal letters to each other about books and art and music and about day-to-day life in New York for The Mister and me. It was good to see Lee again today. When I told her about my connection with Rob she said, “That is a very important case.”
I started to write that this isn’t meant to be about Rob, it’s about Troy. But it is about Rob. It’s so certainly about Rob that I feel Troy Anthony Davis would agree with me.
I listened to the speakers in South Hall, each following the other, adhering to the time limit imposed for the brief hour that the hall was available. Lee read a statement from Martina Correia, Troy Davis’s sister and his unflagging support. We heard a representative from the Campaign To End the New Jim Crow tell us, “We have to take responsibility for where our country is going.” Reverend Phelps, senior minister at Riverside Church, stated baldly that “…a great evil has been committed in this nation.” The core message of a faith that animated him is that we have no fear of death. Why then he asked, do we think killing is the worst thing we can do to a person? And then he asked the question: “Haven’t we been here before?”
The audience murmured their assent. Yes, yes, and yes.
Yusef Salaam, who in 1989 was one of a group of young men falsely accused and wrongly jailed for a crime that is so famous it needs no retelling. I remember it as if it was yesterday. I can’t imagine how a man like Yusef Salaam can ever forget it, put it behind him. But when I have heard him speak before and when I listened again this morning I had an inkling of that in his poise, his grace, his well-spoken demeanor. “Are we just another painting,” he asked, “or are we a masterpiece?”
One after another, each speaker rose to impart something meaningful, something personal. How in the African tradition, the loved one is honored as an ancestor but we must also pick up their struggle and fight their fight. We heard that we can crush the system that buried Troy Anthony Davis.
But I didn’t hear anger until a young woman rose to the lectern. Asia Dorsey is student and organizer at NYU. She wobbled a bit in her delivery, so clearly was she moved. But the anger was there. “Mr. President,” she demanded, “One of ours was murdered. We have been hurt!” And then she said the words that have been on the minds of so many of us: “Mr. President, where were you?” People around us quietly repeated: “Again. Say it again.” Later The Mister suggested there needed to be more from her, but, like the other speakers, her time was limited. “It is not okay to kill somebody,” she continued in a less wavering voice. And she left us with the admonition that a generation has been galvanized, something we witnessed the day before at Liberty Square, beneath the ever rising Freedom Tower at Ground Zero.
The singer, songwriter Karen Taylor delivered a beautiful and moving rendition of “Motherless Child.” During her performance hammering came from somewhere, an insistent tapping sound that I wanted to imagine was Troy letting us know he was listening.
Kenyon Farrow from the Center For Gay and Lesbian Studies told us that to come to accept being black and innocent is an oxymoron on the planet in which we live. His remarks in full can be found here.
A young woman representing the New York chapter of Amnesty International said, through tears, that though she had thought long and hard about what she was going to say today, it wasn’t until the train ride to the church that she found the words, the beautiful words that said she had never met a woman who walks more like a warrior in the footsteps of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth than Troy’s sister Martina.
A man named Jazz, a long time activist said, “You can’t unring a bell.” He told us we have to address this question of mass incarceration that turns our communities into open-air prisons. “I am Troy Davis! We are Troy Davis. This is our battle cry going forward.”
I thought of my father, beaten by the system in which he had put so much blind faith. I am still his daughter. I thought of my friend Rob Will who sits on Texas Death Row, unbeaten and fighting every moment of his existence to prove his innocence. I am still his friend. I left Troy Davis’s memorial with these parting words: “You cannot unring a bell. But you can stop it from being rung again.”
One of the speakers today was Brian Jones. He is an actor, activist and teacher. When once given the opportunity to speak with Troy on the telephone his initial reaction was: “What do you say to a man in a cage?”
We say: “We will not be silent.”
Please go to these links to learn more about Robert G. Will. You won’t be disappointed and may even become a supporter: