On September 21, 2011, thousands masked themselves with the face of a convicted cop killer and set the face of someone who pistol-whipped a homeless man as their profile pictures. The words, "I am Troy Davis," were on all their lips. I am as guilty of it as anyone—those desperate, deceptive acts of liminal solidarity. When Troy Davis died at the hands of his government for a crime he may not have committed, what else was there to do but speak the same shibboleth?
Davis was sentenced to death in 1991. He was executed by the state of Georgia twenty years later. "Davis spent half of his life on death row," Roxane Gay writes at the Rumpus—"spent that half-life knowing he was on a slow, agonizing march to an unrelenting end." In August of 2010 at his last best hope for a reprieve, he presented affidavits from seven witnesses who spoke at his original trial. Those seven had all, at least in part, recanted their testimony. The judge ripped them apart, calling their disavowals incredible or immaterial or both. The defense's case, he said, was "smoke and mirrors."
"We are not Troy Davis," Gay writes. "Saying it a hundred thousand times could not ever make it so." No, we are not Troy Davis. How could we be? Most of us aren't black men caught in a system that, according to the GAO, is most likely to punish killers of white victims with a charge of the death penalty. Most of us didn't have a last meal to refuse. Most of us weren't trussed up and injected with pet tranquilizer.
No, we are not Troy Davis. But we wanted to be. I'm still not sure why. If you believe the worst about the radical left, then the Troy Davis phenomenon isn't so curious. Don't we leftists make our bones with impotent expressions of solidarity with the vulnerable? And who could be more vulnerable than a black man on death row? And what could be more impotent that shouting "I am Troy Davis" in the face of our monolithic criminal justice system? This crude hypothesis might explain why the editorial board of the Nation was all-to-happy to wear a Troy Davis mask. It doesn't, however, explain the breadth of the movement, nor does it explain the youthfulness of the outcry. It doesn't explain the likes of Sean "Diddy" Combs adding his voice to the clamor. No, there was something more at work.
For most of us, the gears and machinations of the criminal justice system remain hidden. The rose-colored lens of Cops and Law and Order obscures what little sees the light of day. But Troy Davis revealed the violence, the sickness, in our system. Some organ of our representative body wasn’t behaving as it should. A cancer had grown and taken hold, and now it wasn't working right. Our anger was the anger of betrayal and bewilderment and there was, really, nothing we could have done. Bodies don't respond to vigils, and graffiti doesn't change a judge's mind. So, why were we so desperate to be Troy Davis?
Ambient intimacy, Gay calls it. It's the "connectedness we feel when we participate in social networks." It's acquaintances from high school, celebrities you wouldn't expect, second cousins removed a few times. Something about the days leading up to the execution of Troy Davis made that ambiance intimate. They were all speaking together—we were all speaking together, and we were all Troy Davis.
In that brief moment of communion, we felt that maybe, just maybe, we could challenge fate. Maybe if 100,000 people like this group, Troy Davis wouldn't be executed, and we could go back to seeing the world through the eyes of police procedurals. That's still an option, I suppose. Ignorance, even when it's the cover-your-eyes-and-scream ignorance of children, is still bliss—for a time. "We do not suffer from a lack of knowledge," Gay tells me. "We are not Troy Davis. We are not innocent."