Panelists talk race, justice at ‘I am Troy Davis’ event
Published: Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, October 25, 2011 04:10
A panel discussion Wednesday began as a conversation about the Troy Davis execution and its larger societal implications, but soon erupted into a broad debate about race, educational inequality and the criminal justice system.
Junior Brooklynn Hitchens, a black panelist who helped organize the discussion, said the Troy Davis case is relevant to university students.
"As a student at UD, this case connects to the problems that we face on a predominately white campus, such as racial profiling and the random acts of racism that some of us experience," Hitchens said. "I feel like our people are perishing at the hands of an unjust and racist criminal justice system."
The student-organized panel discussion, titled "I am Troy Davis: A Call for Social Justice in the New Jim Crow Era" and held in the Trabant University Center, was attended by more than 100 people.
Davis was sentenced to death on Aug. 28, 1991, after he was convicted of murdering Savannah, Ga. police officer Mark MacPhail. MacPhail was working a second job as a security guard when he saw a homeless man being accosted by several black men, and was fatally shot while attempting to approach the scene.
Many eyewitnesses initially accused Davis of the murder. Over the years, several witnesses recanted their original testimonies in sworn statements, arguing that police coerced them into their original accounts of the murder.
Although Davis received stays or postponements for his death by the Georgia state parole board in 2007 and the Supreme Court in 2008, no courts were willing to reopen the case, arguing there was not enough new evidence.
As his Sept. 21 execution date neared last month, a petition delivered to the parole board with 660,000 signatures pleaded to grant Davis clemency. The signatures included former President Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The parole board rejected clemency for Davis on Sept. 20, and he was declared dead after a lethal injection the next day.
Wednesday's event at Trabant began with a performance by SPIT (Stimulating Prose, Ideas and Theories), a three-student slam poetry performance group. The last phrase of their performance echoed the panel's title.
"I am Troy Davis and we are free," SPIT performers said in unison.
Panelist Brian Starks, 39, a Ph.D. candidate studying criminology, believes the criminal justice system is prejudiced.
"We need to put our own criminal justice system on trial," Starks said in his opening remarks.
Erin Kerrison, a graduate student in the sociology department, said the Davis case was not an isolated event.
"I am concerned with people's inability to identify with Troy Davis," Kerrison said. "He's not an anomaly. And what's scarier is that what happened with Troy Davis is not exceptional. It can and will happen again."
As the discussion continued, the focus shifted away from Davis and towards problems faced by black Americans today. Sociology professor Ben Fleury-Steiner related inner-city urban living to a form of "apartheid," a policy heavily based on racial discrimination.
"The bottom line is, when we look at the criminal justice system in America, it's no longer an institution in the lens of social justice or racial justice," Fleury-Steiner said in his opening remarks. "[It has] become an institution of oppression."
He cited incarceration statistics for evidence. According to Fleury-Steiner, before 1950, the imprisoned population in America remained level near 200,000. Since 1980, there have been 2.3 million people in jail, with the black imprisoned population representing three times its per capita population in society.
Starks said the inadequate education black youths receive sets them up to become criminals and, later, prisoners.
"The disproportion of representation of minorities in the prison system has always, always been an issue," he said.
History and black American studies professor Erik McDuffie moderated the panel discussion and the question and answer session held afterward. He ended the discussion with closing remarks about the power of individuals, noting that students organized the event.
"The power that students have to change the world—I hope that's what students took away from this event," McDuffie said. "I think what this panel was asking folks to do was to ask the questions that nobody wants to ask."
In his closing remarks, McDuffie also spoke against the necessity of prisons, calling the prison system a form of terrorism. He said prisons are about social control, targeting populations that are vulnerable and perceived as dangerous.
"Why do we even have prisons?" he asked.
When asked afterward if the comment should be taken literally, he said. "Absolutely."