Rutgers historian William Jelani Cobb was outside of the prison, last night, where Troy Davis was held and executed. He filed this report while bearing "witness to a great evil." Jelani has guest-posted here before. We're always happy to have him back offering his unique mix of politics, history and on-site reporting.
(Erik S. Lesser / AFP-Getty Images / September 21, 2011)
JACKSON, Georgia -- The Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison sits a quarter mile off Interstate 75 in Jackson, just outside the commuter suburbs of Atlanta. The technical name for the place obscures its most notorious function: it houses the death chamber for the state's executions. Last night, for more than seven hours, hundreds of people prayed, chanted, sang, hoped and shouted in front of that building in a vain effort to prevent the state of Georgia from extinguishing the life of Troy Davis.
A trickle of people began showing up outside the prison in the late afternoon. By 5 p.m. they had grown to about 200 and been cordoned off by police tape in front of a truck stop across from the prison. A knot of organizers from Amnesty International unfurled a huge banner saying "Free Troy Davis" and another set of activists held a sign saying we had returned to the days of the Scottsboro Nine. A principal came out with several of his elementary school students and a busload of students poured in from Spelman and Morehouse Colleges. But the largest group was from Al Sharpton's National Action Network -- at least thirty of whom had driven up from Savannah, where the murder of Mark McPhail took place. They set about coordinating the chants, moving people with signs to the forefront so that passersby could see exactly what we were protesting and generally keeping the protests going.
Initially the police outside the prison were unfazed by our presence, relaxed enough to be polite. But that changed as we drew closer to the scheduled hour of the execution. At about 6 p.m., local law enforcement, sheriffs, SWAT teams and state troopers began putting on riot gear. Over the course of the next hour they moved closer and closer to the protesters with their batons in hand. For their part they may have hoped that their show of force would prevent things from getting out of control but the reality is that it appeared that they wanted to instigate violence. It was impossible not to realize that from their perspective, we were praying for a man who had gunned down their fellow officer.
By 6:30 the crowd numbered at least 500 people. We spilled past the tape and onto the grassy barrier between the truck stop and Prison Boulevard where the facility is located. Trucks pulled in and out of the station began honking their horn in support of Troy Davis's cause.
But what was most surprising and disturbing is that the group was more than 90% black. For all the discussion about the implications of the death penalty for the country at large this broke down, as always, to an issue of race and black people would have to do the heavy lifting if any change were going to occur. The racial balance skewed so heavily that when a young white couple sat down on the grass next to me I asked them what organization they were with. The woman reply hit me hard: "We're not with an organization. I know Troy Davis -- my brother is on death row with him."
By 7 p.m. people nearly everyone there was crying or praying or both, imploring God to save Troy Davis's soul if he would not save his life. In the midst of this I realized that there were no counter-protests. Later I learned there were a few. But still I saw no crowds gathered to voice their support for what was happening inside that prison. This was a small grace but it was also possibly because few believed that Davis' fate was ever in doubt. And they had no reason to.
Georgia's criminal justice system is a microcosm for the kind of racial disparities that plague the entire country. Blacks are 30.5% of the state's population but make up 61% of Georgia's prisoners. A few years back the state legislature, in the name of getting tough on crime, passed a bill that created draconian penalties and allowed juveniles to be charged as adults for a wide array of crimes, including simple robbery, which would normally be handled by a juvenile court. The legislation was so poorly written that in the state if a 14 year old and a 35 year old rob a liquor store together, the teenager can - and in some instances has -- received a sentence longer than that of the adult. It can go without saying that these laws have disproportionately impacted black youth.
Both the state legislature and the governorship are firmly in the hands of the GOP and, though the newly elected Nathan Deal remains the subject of a federal corruption probe, no Democrat has stood a chance of becoming governor since Roy Barnes was turned out of office for opposing the Confederate flag nearly a decade ago. This is Georgia in the 21st century, the state that claimed, despite recantations, police coercion, contrary evidence and the lack of physical evidence, that it was certain beyond a reasonable doubt that Troy Davis was responsible for the death of Mark McPhail and that he should die for it.
The sobs of the mourning crowd were punctured by shouts when we heard that the Supreme Court had stepped in to review the case. The reality is that this crowd, predominantly African American, many battle-wearied activists, still believed that this execution simply could not happen. For hours, their energy and commitment unflagging, people beat drums, held candles and sang civil rights songs. And here lies the paradox: even as people most intimately aware of the failings of this country, so many of us subscribed to a faith that justice would prevail that when we received word of the court's refusal to grant a stay the reaction was stunned disbelief.
The feeling, as I stood in front of the truck stop in the middle of the night, was that we were witness to a great evil -- not solely the taking of what may well have been an innocent life, but also in the false certainty that sought to sell this killing as justice. When word came at 11:08 p.m. that Troy Davis was no more, women began wailing; several of them fell to the ground heaving inconsolably. A few men offered stumbling, meandering prayers that some good might come of this, that it would inspire some greater reckoning with the arbitrary, corrupted realities of capital punishment in this country.
And I, at that point, thought about my father, a native of Hazlehurst, Georgia who had abandoned his home state for New York in 1941. He lived the remainder of his life there, firm in his belief that a black man's life was seen as worthless in Georgia. I grew up hearing the stories of the sadistic violence that was commonplace there, about a black women he'd known growing up who was raped and tortured by white men who went unpunished. I moved to Georgia in 2001, secure in my belief that the place had changed, that our efforts had yielded success and the stories my father told me were now consigned to the horror closets of history.
But last night, progress, hopes and a black presidency be damned, the state of Georgia had the last word. And they were determined to prove the old man right.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Maya Arulpragasam is a famous rapper, singer, designer, producer, and refugee. When she was 9, her mother and siblings fled violence in Sri Lanka and came to London, and the experience was formative for her art. As she explained to The Guardian in 2005 after the release of her debut Arular, “I was a refugee because of war and now I have a voice in a time when war is the most invested thing on the planet. What I thought I should do with this record is make every refugee kid that came over after me have something to feel good about. Take everybody’s bad bits and say, ‘Actually, they’re good bits. Now whatcha gonna do?’”
That goal—to glorify people and practices that the developed world marginalizes—has been a constant in her career. Her new music video tackles it in a particularly literal and urgent way, not only by showing solidarity with refugees at a moment when they’re extremely controversial in the West, but also by posing a simple question to listeners: Whose lives do you value?
Without the financial support that many white families can provide, minority young people have to continually make sacrifices that set them back.
The year after my father died, I graduated from grad school, got a new job, and looked forward to saving for a down payment on my first home, a dream I had always had, but found lofty. I pulled up a blank spreadsheet and made a line item called “House Fund.”
That same week I got a call from my mom—she was struggling to pay off my dad’s funeral expenses. I looked at my “House Fund” and sighed. Then I deleted it and typed the words “Funeral Fund” instead.
My father’s passing was unexpected. And so was the financial burden that came with it.
For many Millennials of color, these sorts of trade-offs aren’t an anomaly. During key times in their lives when they should be building assets, they’re spending money on basic necessities and often helping out family. Their financial future is a rocky one, and much of it comes down to how much—or how little—assistance they receive.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
The generation has been called lazy, entitled, and narcissistic. Their bosses beg to differ.
Yes, many Millennials are still crashing on their parent’s couches. And there’s data to support the claim that they generally want more perks but less face time, and that they hope to rise quickly but don’t stick around for very long. Millennials have also been pretty vocal about their desire to have more flexible jobs and more leave time.
But does all of this mean that all Millennials are actually worse workers?
Laura Olin, a digital campaigner who ran social-media strategy for President Obama’s 2012 campaign, says that’s not been her experience. “You always hear about Millennials supposedly being entitled and needing coddling, but the ones I’ve encountered have been incredibly hard-working and recognize that they need to pay their dues.”
To solve climate change, we need to reimagine our entire relationship to the nonhuman world.
Humans were once a fairly average species of large mammals, living off the land with little effect on it. But in recent millennia, our relationship with the natural world has changed as dramatically as our perception of it.
There are now more than 7 billion people on this planet, drinking its water, eating its plants and animals, and mining its raw materials to build and power our tools. These everyday activities might seem trivial from the perspective of any one individual, but aggregated together they promise to leave lasting imprints on the Earth. Human power is now geological in scope—and if we are to avoid making a mess of this, our only home, our politics must catch up.
Making this shift will require a radical change in how we think about our relationship to the natural world. That may sound like cause for despair. After all, many people refuse to admit that environmental crises like climate change exist at all. But as Jedediah Purdy reminds us in his dazzling new book, After Nature, our relationship with the nonhuman world has proved flexible over time. People have imagined nature in a great many ways across history.
Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and other presidential contenders appease Donald Trump at their own peril.
Give Donald Trump this: He has taught Americans something about the candidates he’s running against. He has exposed many of them as political cowards.
In August, after Trump called undocumented Mexican immigrants “rapists” and vowed to build a wall along America’s southern border, Jeb Bush traveled to South Texas to respond. Bush’s wife is Mexican American; he has said he’s “immersed in the immigrant experience”; he has even claimed to be Hispanic himself. Yet he didn’t call Trump’s proposals immoral or bigoted, since that might offend Trump’s nativist base. Instead, Bush declared: “Mr. Trump’s plans are not grounded in conservative principles. His proposal is unrealistic. It would cost hundreds of billions of dollars.” In other words, demonizing and rounding up undocumented Mexican immigrants is fine, so long as it’s done cheap.
While Saint Nicholas may bring gifts to good boys and girls, ancient folklore in Europe's Alpine region also tells of Krampus, a frightening beast-like creature who emerges during the Yule season, looking for naughty children to punish in horrible ways—or possibly to drag back to his lair in a sack.
While Saint Nicholas may bring gifts to good boys and girls, ancient folklore in Europe's Alpine region also tells of Krampus, a frightening beast-like creature who emerges during the Yule season, looking for naughty children to punish in horrible ways—or possibly to drag back to his lair in a sack. In keeping with pre-Germanic Pagan traditions, men dressed as these demons have been frightening children on Krampusnacht for centuries, chasing them and hitting them with sticks, on an (often alcohol-fueled) run through the dark streets.
Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?
The air shrieks, and life stops. First, from far away, comes a high whine like angry insects swarming, and then a trampling, like a herd moving through. The kids on their bikes who pass by the Caltrain crossing are eager to get home from school, but they know the drill. Brake. Wait for the train to pass. Five cars, double-decker, tearing past at 50 miles an hour. Too fast to see the faces of the Silicon Valley commuters on board, only a long silver thing with black teeth. A Caltrain coming into a station slows, invites you in. But a Caltrain at a crossing registers more like an ambulance, warning you fiercely out of its way.
The kids wait until the passing train forces a gust you can feel on your skin. The alarms ring and the red lights flash for a few seconds more, just in case. Then the gate lifts up, signaling that it’s safe to cross. All at once life revives: a rush of bikes, skateboards, helmets, backpacks, basketball shorts, boisterous conversation. “Ew, how old is that gum?” “The quiz is next week, dipshit.” On the road, a minivan makes a left a little too fast—nothing ominous, just a mom late for pickup. The air is again still, like it usually is in spring in Palo Alto. A woodpecker does its work nearby. A bee goes in search of jasmine, stinging no one.
What I learned from attending a town-hall meeting and listening to students’ concerns
Sometimes it takes a group of young people to set you straight.
For months now, I’ve been reading about college students who’ve been seeking “safe spaces.” They’ve often been met by derision—even the highest ranked Urban Dictionary definition is mired in sarcasm, describing them as having “pillows” and “soothing music” that “allows them to recover from the trauma... of exposure to ideas that conflict with their leftist professors.”
I also had some mid-life skepticism about teenage hyperbole, that is, until I attended a town hall meeting at Duke University (my alma mater) earlier this month. The “community conversation,” as it was called, had been hastily convened to discuss the rash of racist and homophobic incidents on campus. Listening to those students—and watching their expressions—I realized that what’s been happening at Duke is serious, and no amount of sarcasm can disguise the pain and anger on campus, or cover up the real dangers lurking there.