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.
Today’s empires are born on the web, and exert tremendous power in the material world.
Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t had the best week.
First, Facebook’s Free Basics platform was effectively banned in India. Then, a high-profile member of Facebook’s board of directors, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, sounded off about the decision to his nearly half-a-million Twitter followers with a stunning comment.
“Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades,” Andreessen wrote. “Why stop now?”
After that, the Internet went nuts.
Andreessen deleted his tweet, apologized, and underscored that he is “100 percent opposed to colonialism” and “100 percent in favor of independence and freedom.” Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, followed up with his own Facebook post to say Andreessen’s comment was “deeply upsetting” to him, and not representative of the way he thinks “at all.”
Einstein’s gravitational waves rest on a genuinely radical idea.
After decades of anticipation, we have directly detected gravitational waves—ripples in spacetime traveling at the speed of light through the universe. Scientists at LIGO (the Laser Interferometic Gravitational-wave Observatory) have announced that they have measured waves coming from the inspiral of two massive black holes, providing a spectacular confirmation of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, whose hundredth anniversary was celebrated just last year.
Finding gravitational waves indicates that Einstein was (once again) right, and opens a new window onto energetic events occurring around the universe. But there’s a deeper lesson, as well: a reminder of the central importance of locality, an idea that underlies much of modern physics.
The revolution that ended the reign of beards occurred on September 30, 331 b.c., as Alexander the Great prepared for a decisive showdown with the Persian emperor for control of Asia. On that day, he ordered his men to shave. Yet from time immemorial in Greek culture, a smooth chin on a grown man had been taken as a sign of effeminacy or degeneracy. What can explain this unprecedented command? When the commander Parmenio asked the reason, according to the ancient historian Plutarch, Alexander replied, “Don’t you know that in battles there is nothing handier to grasp than a beard?” But there is ample cause to doubt Plutarch’s explanation. Stories of beard-pulling in battles were myth rather than history. Plutarch and later historians misunderstood the order because they neglected the most relevant fact, namely that Alexander had dared to do what no self-respecting Greek leader had ever done before: shave his face, likening himself to the demigod Heracles, rendered in painting and sculpture in the immortal splendor of youthful, beardless nudity. Alexander wished above all, as he told his generals before the battle, that each man would see himself as a crucial part of the mission. They would certainly see this more clearly if each of them looked more like their heroic commander.
Ben Stiller’s follow-up to his own comedy classic is a downright bummer, no matter how many celebrity cameos it tries to cram in.
You don’t need to go to the theater to get the full experience of Zoolander 2. Simply get your hands on a copy of the original, watch it, and then yell a bunch of unfunny topical lines every time somebody tells a joke. That’s how it feels to watch Ben Stiller’s sequel to his 2001 spoof of the fashion industry: Zoolander 2 takes pains to reference every successful gag you remember from the original, and then embellish them in painful—often offensive, almost always outdated—fashion. It’s a film that has no real reason to exist, and it spends its entire running time reaffirming that fact.
The original Zoolander, to be fair, had no business being as funny as it was—it made fun of an industry that already seems to exist in a constant state of self-parody, and much of its humor relied on simple malapropisms and sight gags. But it was hilarious anyway as a candid snapshot of the fizzling-out of ’90s culture. Like almost any zeitgeist comedy, it belonged to a particular moment—and boy, should it have stayed there. With Zoolander 2, Stiller (who directed, co-wrote, and stars) tries to recapture the magic of 2001 by referencing its past glories with increasing desperation, perhaps to avoid the fact that he has nothing new to say about the fashion industry or celebrity culture 15 years laters.
When four American women were murdered during El Salvador’s dirty war, a young U.S. official and his unlikely partner risked their lives to solve the case.
On December 1, 1980, two American Catholic churchwomen—an Ursuline nun and a lay missionary—sat down to dinner with Robert White, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador. They worked in rural areas ministering to El Salvador’s desperately impoverished peasants, and White admired their commitment and courage. The talk turned to the government’s brutal tactics for fighting the country’s left-wing guerrillas, in a dirty war waged by death squads that dumped bodies in the streets and an army that massacred civilians. The women were alarmed by the incoming Reagan administration’s plans for a closer relationship with the military-led government. Because of a curfew, the women spent the night at the ambassador’s residence. The next day, after breakfast with the ambassador’s wife, they drove to San Salvador’s international airport to pick up two colleagues who were flying back from a conference in Nicaragua. Within hours, all four women would be dead.
Most people know how to help someone with a cut or a scrape. But what about a panic attack?
Here’s a thought experiment: You’re walking down the street with a friend when your companion falls and gashes her leg on the concrete. It’s bleeding; she’s in pain. It’s clear she’s going to need stitches. What do you do?
This one isn’t exactly a head-scratcher. You'd probably attempt to offer some sort of first-aid assistance until the bleeding stopped, or until she could get to medical help. Maybe you happen to have a Band-Aid on you, or a tissue to help her clean the wound, or a water bottle she can use to rinse it off. Maybe you pick her up and help her hobble towards transportation, or take her where she needs to go.
Here’s a harder one: What if, instead of an injured leg, that same friend has a panic attack?
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.
Why the Syrian war—and the future of Europe—may hinge on one city
This week, the Syrian army, backed by Russian air strikes and Iranian-supported militias including Hezbollah, launched a major offensive to encircle rebel strongholds in the northern city of Aleppo, choking off one of the last two secure routes connecting the city to Turkey and closing in on the second. This would cut supplies not only to a core of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but also to the city’s 300,000 remaining civilians, who may soon find themselves besieged like hundreds of thousands of others in the country. In response, 50,000 civilians have fled Aleppo for the Turkish border, where the border crossing is currently closed. An unnamed U.S. defense official toldThe Daily Beast’s Nancy Youssef that “the war is essentially over” if Assad manages to seize and hold Aleppo.
A robotic road safety worker in India, a sacrificial llama in Bolivia, a sea otter receives a valentine, a deadly earthquake in Taiwan, a leopard attack in India, and much more.
A murmuration of starlings over Israel, a robotic road safety worker in India, a sacrificial llama in Bolivia, border barriers between Tunisia and Libya, a sea otter receives a valentine, a deadly earthquake in Taiwan, the annual Shrovetide football match in England, a leopard attack in India, and much more.
After getting shut down late last year, a website that allows free access to paywalled academic papers has sprung back up in a shadowy corner of the Internet.
There’s a battle raging over whether academic research should be free, and it’s overflowing into the dark web.
Most modern scholarly work remains locked behind paywalls, and unless your computer is on the network of a university with an expensive subscription, you have to pay a fee, often around 30 dollars, to access each paper.
Many scholars say this system makes publishers rich—Elsevier, a company that controls access to more than 2,000 journals, has a market capitalization about equal to that of Delta Airlines—but does not benefit the academics that conducted the research, or the public at large. Others worry that free academic journals would have a hard time upholding the rigorous standards and peer reviews that the most prestigious paid journals are famous for.