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.
A hotly contested, supposedly ancient manuscript suggests Christ was married. But believing its origin story—a real-life Da Vinci Code, involving a Harvard professor, a onetime Florida pornographer, and an escape from East Germany—requires a big leap of faith.
On a humid afternoon this past November, I pulled off Interstate 75 into a stretch of Florida pine forest tangled with runaway vines. My GPS was homing in on the house of a man I thought might hold the master key to one of the strangest scholarly mysteries in recent decades: a 1,300-year-old scrap of papyrus that bore the phrase “Jesus said to them, My wife.” The fragment, written in the ancient language of Coptic, had set off shock waves when an eminent Harvard historian of early Christianity, Karen L. King, presented it in September 2012 at a conference in Rome.
Never before had an ancient manuscript alluded to Jesus’s being married. The papyrus’s lines were incomplete, but they seemed to describe a dialogue between Jesus and the apostles over whether his “wife”—possibly Mary Magdalene—was “worthy” of discipleship. Its main point, King argued, was that “women who are wives and mothers can be Jesus’s disciples.” She thought the passage likely figured into ancient debates over whether “marriage or celibacy [was] the ideal mode of Christian life” and, ultimately, whether a person could be both sexual and holy.
A new survey suggests the logistics of going to services can be the biggest barrier to participation—and Americans’ faith in religious institutions is declining.
The standard narrative of American religious decline goes something like this: A few hundred years ago, European and American intellectuals began doubting the validity of God as an explanatory mechanism for natural life. As science became a more widely accepted method for investigating and understanding the physical world, religion became a less viable way of thinking—not just about medicine and mechanics, but also culture and politics and economics and every other sphere of public life. As the United States became more secular, people slowly began drifting away from faith.
Of course, this tale is not just reductive—it’s arguably inaccurate, in that it seems to capture neither the reasons nor the reality behind contemporary American belief. For one thing, the U.S. is still overwhelmingly religious, despite years of predictions about religion’s demise. A significant number of people who don’t identify with any particular faith group still say they believe in God, and roughly 40 percent pray daily or weekly. While there have been changes in this kind of private belief and practice, the most significant shift has been in the way people publicly practice their faith: Americans, and particularly young Americans, are less likely to attend services or identify with a religious group than they have at any time in recent memory.
Polling within the margin of error among African Americans, the Republican tries new outreach—but his approach seems doomed to failure.
Although Donald Trump has long claimed to “have a great relationship with the blacks,” the polls tell a different story, with Trump frequently polling in the single digits among black voters. Over the last few days, the Republican nominee has added a new passage to his stump speech, reaching out to the African American community.
Our government has totally failed our African American friends, our Hispanic friends and the people of our country. Period. The Democrats have failed completely in the inner cities. For those hurting the most who have been failed and failed by their politicians—year after year, failure after failure, worse numbers after worse numbers. Poverty. Rejection. Horrible education. No housing, no homes, no ownership. Crime at levels that nobody has seen. You can go to war zones in countries that we are fighting and it's safer than living in some of our inner cities that are run by the Democrats. And I ask you this, I ask you this—crime, all of the problems—to the African Americans, who I employ so many, so many people, to the Hispanics, tremendous people: What the hell do you have to lose? Give me a chance. I'll straighten it out. I'll straighten it out. What do you have to lose?
Most corporations try to make a profit by limiting costs. Movies corporations manage to record a loss by maximizing fees to their studios
Here is an amazing glimpse into the dark side of the force that is Hollywood economics. The actor who played Darth Vader still has not received residuals from the 1983 film "Return of the Jedi" because the movie, which ranks 15th in U.S. box office history, still has no technical profits to distribute.
How can a movie that grossed $475 million on a $32 million budget not turn a profit? It comes down to Tinseltown accounting. As Planet Money explained in an interview with Edward Jay Epstein in 2010, studios typically set up a separate "corporation" for each movie they produce. Like any company, it calculates profits by subtracting expenses from revenues. Erase any possible profit, the studio charges this "movie corporation" a big fee that overshadows the film's revenue. For accounting purposes, the movie is a
money "loser" and there are no profits to distribute.
Has the vice president made a lasting contribution in foreign policy?
Joe Biden is now the vice president who will not be president. He’s been VP for seven and a half years, preceded by decades of work on U.S. foreign policy in the Senate, but the question remains whether he is distinctive in any memorable way for his work in international affairs. Was he simply a glad-handing flack pushing the Obama agenda, a manic schmoozer of foreign leaders? A gaffe-prone foreign-policy dilettante who, in the long run, won’t matter?
Biden puts some people off. His critics argue that despite his passion for worthy causes—from efforts to stabilize Iraq to the “cancer moonshot” to his task force devoted to “a strong middle class”—his bouts of imprecision and occasional foot-in-mouth foibles get in the way. An adviser to retired General Stanley McChrystal reportedly referred to Biden as “Bite Me.” Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates wrote in his memoir, Duty, that Biden has been “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
Two decades ago, Osama bin Laden officially launched al-Qaeda’s struggle against the United States. Neither side has won.
Exactly two decades ago, on August 23, 1996, Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States. At the time, few people paid much attention. But it was the start of what’s now the Twenty Years’ War between the United States and al-Qaeda—a conflict that both sides have ultimately lost.
During the 1980s, bin Laden fought alongside the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. After the Soviets withdrew, he went home to Saudi Arabia, then moved to Sudan before being expelled and returning to Afghanistan in 1996 to live under Taliban protection. Within a few months of his arrival, he issued a 30-page fatwa, “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” which was published in a London-based newspaper, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, and faxed to supporters around the world. It was bin Laden’s first public call for a global jihad against the United States. In a rambling text, bin Laden opined on Islamic history, celebrated recent attacks against U.S. forces in Lebanon and Somalia, and recounted a multitude of grievances against the United States, Israel, and their allies. “The people of Islam had suffered from aggression, iniquity and injustice imposed on them by the Jewish-Christian alliance and their collaborators,” he wrote.
We’ve been flying around the country for the last three years, visiting dozens of towns that are reinventing themselves after some kind of big economic or demographic change. I have also, in a way, matched those flights stroke by stroke in America’s public swimming pools. On our first day on the ground in any town, I search for a public pool. I started swimming around the country as a way to maintain some sense of normal in my physical activity after all that flying. And then I came to appreciate it as another window into the culture and spirit of the towns we visited. I wish Ryan Lochte could share some of my experience.
Like much of America—and I’m betting most of the many hundreds of kids I have seen swimming in pools around the nation, too—I was glued to the Olympic swimming events. Katie Ledecky, Maya DiRado, Michael Phelps, truth-teller Lilly King. And then, enter Ryan Lochte.
Poor white Americans’ current crisis shouldn’t have caught the rest of the country as off guard as it has.
Sometime during the past few years, the country started talking differently about white Americans of modest means. Early in the Obama era, the ennobling language of campaign pundits prevailed. There was much discussion of “white working-class voters,” with whom the Democrats, and especially Barack Obama, were having such trouble connecting. Never mind that this overbroad category of Americans—the exit pollsters’ definition was anyone without a four-year college degree, or more than a third of the electorate—obliterated major differences in geography, ethnicity, and culture. The label served to conjure a vast swath of salt-of-the-earth citizens living and working in the wide-open spaces between the coasts—Sarah Palin’s “real America”—who were dubious of the effete, hifalutin types increasingly dominating the party that had once purported to represent the common man. The “white working class” connoted virtue and integrity. A party losing touch with it was a party unmoored.
Intensely emotional and uncompromising, the singer’s long-awaited new album meditates on the passage of time.
Frank Ocean is still thinking about forever. One of his two new albums is called Endless, even though its songs all seem to end too soon. The more significant release, called either Blonde or Blond depending on where you acquire it, repeatedly laments nights, season, and years that can never be retrieved. The first time his unadorned vocals appear on that album, Ocean sings, “We'll let you guys prophesy / We gon' see the future first.” The line comes across as a challenge to get on his level and unhitch from the present—a necessary step before accessing the deep pleasures of his uncompromising new music.
Ocean’s obsession with time has been well-documented by now. His 2011 debut had the self-explanatory title Nostalgia, Ultra and his 2012 breakout, Channel Orange, was inspired by a teenage summer that, he said, seemed “orange.” He’s like the memory machine in Pixar’s Inside Out, processing the past into gemlike objects that can be sorted by visual cue and emotional essence. The blonds and blondes of Blond(e) are, on one level of interpretation, ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends. He references car models—Acuras, Ferraris, X6s—as shorthand for life phases. And on the luminous new track “Ivy,” he describes a callous breakup but keeps saying that when he thinks about the relationship, “the feeling still deep down is good.” Good: one simple word explains and colors all the complexity he’s sung about elsewhere in the song.