Politics As Usual: The Curious Case Of Troy Davis
Two of HipHopDX's writers--Slava Kuperstein and Omar Burgess--offer a running dialogue to try and make some sense out of Hip Hop and social media's coverage of Troy Davis' execution.
“Imagine a mother strugglin’ / Dealing with a system that don’t give a fuck about who shot her son / Imagine life where you can’t win / When you get out the ghetto and go right to the pen / When you get out the pen you go right to the gin / So if you get back to the streets you go right back in…” —Dr. Dre, “Imagine” feat. Snoop Dogg & D’Angelo.
Omar: If you follow Hip Hop music and culture on even the most casual level, then you’ve probably heard Troy Davis’ name at some point over the last few weeks. Davis isn’t a rapper, producer or a blogger, but many in the Hip Hop community were championing the cause of keeping him alive. By now the particulars of the Davis’ case have been repeated ad naseum (if you aren’t familiar, a more thorough breakdown is available via Time), so we’ll offer a shortened version for brevity’s sake.
Davis was convicted of the 1989 murder of Police officer Mark MacPhail. In the 22 years since MacPhail was murdered and Davis was sentenced to the death penalty, two additional witnesses implicated Davis’ former friend, Sylvester “Redd” Coles as the man who shot MacPhail. Authorities never searched for a .38 caliber revolver Coles admitted to carrying on the night MacPhail was murdered, and Coles himself—who accused Davis of being the shooter—has been treated as an innocent bystander. Additionally, a 2010 DNA analysis of a pair of Davis’ shorts found days after the murder revealed an earlier blood sample submitted to the Georgia Bureau of Investigations didn’t link Davis to the murder of MacPhail.
Slava: Ultimately, none of this mattered to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles or the Georgia Supreme Court. A final appeal for a stay of execution from the Supreme Court of the United States fell on deaf ears, and Troy Davis was executed on Wednesday, September 21, 2011 at 11:08 PM, having spent half of his life on death row.
A History Of Unjust Legislation
“Didn’t listen so prison is what they did to him / Accountant unscathed millions is what they hid through him / Same principles you must adhere / Lohans get the breaks the T.I.’s we just stare through ‘em…” –Pusha T, “Open Your Eyes.”
Slava: The news, sadly, isn’t surprising. Former Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., said the following in his dissent in McCleskey v. Kemp, a case addressing the death penalty in—you guessed it—Georgia: “The [Supreme] Court's evaluation of the significance of [the accused’s] evidence is fundamentally at odds with our consistent concern for rationality in capital sentencing, and the considerations that the majority invokes to discount that evidence cannot justify ignoring its force.”
Does that obstinacy sound familiar? Sadly, both the Supreme Court and Georgia have a sordid history regarding this matter. “[M]urder defendants in Georgia with white victims are more than four times as likely to receive the death sentence as are defendants with black victims,” says Brennan in the aforementioned opinion. And DeathPenaltyInfo.org offers shocking figures. Since 1976, Georgia ranks seventh in the United States with 52 executions, four of which came this year. Nationally, the number of white defendant/black victim combinations resulting in execution was 16. But black defendants and white victims? 253.
The following probably doesn’t provide any answers; nor does it suppose Troy Davis’ innocence or guilt. But it does offer food for thought.
Hip Hop And Prison Culture
“Unfortunately we have a culture where an unprecedented number of black people are being incarcerated. An unprecedented number of black people are being run through the criminal justice system. The criminal justice system becomes essential text. The experience of being in jail, the experience of being a part of the system—even if you’re not directly involved, you’re connected to it through having a cousin, nephew or a sister involved. It’s not surprising that people who come out of that milieu have a great deal of credibility in the community, if only because a large percentage of the community can relate to those experiences.” –Nelson George
Omar: In T.I. and Lil Wayne, we have two of the best-selling rappers of the past decade cycling in and out of the industrial prison complex within the same year. That doesn’t take people like G-Dep, Gucci Mane, Shyne and Ja Rule into account. You can easily dismiss those six as anecdotal cases, especially since their sentences were the byproduct of legal transgressions they admitted to. But what about the other 82,371 black men in federal prisons? Hip Hop is still by and large performed by black men. If the Bureau of Prisons supplies data stating 82,371 of their total 217,582 inmates are black, then you begin to see an obvious overlap.
If you’re wondering why Troy Davis matters, that’s why. I don’t want to argue his guilt or innocence, because I’m not a lawyer. And the combination of piss-poor investigating, subpar legal representation, and just plain bad luck make it entirely possible that authorities may never know who MacPhail’s murderer was. In a legal system based on getting convictions, that’s one of the few things nobody wants to admit. Add up all the above, and you’re sitting on a potential powder keg. So why is it that most of the information we’ve recently seen about Davis has been in the form of 140-character Tweets?
Mixed Media In The (Mis)Information Age
Omar: One of the common questions lobbied this week is why hasn’t Davis’ story been covered more? The week’s most popular Hip Hop story thus far has been Ray J’s now rescinded homoerotic/homophobic threat against Fabolous. It’s a fair question. In 2010, 46 inmates were executed. Conversely, rappers say and do homophobic shit all the time. Some of them even do it on purpose just so they can later say, “Pause” or “No Homo.” My initial reaction was to laugh at the people getting mad because I’ve never seen a 140-character tweet get someone off of death row or even freed from prison for that matter. How many of the people mad at the over-coverage of Ray J versus Fab actually bothered to sign a petition, call the board of pardons or even learn the particulars of the case?
We’re in an era where the definition of media is continuously changing and evolving. The fact that Outkast’s Big Boi can disseminate info on Davis’ pardon to the 300,000 people who follow him made his Twitter feed an effective medium. But does the Georgia Board of Pardons have a Twitter feed?
Slava: There’s no doubt that the Internet, particularly through social media like Twitter, has increased the public’s access to information in unprecedented ways. Perhaps the most striking examples are China and Libya, where citizens of both countries were able to express not only their thoughts and opinions, but inform people on the outside of the status of their respective countries.
Even to anyone that remembers life before the Internet became a typical household item, it’s difficult to remember how much less efficient the dissemination of information was. Before, we were at the mercy of television and radio for our “breaking news,” two easily-manipulated mediums. Now, that’s all changed. Or has it?
A Disturbing Trend
Slava: Tuesday night, #TroyDavis was a trending topic on Twitter on just about every continent, and suddenly it disappeared in one conspicuous area: Georgia. In its place were trending topics such as Ray J and the iPhone 5. How did this happen? Well, if it looks like shit and it smells like shit, you probably don’t need to eat it to be sure. Minor research all but confirmed the suspicion that Twitter censors trending topics as it sees fit. The company admitted to the practice in early August of this year, saying that they may “edit out any…clearly offensive [trending topics].”
This is just one striking example of a very important fact that we all must keep in mind: no matter the source of information, to some degree we will always be at the mercy of those providing it. So while Twitter and the Internet can provide us the information we so desperately need (you want to know where and when Killer Mike and Big Boi are marching? Twitter’s got it.), we must never forget this simple fact: No matter how lightning-fast our access to information is, the information will always be subject to biases and bottom lines.
Now That’s Entertainment!
Omar: Aside from the Ray J complaint, people have also drawn some easy parallels between Troy Davis and Casey Anthony. The argument has essentially been: white woman kills her kid and walks, while a black man accused of killing a police officer seems innocent but can’t even get a retrial before being executed.
Slava: It’s clear to see why the Casey Anthony case received so much more national attention than Troy Davis: there was a child’s death involved. Anthony was—by many accounts—an attractive but “crazy-looking” woman, and the United States tends to go up in arms over the death of white child much more than a minority one. Sure, you can tell me who Jon Benet Ramsey is, but can you point out Cynteria Phillips?
But an even more interesting analysis is the comparison between Troy Davis and Mumia Abu-Jamal. At first blush, it’s obvious that Mumia is a more captivating figure: he’s an instantly recognizable, physically imposing, dreadlocked figure. He was an activist and radio journalist who became President of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, and was a member of the Black Panther Party.
Both visually and verbally, Abu-Jamal makes for damn good television. Hell, HipHopDX has covered him far more because he’s had such a large contingent of the Hip Hop community in his corner. He’s also published several books since getting placed on death row, causing his “star prisoner” status to rise. Like I said: damn good television. None of this is a criticism of Abu-Jamal; rather, it serves to highlight what makes him such a compelling figure.
Troy Davis, on the other hand, does not possess that advantage. He is neither the speaker nor physical presence that Abu-Jamal is, and therefore does not get the media attention. The media serves to satisfy the shortest of attention spans and fuel the need for sensationalism and controversy. When was the last time you heard about the tsunami in Japan, the earthquake in Haiti, or the genocide in Darfur without actively seeking out coverage on the topic? Except perhaps on the days leading to his execution, Troy Davis just wasn’t compelling enough for the media to warrant the (more) consistent coverage some of his peers have received. Certainly, even Mumia’s case hasn’t received its due attention, but the differences are certainly there, and they highlight the sickening state of media today.
The Aftermath Of Troy Davis
“If we could change the laws / Maybe we could change the wars / And maybe after that we could change the bars / The one thing we can’t do change is the cause / ‘Cause we young black youths getting arraigned in courts…” –Jim Jones, “Rockerfeller Laws (Lockdown USA).”
Omar: Usually this is the point where we all try to come to a logical conclusion about the situation. But the anger that has been expressed by so many of us since Wednesday night just drives home the fact that you can’t logically reconcile how a system with checks and balances designed to protect us can give the okay to put a man to death for a crime he very well may not have committed. There will be talk of people at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder having their life devalued. And in the face of glaring statistical evidence and deaths like those of Sean Bell, Oscar Grant and now Troy Davis, it feels as if that talk is true.
For now, there are only a few consolatory positives to be taken from the situation. As an emerging social medium, Twitter doesn’t owe you shit. And yet, despite what appeared to be overt efforts to purposely keep Troy Davis’ cause from gaining momentum by preventing it from becoming a trending topic, a large contingent of the Hip Hop community was still able to use Twitter to mobilize and put words and thoughts into action this week. While it was not their intended cause, we probably look at Big Boi, Killer Mike, M-1, Talib Kweli, Jasiri X and the other Hip Hop artists involved in a different light. They heeded and inspired a call to action. Additionally, despite critics that only want to highlight the materialistic, misogynistic and violent moments in Hip Hop, a significant portion of our culture lent their time, energy and celebrity status to something incredibly noble. Hopefully the death of Troy Davis leads to some very uncomfortable but necessary conversations about race, class and America’s justice system. And through those conversations we can see some real change that leads to more than just empty and angry rhetoric until the next unjustified death starts the cycle again.
Slava Kuperstein is an Ellicott City, Maryland native by way of Odessa, Ukraine who has been writing for HipHopDX since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @SlavaHHDX.
Omar Burgess is a Long Beach, California native who has contributed to various magazines, newspapers and has been an editor at HipHopDX since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @FourFingerRings.