Keynote Address at the Cornell International Affairs Conference VI

Keynote Address at the Cornell International Affairs Conference VI, November 5, 2015

Good evening. Before I begin, I’d like to thank the Cornell International Affairs Society for giving the opportunity to speak to you all tonight, and for organizing this wonderful conference.

Tonight, I want to tell you a story. It begins when I was 15 years old, on September 3, 2008, in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. I received a phone call from a friend. He was an intern for Amnesty International, a human rights organization I had never heard of. He told me about this man on death row in Georgia named Troy Davis. Troy Davis was convicted in 1991 for the 1989 murder of a police officer in Savanah, Georgia. There was no gun, no DNA evidence. Instead, his conviction rested primarily on nine eyewitness testimonies. In the years that followed, seven of the nine eyewitnesses recanted their testimonies. Many of them said the police coerced or intimidated them into testifying against Troy Davis. Despite all this evidence that he may be innocent, Davis was going to be executed in just 20 days.

At the time, I didn’t think it was a big deal. I was a supporter of the death penalty, as most other people in Georgia are. Troy Davis couldn’t possibly be innocent—we had a justice system that protected the innocent and dispensed fair, just punishments to the guilty. If he were innocent, he wouldn’t have lost appeal after appeal.

But there was one small detail that stood out to me, one tiny thing that, in hindsight, changed my life forever. Davis was scheduled to be executed on September 23, while the Supreme Court was due to review his case on September 29. Why? He had been on death row for nearly two decades. Why couldn’t Georgia wait six more days for the highest court in the land to review his case? A fair justice system wouldn’t do that.

On September 23, 90 minutes before the scheduled execution, the US Supreme Court intervened and prevented Troy Davis from being executed. The next day, I sent him a letter. At his invitation, I visited him on death row five days later.

Before I went there, my idea of death row was Alcatraz blended with the gulag. I imagined death row to be dark and dank, filled with angry muscular men, killers and rapists who were destroyers of lives and families. They seemed more beast than human. They were monsters.

Before, everyone in here was just a mugshot and a name written in fine newsprint. But now, as I saw them talking and smiling and laughing and crying, no different than me, it was inescapable that they were . . . human. These were bodies and souls that had known loss and love, cruelty and kindness, pain and joy—beings that had known life. One inmate held his four-year-old daughter up with tears of joy. A boy my age was clad in a shirt with the words “Free My Dad” on the back. Troy told me about the background of many of the other death row inmates—how they had suffered from neglect, child abuse, and drug addiction. He told me about a man who was abandoned as a child. His mother was addicted to drugs, his father was nowhere to be found, and he slept in a dog kennel for shelter. That began the downward spiral that resulted in him on death row.
He told me his own story, about growing up as a quiet kid struggling to fit in, about seeing his hometown get taken over by drugs and gangs in the 1980s. He saw his friends start doing drugs, dealing drugs, or both. He told me his version of what happened the night of the shooting. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time. He didn’t shoot the police officer; he didn’t even have a gun that night. But once somebody else said he did it, the police didn’t consider any alternative suspects and the media started a witch hunt and convicted him in the court of public opinion. He turned himself in, because he thought he could tell the police his side of the story and they’d let him go. When he turned himself in, they hurled racial slurs at the black man who had taken one of their own. They tried to poison his food in the county jail when he was awaiting trial.

He told me he no longer celebrates his birthday, or Christmas, or New Year’s. Why bother, he told me, when it’s just another day you can’t be with the people you love? He said every time he sees his family it’s like they instantly age 20 years, because in his dreams and memories he always sees them as they were in 1989, when he was first locked up. In those 20 years, his father had died, his sister had been diagnosed with cancer, and the rest had aged, lost muscle, gained wrinkles. Every time they visited, he relived all of that. He said the first thing he was going to do when he was a free man was go to his mother’s house and sleep at the foot of her bed so that, when she woke up, she’d know this wasn’t a dream and that her son was finally home.

We grew close. The prison only allowed me to visit him every few months, but in between visits we wrote letters and talked on the phone. He began calling me his “adopted nephew” and signed his letters “Uncle Troy.”

While all of this was going on, Troy’s story attracted a lot of international attention, in part because of the growing international trend against capital punishment. The United Nations began angling for restricted use and eventual abolition of the death penalty in the 1960s. This has culminated in a series of successive resolutions since 2007 (the year Troy Davis first faced execution) that have imposed a moratorium on the death penalty, with the long term goal of its abolition. Year after year, the United States stands in the minority of countries voting against those resolutions, along with countries like China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has openly stated that the death penalty has no place in the 21st century. The UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights specifically spoke out against Troy Davis’s execution.

The European Union, where the death penalty has been abolished, wrote directly to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to speak out against Troy Davis’s execution. The European Parliament passed a resolution calling for Troy Davis’s sentence to be commuted and for Georgia to grant him a retrial. Two Nobel Peace Prize winners spoke out against his execution. So did the Pope. All of these international institutions and figures didn’t speak out about Troy Davis because this was just a specific case of an innocent man slipping through the cracks. Rather, it was because his case was one of the most egregious examples of a system that was in itself a human rights violation.

That got me thinking, how do these human rights violations occur? What makes them possible? They occur when we successfully dehumanize the victims. And by only presenting mugshots and rap sheets, our society has dehumanized those on death row. I saw whole human beings as nothing more than the worst mistake they had ever made, as mugshots and rap sheets. And it was only by going to death row and building a personal connection with the people there was I able to break through that.

I think I would’ve eventually opposed capital punishment if I hadn’t met Troy Davis. There are plenty of practical reasons to oppose it. But I wouldn’t be here talking to you tonight. I wouldn’t have signed petitions. I wouldn’t have organized meetings. I wouldn’t have joined rallies. I wouldn’t have become a human rights activist. I wouldn’t have written a book. I wouldn’t have built the personal connection with many other people that convinced them to turn against the death penalty. I wouldn’t have a life’s mission like I do today, which is to fulfill Troy’s dream of a nation without any more Troy Davises.

My challenge to you is to find your Troy Davis. Find that personal connection to your work, whatever it is. If you’re a writer, go and talk to the people who read what you write. If you’re a programmer, meet the people who use your code. If you’re a teacher, truly understand your students. If you’re a fashion designer, meet those who wear your clothes. Find the people who are directly impacted by what you do.

Having proximity to your work changes you. It makes you believe that what you’re doing truly makes a difference, because you’ve seen it with your own eyes. It makes you understand that what you do actually has a real impact on other people. It’s so easy for us to get caught in the ivory tower, to write memos and join committees and make resolutions, without actually doing the hands-on work needed to see the actual, on-the-ground impact of our work. It’s like having a super power, because when you have that inspiration, when you have that motivation, you will always be better and more effective than the people who don’t.

In the end, by a margin of one vote, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles let Troy Davis be executed. But he wasn’t afraid to die. I talked to him, and he said, “God hasn’t failed me. He just isn’t ready for me to come home yet. Look at all the people I’ve inspired, people like you. Millions of people around the world know my name, and know I’m not the only one. If I die, I don’t want my supporters to fade away in sorrow. I want them to get angry and fight for other Troy Davises out there, and fight for human rights all round the world.”

Go out and find your Troy Davis. Gain your superpower. It may not be easy, but in such cases I always remember what Troy told me whenever I doubted myself: The only person who can stop you from doing something is you.

Thank you.

(Photo courtesy of the Cornell International Affairs Society)


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