Naveen and Troy

Today is the one year anniversary of my father’s sudden and unexpected death. It’s also the birthday of Troy Davis, my friend who was executed on death row in 2011 and whom I wrote Remain Free about. These were the two most influential men in my life, so I thought I’d share a few words on their relationship.

Both my father and I were moderate supporters of the death penalty in 2008, before we met Troy. So when we first heard about Troy’s case, we were both skeptical of this death row inmate’s claim of innocence—for me, it was because I had this naive, childlike faith in our justice system and institutions; for my father, I think there was a certain cynicism that that led him to distrust people by default, and who less trustworthy than a convicted cop killer?

Nonetheless, on September 23, 2008, the day Troy came within 90 minutes of execution, it was my father who was the first to tell me the execution had been stayed. My mother was adamant we accept Troy’s offer to visit him on death row six days later, but my father did not share her enthusiasm. By design, he had built a bubble in the suburbs for his kids—a safe, if a bit dull, life, far enough away from the city to be mostly free from the drugs, gangs, and violence that plagued Atlanta and the neighborhoods in Savannah where Troy grew up. I think he was afraid of us puncturing that bubble to enter the world that he had fought so hard to stay away from.

He came with me the first time I ever went to a Troy Davis rally, a few days before Troy faced another execution date in October 2008, I was transfixed. I was 15 years old, and captivated by these speakers talk about justice and freeing Troy. But he was unimpressed. He grew up in India, a bustling, chaotic democracy that was never bereft of rallies, protests, or the occasional bandh (general strikes and infrastructure shutdowns by political activists). For him, this was just another street corner rally.

I think his mind changed when he finally met Troy. Troy was so genuine and warm and kindthat nobody could meet him and not want to fight for him, to save him. I can’t remember exactly what they spoke about on those visits, but when I left for college, Troy, in his final letter, said, “I know he misses you more than you’d even imagine.” He was right, of course. He usually was about these sorts of things.

After two or three visits, my father stopped coming to see Troy on death row. Not because he didn’t care, but because “it is too depressing seeing Troy in there.” From his voice, I could tell how deeply death row disturbed him. This was not the safe life in the suburbs he had worked so hard to build for us.

But he would still wake up early in the mornings on those Saturdays we visited Troy, make the 90 minute plus drive to Jackson, Georgia, and wait across the street at the Wendy’s while we met with Troy for six hours. He would still drive me to rallies, and drop me off and pick me up at the train station when I interned at Amnesty International but couldn’t drive. Like me, he was no longer a supporter of the death penalty. And on September 21, 2011, the night Troy was executed, only five years and 19 days before his own death, he was there protesting with me outside death row, chanting “I Am Troy Davis” into the setting sun.

If you knew my father or would like to honor his memory, please make a donation to an education-related charity of your choice—education was a cause he cared deeply about. If you’re not sure where to donate, two organizations I like are Pratham and DonorsChoose.

If you knew Troy or would like to honor his memory, please make a donation to the Innocence Project, a non-profit that helps free wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and works to prevent wrongful convictions from happening in the first place.

Voter Deception on Georgia’s Ballot Initiatives

I noticed this when I voted for the first time in 2012: Georgia’s ballot initiatives, which are typically amendments to the state constitution, are frighteningly biased in their wording to push voters into voting yes.

Here are the ballot initiatives, verbatim1, for 2016, which Georgians are voting on as I type these words:

Amendment 1: 

Provides greater flexibility and state accountability to fix failing schools through increasing community involvement.

Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance?

Amendment 2: 

Authorizes penalties for sexual exploitation and assessments on adult entertainment to fund child victims’ services.

Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow additional penalties for criminal cases in which a person is adjudged guilty of keeping a place of prostitution, pimping, pandering, pandering by compulsion, solicitation of sodomy, masturbation for hire, trafficking of persons for sexual servitude, or sexual exploitation of children and to allow assessments on adult entertainment establishments to fund the Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Fund to pay for care and rehabilitative and social services for individuals in this state who have been or may be sexually exploited?

Amendment 3:

Reforms and re-establishes the Judicial Qualifications Commission and provides for its composition, governance, and powers.

Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to abolish the existing Judicial Qualifications Commission; require the General Assembly to create and provide by general law for the composition, manner of appointment, and governance of a new Judicial Qualifications Commission, with such commission having the power to discipline, remove, and cause involuntary retirement of judges; require the Judicial Qualifications Commission to have procedures that provide for due process of law and review by the Supreme Court of its advisory opinions; and allow the Judicial Qualifications Commission to be open to the public in some manner?

Amendment 4:

Dedicates revenue from existing taxes on fireworks to trauma care, fire services, and public safety.

Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to provide that the proceeds of excise taxes on the sale of fireworks or consumer fireworks be dedicated to the funding of trauma care, firefighter equipping and training, and local public safety purposes?

 

Given the very low proportion of voters who actually research these initiatives in-depth, who would actually vote against these? Look at the title of Amendment 1! Yet deeper examination, especially on Amendment 3, reveals disturbing aspects of some of these amendments that are obscured by their biased phrasing. (Just start Googling if you’re curious)

While voters should research what they’re voting on, that shouldn’t give the state a free pass to deceive them. I’d be surprise if any of these amendments fail to pass; in the future, if you’re a Georgia voter and haven’t researched the ballot initiative, leave it blank, or, if you’re going to vote on something you haven’t researched (which the vast majority of people voting “yes” are doing”), just vote no, regardless of what the amendment is. Don’t let the state deceive you2.

Footnotes:

  1. View the text of the ballot initiatives at http://sos.ga.gov/admin/uploads/2016_Proposed_Constitutional_Amendments.pdf
  2. Perhaps the solution is to implement something like California’s State Voter Guides, which features, “an impartial analysis of the proposal and the potential costs to taxpayers as prepared by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, arguments in favor and against it prepared by proponents and opponents, the text and a summary prepared by the Attorney General or the Legislature, as well as other information.” While certainly there is opportunity for bias in this system, it’s still an order of magnitude better than Georgia’s current ballot deception.

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Five years ago

Five years ago today, my friend Troy Davis was wrongfully executed. One year ago today, I published Remain Free to share his story.

In that one year:

  • Remain Free beat out a New York Times bestseller written by a US president for the Georgia Author of the Year Award
  • Remain Free has been featured in NRI Pulse, India New England News, Khabar Magazine, and the Sunday edition of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Khabar Magazine, and India New England News
  • I’ve spoken at MIT, Cornell, UGA, Georgia State, Kennesaw State, high schools, Amnesty International groups, and CreativeMornings Boston (with a few more to come!)
  • I’ve met and talked to incredible people from all walks of life who share a passion for reforming our justice system, ranging from the parents of other teenagers who’ve befriended death row inmates to rappers, fashion designers, entrepreneurs, and everything in-between.

 

To mark the one year anniversary of the publication of the physical copy of Remain Free, the one many of you made possible, I just published the Kindle version so people all over the world can read it. As with the physical version, all profits will be donated to the Innocence Project.  And of course, the book can be read in serialized from for free on remainfree.com

In the end, this was to serve the mission of sharing Troy’s story with as many people as possible. A huge thanks to all of you who’ve supported this journey that began around this time eight years ago.


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Coming of Age on Death Row

CreativeMornings Boston has posted my talk from May 2016, titled “Coming of Age on Death Row”. The teaser:

I fight to live so you can remain free

What happens when the realities of a suburban teenager and the world’s most well-known death row inmate collide? The answer involves secret phone recordings, a maximum-security prison, bizarre interpretations of the Eighth Amendment, a tense confrontation with a Supreme Court justice, and an unlikely friendship that would alter the future of both involved

Thanks to all the fine people of CM Boston for hosting me!


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Remain Free Book Discussion on May 16, in Boston

I’ll be hosting a Remain Free book discussion and signing at Trident Booksellers (338 Newbury St, Boston, MA 02115) on Monday, May 16, at 7:00 PM! I’ll be reading several excerpts from the book and discussing the events within those excerpts in more detail, as well as the process of writing the book. Trident is Boston’s largest independent bookstore and they’ve got great food as well, so I hope to see you there!

 

Serializing Remain Free

Serializing Remain Free

Remain Free

I wrote Remain Free with one primary mission in mind: to share Troy Davis’s story with as many people as possible. To that end, I’m serializing Remain Free online (at www.remainfree.com) and making it freely available for anyone to read. You can begin reading it here. I also have plans to serialize an audiobook version of Remain Free in the form of a podcast. In both cases, new sections/episodes will be posted weekly.

If you prefer a physical version, a hardcover copy is available on Amazon. As before, all profits from physical and e-book sales will be donated to the Innocence Project.

Thanks again to the many people who supported this book when I first began writing it as an eighteen-year-old.

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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Remain Free: A Memoir

Remain Free: A Memoir

2015-09-21 10.07.53

On this day, four years ago, Georgia executed my friend, my mentor, my uncle, Troy Davis. I believe he was innocent. Today I’m officially releasing Remain Free, so the world doesn’t forget who he was or the truth of what really happened.

I wish you all could’ve met him. My greatest hope with Remain Free is that, through the hundreds of recorded conversations, letters, and in-person visits that make up this book, Troy’s voice shines through and you get a sense of who he really was.

Today I visited Troy’s grave. I had decided ahead of time that, instead of a party or some kind of flashy event, Remain Free’s “launch” would be me leaving him a copy on his grave in Savannah. My mother was concerned–what’ll happen to the book? Would it get damaged by the rain? What if someone with bad intentions got a hold of it? I was firm that I wanted to leave the book there, and let whatever would happen, happen. It was my way of showing Troy that I didn’t forget about him, and that his struggle was important enough to bring thousands of people together to bring this very object left on his grave into existence.

She then said, “I hope this book falls into the hands of the right person, someone who is destined to read this book.”

A few minutes later, a man approached us as we stood at the grave. He was in his fifties or sixties, black, several inches shorter than me. He wore a blue hat to protect his face from the harsh Savannah sun that had emerged from the rain clouds. His name was Leonard and he worked for the cemetery. We told him why we were there. His eyes widened. “You knew Troy Davis?” he asked incredulously. He was a Savannah native and familiar with the case, but was eager to learn more about Troy, about how he changed our lives.

My mother continued to talk to him while I opened the copy of Remain Free I brought with me and started writing a message to Troy. When I finished, the man said, “I’ll leave you two alone to meditate on Troy’s grave. But please, let me give you my email address. I want to follow this story. I want to learn more about Troy.” He walked away, and I realized that he was exactly what my mother had asked for, just minutes earlier. I picked up the book, and the I Am Troy Davis wristband, and walked toward the cemetery office and handed both objects to him. There was a mixture of gratitude and excitement in his voice when I gave it to him. He never told us why he walked across the entire cemetery to talk to us…just that he was glad he did. Maybe he was destined to be the one who read Troy’s copy.

I wasn’t planning on sharing the note I wrote for Troy in that book, but I realized that, in a sense, we’ve all taken this journey together. You all put your faith in me when I was a teenager with a dream and an overambitious timeline. The least I could do is return that trust by sharing what I wrote to Troy in the front cover of the book:

Troy,

It’s hard to believe four years have passed. I wish you were still here to see what kind of man I’ve become. I’ve been a bit lost since you’ve been gone. I haven’t lived up to my full potential. I could’ve used your guidance during these years. I hope that, despite my failures, you’d still be proud of me. I wrote the book, just like you said I should. This book brought hundreds of people together to make it possible—people who’ve never met you, many of whom have never met me. They all came together because they believed this story—our story—was something worth telling, something worth sharing.

I promise that as long as I’m alive, people won’t forget your story. I promise I won’t stop fighting until the death penalty is ended in the United States. I promise I’ll fight to live up to my full potential, to make the world a better place and to save the other Troy Davises out there. It’s been four years since I’ve written a letter. Here is my longest letter to you, for you.

Your adopted nephew,

Gautam Narula

The last time I was here I was filled with sadness, but today I’m filled with gratitude. Thanks for making Remain Free possible.