William Jelani Cobb Reports from the Prison Gates

The historian and author spent seven hours outside of the prison where Troy Davis was executed last night. Here, he describes the mood of the crowd, the police reaction and he weighs in on why Obama didn't step in.

By Akiba Solomon Sep 22, 2011

Last night, historian and author William Jelani Cobb spent seven hours outside of the Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, Georgia, demonstrating, documenting–then mourning–the execution of Troy Davis. Excerpts from our talk the morning after:

For some reason I didn’t think the execution was going to happen.

I know. Despite all we know about this country, you want to believe that things have changed.

You posted lots of photos and tweeted throughout the night, but you weren’t there in a professional capacity. What compelled you to go down there?

Well, it was political and personal. Politically, I felt that as a person of conscience I could not just sit back and not let my voice be heard when the state was going to execute a man [amid] damning questions about the nature of the trial. Personally, I think about this in terms of my father who left Georgia in 1941 for New York and never came back. When you’d ask him about his home state, he would spit before describing how a black man’s life had no value there. Now, I believed in this narrative of me coming back to Georgia. [Living and teaching here] was almost a way for me to prove that things had changed, that the efforts of all of our people had born some fruit. But now, ironically, I can see where my father was right. It turns out these people have no concern for justice and the judicial system is a sham. When you look at the evidence in this particular [case], this literally could be any of us.

I can understand why Officer Mark MacPhail’s family wanted the execution to take place, because they truly believe Troy Davis killed him. But given the glaring questions, I’m puzzled about others who weren’t intimately connected. Did you see any people demonstrating in favor of the execution?

I didn’t see any, and I was there from about 5:20 until almost midnight. The people out were saying, "Spare this man’s life." At the height of it, there were probably about 500 of us out there.

When the word came out that the Supreme Court wouldn’t [stay the execution], how did the crowd react?

I’ll just take you through the whole night. In the beginning, we were crushed. People were just wailing out there. As we got closer to the initial execution hour, the tension ratcheted up. The police–whether they were anticipating things getting out of control or whether they were attempting to provoke things–were getting closer and closer to us. When word came that the Supreme Court was stepping in, there was elation. But we just sank when we learned that there wasn’t going to be any change in his fate. People quietly gave in. As Davis was in the process of dying, some prayed. Some people fell out on the grass. Others were talking about what we should do next. It was a roller coaster. And, you know, one of the things I was really disturbed about was that the crowd was about 95 percent black. At no point could you say that this was a cross section. It was up to black folk to say that this was a miscarriage of justice.

Why would a predominantly black crowd disturb you?

Because it felt black people had to shoulder the burden on our own, but this wasn’t a black issue; this was a death penalty issue. We can’t ever get around the implications of this case for everyone. I think about this young white couple that was standing next to me last night. Because there were so few white people there, I [assumed] they were part of an organization. But when I asked them why they’d come out, the woman said, "I know Troy. I’ve spoken to him." I asked her how. She said,"My brother’s on death row."

Was she agitated?

No. She was very matter of fact. To me, it was outstanding that despite the turmoil and difficulty of having a brother on death row, she was out there to the last trying to fight for Troy’s life. … Overall, it felt like the crowd was out there doing our best to keep our spirits up and to encourage everyone else, but it was a horrible place to be.

Take me back to the police. How did protestors react as they were inching in?

When I got there at roughly 5:20, police were across the street directing people and traffic and they were noticeably polite. But at about 6:00 or 6:15 the sheriffs came in and put up barricades and put on riot gear.

You actually saw them putting on riot gear?

Yes. Soon another group of police came, and [stood] 40 to 50 feet from prison. Then yet another group came. They were getting farther and farther from the prison and closer and closer to us [holding] these, like, three-foot wooden batons. Maybe they thought a show of force would diminish the possibility of something jumping off. They also could have had the impression that we were there because we love someone who had killed one of their own. The mood was really tense. There was a vibe there–it was as if police were just waiting for an excuse to crack some heads.

Did you see anyone get arrested?

At one point they rushed into the crowd and arrested three people. They just yanked them out. One young man, a white guy, walked across the street with his sign. The police told him to [move] and he just turned around and put his hands behind him to permit himself to be arrested. Overall, this wasn’t a hardcore, radical crowd. It was a diverse group of people–including elderly people, pregnant women and children–who were there because of their conscience. This was a matter of morality for them.

On Facebook and Twitter, I saw several people asking why Obama didn’t step in. Since you wrote a book about him [The Substance of Hope], what are your thoughts?

I think that if Obama had stepped in, he would have aborted his presidency. I suspect that he and/or his administration was working behind the scenes. But if he had come out publicly, he would have no political capital to do anything else. Now we can have a debate about whether that would have been a fair exchange–saying something about Troy Davis in exchange for everything else. But I don’t doubt the stakes. The other thing is that legally, I don’t know if a president can grant clemency in a state case. I do wonder about how [George W. Bush] granted Scooter Libby a pardon for leaking the identity of [CIA agent Valerie Plame] to the [press], or how the pardons at the end of the Clinton administration happened. But I don’t know what Obama’s capacity was to intervene in this case. *[Edtior’s note: The president does not have the authority to intervene in state convictions, but the Justice Department could investigate claims that Davis’s civil rights were violated in his trial.]*

But what makes you think the president or the administration acted behind the scenes though?

Well when the Supreme Court looked at it again, I wondered if there had been a phone call. But this is purely my assessment, my guess. Maybe that makes me feel more comfortable.

So after the execution, what kinds of conversations were you having about what to do next?

We were talking about how to organize and fight against the death penalty in the broader sense. I think in some ways, [by expecting Obama to step in] we want to do an end run around the work we have to do. The truth is, a majority of people in this country support the death penalty. Only just over a third are opposed to it. They don’t understand that it is virtually impossible to have a death penalty that is fair. So we have to fight the unshakeable faith people have in the idea that [only] people who are guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt are executed. I mean, look at the people who said that it was OK to execute Troy Davis. There is no rational argument for it because witnesses said police forced them to lie. Others said that the person who reported [Davis] to the police was the one who actually shot [Officer MacPhail]. The people who presented this case with a veneer of infallibility willfully turned off their power of deduction.

I’ve heard people talk about racism in this case, but they weren’t citing specifics. There’s just a general sense that, as you said, a black man’s life isn’t worth much. But is that all there is to it? Do you think race played a direct role?

I think it was racial in the sense of who the victim was. In the landmark Baldus study, what the death row team found was that, statistically, courts are more likely to impose the death penalty when the victim is white, regardless of the makeup the jury. [The implication] is that a white life is worth more.

Does last night’s execution of Russell Brewer–a [white supremacist] responsible for James Byrd’s dragging death–say anything about equality in the death penalty?

I saw comments to that effect on the Internet. But I would argue that the system is so flawed that advocating the killing of a white supremacist only allows us to pretend that we have equality. It’s like, "We’ll use this one instance to rationalize this entire system." To me, that’s the criminal justice version of tokenism.

Click here for more of Cobb’s take on the meaning of Troy Davis.