From the standpoint of civil rights lawyers and activists, the case of Troy Davis had everything. It had an attractive and well spoken defendant, and an almost transparently false conviction without a murder weapon or any physical evidence. Most of the eyewitnesses recanted, declaring they had perjured themselves under threats from police and prosecutors.
In the tradition of political test cases dating back to the Scottsboro Boys eight decades ago, public prayers, letter writing campaigns, op-eds, demonstrations, meetings, celebrity endorsements and exhortations proceeded around the world while Davis's lawyers worked every available legal angle, managing to bring his case to the Supreme Court not once but twice. By last week, tens of thousands were in the streets declaring their opposition to the death penalty and nearly a million had signed petitions demanding a new trial for Troy Davis. Corporat e news outlets like MSNBC even devoted several hours of breathless “coverage” at the countdown to this legal lynching.
Davis went to his death praying for his accusers and executioners, and talking about the Troy Davises that came before and will come after him. The civil rights style mobilization around his case could not and did not save this Troy Davis, and it will not save the Troy Davises who will come after this one.
It's good that so many people marched and met and prayed and circulated and signed petitions to save Troy Davis. But until we build a movement that stands up for the human rights of ALL the imprisoned, ALL the convicted and formerly incarcerated, including those whose innocence, however you construe that word is not so obvious, and those who may in fact not even be innocent ---- until we stand up for their human rights to education, to jobs and justice including the right to vote, even when behind bars, to health care and a decent chance at life by radically shrinking and ultimately ending the institution of prison, the machinery that convcts the literally innocent will retain its legitimacy and roll on, doing what it has always done.
In other words, coming out to oppose the execution of an attractive, well spoken and clearly innocent person like Troy Davis is low-hanging fruit. It's great that so many people are willing to reach for it. But we will rarely be able to save even these until our movements take conscious, public and deliberate aim at chopping the whole rotten tree down, at de-legitimizing and ending the institution of prison as we know it.
The day we get a million signatures on a petition not just to save an innocent man's life, but to roll back the prison state ---- that will be the day we know we have a movement that can free the next wave of Troy Davises, the day we are close to welcoming them back to help heal and rebuild their own lives, our broken families and our devastated communities.