On Wednesday September 21, at 11:08 p.m., after spending twenty years in prison and making several appeals for clemency, Troy Davis was killed by the state of Georgia for a crime he likely did not commit. It did not matter that seven of the nine testimonies made against him were eventually revoked – the witnesses now claim that they were pressured into making them by investigators. Davis’ final appeal for another trial given that the evidence against him was shaky at best was also denied. This all serves to exemplify the frivolous way in which the criminal justice system treats the lives of poor and racialized peoples.
It will not come as a surprise to many of you that the American justice system is inherently racist and classist. Many studies, such as the Minnesota House of Representatives study on Racial Profiling, have shown that it targets minorities. We’ve all heard the statistics on the ratio – people of colour greatly outnumber white people in North American prisons. Furthermore, we live in a society where many crimes committed by the wealthy, such as fraud – which hurts many more people – are rarely investigated except in high-profile cases. These crimes also tend to receive lighter sentences than those typically associated with the poor. Add to that the disturbing reality of the prison industrial complex – which leases American prisoners out to U.S. corporations for slave labour – and it becomes clear that some people’s lives have less value than others in the eyes of the law.
Which brings us to the death penalty itself; another racist system that goes out of its way to target minorities. Once again, the statistics are clear – black people make up a disproportionate amount of the inmates on death row. So once again, there is differential value placed on your life depending on your race. Troy Davis was executed for the alleged murder of a white police officer. If the situation was reversed, it is likely that the cop would have gotten away with a much lighter sentence, if they even received one at all. This is not merely true of the civilian-cop dynamic. One is much more likely to receive the death penalty for killing a white person than a person of colour. While the death penalty is not an issue in Canada, racial profiling remains a major concern, and the lives of poor people of colour are still taken by police officers at a disproportionate rate.
Every few years, a case like Davis’ is singled out, but if the law is capable of making these mistakes, how many more go unnoticed? The fact is that when a justice system is this fallible, it cannot be expected to make decisions about who lives and who dies. If one were to go through every death row inmate’s story, they would probably find more than a few whose guilt was questionable, which is quite a gamble to make on a human life. And we must question the validity of a system that functions on the principle of “an eye for an eye”. It is time for us to re-evaluate the resources of protection available to us. Useful prison reform can only come about if we make it clear that we are unsatisfied with the status-quo. Take to the streets, mail your congressperson or MP. Whatever means of dissent you feel is most effective is better than doing nothing. We must make our dissatisfaction heard, and ensure that Troy Davis’ story is the last of its kind. The assault on poor communities and people of colour must end.
Zina Mustafa is a U2 International Development Studies student. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.