30 September 2011

Political Sadness: Mourning Troy Davis

At 11:08pm EST on September 21st 2011 the State of Georgia killed Troy Davis. It was his fourth execution date and after a four hours reprieve by the US Supreme Court. This act marked the close of a beautiful chapter of struggle, thousands signed petitions, attended rallies, wrote letters to elected officials, made phone calls to public officers, or followed news of the case closely. None of this could stop the iron will of the State of Georgia in what at times felt like a calculated attempt to prove activists their efforts were futile. Ann Coulter's analysis perhaps provides the best metaphor. She equated Troy Davis with a baby seal, one more thing that bleeding heart liberals attempt to save through "hysterical crying." If the state can bend to such collective displays of affect that where's it's authority. At 11:08pm EST on September 21st 2011 the State of Georgia turned to those hysterical thousands and said, "no you can't." It announced the impotence of collective action and proclaimed the glory of the established forms of authority.

Such an act and the affects it induced, grief, outrage, fear, hopelessness, were not mere private drama. They were and are being experienced collectively. For those who took Davis' struggle as their own these emotions are felt with and supported by the thousands in the movement. Our affect divides us from them, they articulate an indisputable wrong, they are felt arm-in-arm with our comrades who struggled. All this means one thing: they are political.
The Argentinian radical collective Colectivo Situaciones asked, nearly five years after an eruption of resistance amid Argentina's crisis of neoliberalism, how to politicize the sadness they felt following the return to stable life and the end of revolutionary fervor. They said that we cannot let that sadness extinguish the energy around the collective subject that emerged, but must use it to strengthen that subject and imagine a collectivity that can take the good feelings with the bad. That's exactly the question Troy Davis' murder asks of us.

How do these affects became collective and how we might use them to push forward the movement for justice?

One of the first sources of the collectivity of these emotions came from the mainstream NGOs like Amnesty International, Change.org, and Color of Change that led the formally organized movement. They were able to reduce the message to a simple and powerful core. They chose the more conservative message of "too much doubt" instead of "he's innocent." They also avoided making this necessarily about abolishing the death penalty first by messaging but then by reaching out to death penalty supporters like Bob Barr and William Sessions, former FBI director. But these high profile supporters from the other side of the proverbial aisle were not as important as the way their support and the rest of the strategy was able to recruit from the largest pool of American society, the apathetic. The issue became distilled to a pure wrong. This was a man who might be innocent and they're going to kill him anyway. This was not the fight of a special interest group but a call for justice directed to society as a whole.

A strategic message like that wasn't enough to jostle people into caring. The movement was also built around small actions that were both easy and gave people a sense of involvement. Signing a petition, making a phone call, or changing your Facebook profile picture. Web-based activism showed its full spectrum. Small things like retweeting, or posting stories on your Facebook wall allowed people to feel active in their personal micro-publics. One could shout without breaking through the walls of their comfortable social networks. These tactics of course have their limits, and have serious implications for political subjectivity, but in this case they served the important function of allowing people to feel part of something. The aggregate of these micro-publics at times could feel like it was humming with Troy Davis supporters.

There have been numerous other media-focussed campaigns that did not have the impact that Troy Davis did - think of most climate-justice work. While the fast approaching deadline helped, the real extra magic was added by the stonewall efforts of the State of Georgia. Against the background of the simple, absolute message the State began to seem irrational and inhumane. There were stone-faced state officials and the family of the police officer Davis was convicted of killing who would only proclaim how they needed closure. That they were sure, without argument, that Davis was guilty and they wanted him dead for it. Then the state claimed their hands were tied by procedural legal issues. This culminated with the Supreme Court who, after giving Davis four extra hours of life, said that it would not be legally proper for them to issue a stay of his execution. In the face of this apparent inhumanity and confrontational attitude toward the protestors (cf. Ann Coulter's piece) those involved looked inward to the movement to find a human face and the strength to continue the struggle. People didn't merely want Davis to live, they wanted to break through this irrationality and get someone to hear them. There was a "them" that was doing this injustice and this resulted in a "we" who was trying to stop it.

Drawing a line in the sand and choosing sides is what makes the mourning of Troy Davis political. Grieving his loss is indeed a recognition of impotence but in the context of fierce confrontation and an absolute wrong this impotence becomes “their” inhumanity and “our” collective humanity. The networks like Facebook and Twitter that helped create a sense of collective struggle became a source of sharing affect. Next to the Democracy Now! live stream there was a scrolling list of immediate response by viewers also watching Amy Goodman's pained face. A message was disseminated: “All these people, who fought with you to save Troy Davis, they're feeling the same thing. We're in it together.”

What's more, the media and organizing strategy employed established Troy Davis' killing as a wrong that indicated to everyone that they had to make a choice. The "we" that chooses to be outraged and grief-stricken is not merely a community among other communities, each with its own interest, but a re-articulation of society as whole. For those who chose Troy Davis' side, the supporting and collective affect was a dividing line between an us who are human, caring and sane, and them who are monstrous, heartless and mad. Indeed this affective community indexes a challenge to and a disagreement about the very notion of humanity, care, and sanity.

But this community is ephemeral. Grieving completes itself and the struggle for daily existence proves continually distracting. This does not mean, however, that it's irrelevant. Affective communities that stand on the side of a general divide are the very body of a revolutionary movement. The power of taking a side, and sharing feelings with others on that side, is something that's not easily forgotten. On a very concrete level Davis' killing could become a tool for organizing new affective communities. Sitting with a worker who is too afraid to challenge the authority of their manager, or stuck in hegemonic ways of thinking, the exclamation, "remember Troy Davis," may help them remember what it means to chose a side, to face an absolute wrong and refuse it. So long as the movement continues and makes demands on those who mourn this week, we will see leaders of great and historic struggles of the future say, "I am Troy Davis."

FREE DOWNLOAD: Rebel Diaz - Troy Davis Lives Forever (prod Agent of Change) by agentofchange

1 comment:

  1. The personalization of the human "us" vs inhuman "them" that you're outlining is, perhaps, the easiest way to mobilize people for progressive ends (tho I'm doubtful it works on some important constituencies, like the highly educated). But as everyone here recognizes, the fundamental problems we're facing are not our monstrous enemies but the abstract forces that produce them. An "us vs them" schema is incapable of grasping the nature of the crisis or of formulating a path out of it. If we're willing to use this particular expedient to revive the left (and I would certainly be willing to), how do we then make the transition to confronting the abstract forces that actually underlie social domination?