By Savannah Fox, Field Organizer, Amnesty International USA
Five years ago today, on September 21st, I became an activist. I didn’t sign my first petition or attended my first rally. I found my passion, my anger and my hope as an activist, all things which keep me in the fight for justice every day.
It was a late summer evening and I was standing under the outstretched arm of Tom Watson’s statue in front of the Georgia State Capital in Atlanta, Georgia. I was surround by hundreds of activists holding signs stating “Not In My Name” and “I am Troy Davis” in bold letters. Troy Davis. Troy was the reason hundreds of us came together to huddle in anticipation and hope. Troy Davis was a black man from Savannah, Georgia who spent 20 years on death row. Seven of nine key witnesses in the case against him, which rested primarily on witness testimony, recanted or changed their testimony, and some alleged that they were coerced by police.
Six years before that night, I began to work on Troy’s case and the larger abolition movement as a high school student in Atlanta. I looked nothing like Troy. I was a white woman from a different city and a different background than him. But his story and his case resonated with me when I first read about it in the Sunday edition of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. It was a case about valuing human life. About right vs. wrong. About standing up for justice within a system created upon injustices. When I read Troy’s story for the first time, I imagine my reaction is the same as many- I wanted to do something, but what could I do? Who would listen to me?
It was my older brother who had the answer. He was part of the Amnesty International student group at the University of Georgia and told me about the work the organization had taken up alongside Troy’s family and that they organize canvassers every Saturday to go from Atlanta to Savannah, GA. I remember driving into the back parking lot of the Amnesty International office on a hot summer day to join a van of people heading to Savannah to canvass for Troy. I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t know anything about the organization and I didn’t know the first thing about canvassing. As I parked my car and looked out at the group of people who had gathered around a big white van, I had an immediate reaction to put my car in reverse and drive away. But something stopped me. I think it was remembering that my brother, the person who knew me the best, wanted me to be there and believed that I could make a difference.
I stepped out of the car, quietly walked up to the group and hung around the outer circle for a few minutes. I was meet with smiles and an offer of coffee from those who joked that this had become their typical Saturday over the past few months. When it hit 8:30am we all formed a crooked line to cram into long bench seats with bottled water under our feet. About 30 minutes outside of Savannah, GA the woman in the passenger seat began to pass clipboards back to the rest of us. They were the old brown clipboards with a pen attached to it with a piece of string. On the clipboard were dozens of sheets with 25 lines each for signatures. There were fact sheets about the case and sample talking points. I focused for the rest of the ride on memorizing every fact and every talking point I could.
When we reached the city and parked the car next to a park we all clambered out of the van into the stifling humid heat, the type of heat which sticks to your skin and never let’s go. We all grabbed a bottle of water, threw on our hats to shield us from the burning sun and set off in different directions to our appointed neighborhoods. I took a part of the park, which on a Saturday was full of people walking their dogs, watching kids play soccer or sunbathing. I approached my first few people, rehearsing my script in my head, and was surprised on how each conversation took a turn I was not expecting. Each person told me they already knew who Troy Davis was and they already knew all the facts about the case. They wanted to know why I was there, why I cared about Troy Davis and why I wanted them to sign their names to the petition. Unprepared for the questions I began rambling as any high school student would when asked a question they didn’t study for.
As the hours went on and the same question came my way I was surprised with how easy it became for me to answer. I began to tell people about my history, the strong women in my family, and the values of fairness, justice and community which were instilled in me. When I spoke about my values is when people began to take the clipboard and sign their names on the sheets of paper. They began to tell me their stories and their histories. They asked what they could do to help and what else was being organized around Troy’s case. Activism on Troy’s case showed me for the first time the power of my voice. The power that I had when I spoke about my values and the issues I believed in. It was the first time I felt that I could make a change in my community for the better.
September 21, 2011 was a day that I and so many others prayed would never come. I stood waiting for a decision side-by-side with state legislators, faith leaders, international news reporters and families from across the state. A decision of life or death. As the time for Troy’s execution came and went without any news, a silence fell over the crowd. Did a miracle happen and stay of execution come just in time? The wait of just 10 or 15 minutes seems like hours. Nobody dared to speak or move or even breathe deeply. All I could hear was the beating of my heart, which seemed to beat along with the chirping of crickets, the only break in what seemed like deafening silence.
Then there was a murmur, and phones began to ring. The decision was made, there would be no stay of execution. On the night of September 21st, 2011 Troy Davis was executed by lethal injection.
I remember dropping to my knees, feeling the warm concrete through my jeans. All the air was sucked out of me as reality set in. In the state of Georgia, people in power were so set on killing their own citizen that they looked away from the evidence and killed a man in hopes it would bring peace. Peace did not come that night, only more pain. As I grappled with the moment I hadn’t let myself think would ever happen, someone from the crowd came and knelt beside me.
“Feel this pain. Take it and burry it deep down inside of you. Let it keep you in the fight.”
While I never will never know who said those words to me that night, and as much as I didn’t think I could take their advice in the following days, five years later I found myself in a courtroom in Dover, Delaware listening to Supreme Court oral arguments on capital punishment. On August 2, 2016 the Delaware Supreme Court found the state’s rules for imposing the death penalty unconstitutional. As the texts began to stream in on my phone with words of victory and congratulations, I thought about that silence 5 years ago. I could hear those words echo in my head. “Feel this pain. Burry it deep down inside you. Let it keep you in the fight.” For the first time in five years, I let that pain rise up and I felt it again. Tears began to roll down my face, and with each tear I could feel a little bit of the pain release. Over the five years myself and others had continued the fight for abolition in the United States. Troy became my passion, my anger and my hope. As activists we all have that one defining moment that hooks us for life, fuels us for life. Unfortunately, too many times it comes from pain and sometimes from the greatest pain of all, losing the fight between life and death. It is hard to do the work we do. It is hard emotionally, mentally and physically. When we do win, we must take a moment to remind ourselves: What we do matters. We are changing the world, one small victory at a time.
So as I sat alone in my office with tears still on my face, I quietly whispered to myself: “We’re winning, Troy. We’re winning.” When people learn that I worked on Troy’s case they always ask me what Troy’s legacy is. Is it complete abolition, is it a movement, is it a piece of legislation? My answer is always the same. “Troy’s legacy is me. Troy’s legacy is all of us.”