Thursday, September 22, 2011

Troy Davis, Joe Hill, and the Politics of Mourning/Organizing

As readers of this blog will undoubtedly know, the state of Georgia executed Troy Anthony Davis at 11:08 pm EST last night. His death is the tragic culmination of a massive grassroots campaign, led largely by Troy's family, committed to halting his execution. I won't belabor the details, but his case for innocence is positively overwhelming--so much so that as unlikely a figure as a former FBI director called for clemency.

Earlier in the evening yesterday, I attended a remarkable and inspiring event at the Reuther Library on Wayne State's campus. The Reuther is home to the nation's largest and most comprehensive archives on labor and urban studies. On this particular evening, Bill Adler led a discussion surrounding his new biography of IWW icon Joe Hill. Executed in 1915, Hill faced a Utah firing squad in spite of a virtually non-existent prosecutorial case against him. Adler dedicates a signifcant portion of his book to deconstructing the state's dubious claims, adding credence to the claim that Hill's was a political execution designed to silence his union activism with the IWW.

There are obvious differences between the Davis and Hill cases. Davis and his family only became politically active when his life was literally on the line, though they quickly came to recognize how their story was fundamentally linked to all the tragedies that unfold in the prison-industrial complex. Hill, on the other hand, remains the IWW's most important songwriter and, by most measures, patron saint. Both, however, are martyrs to a fundamentally broken criminal justice apparatus.

Troy Davis's case received unprecedented levels of international attention. If there is a silver lining in this dark cloud of state killing (or lynching), it lies in the possibility that death penalty abolitionists will orient their outrage and disappointment toward ending capital punishment. Such a hope is beautifully embodied in Joe Hill's "Last Will," written shortly before his execution:

My will is easy to decide,
For there is nothing to divide.
My kin don't need to fuss and moan--
"Moss does not cling to a rolling stone."
My body? Ah, if I could choose,
I would to ashes it reduce,
And let the merry breezes blow
My dust to where some flowers grow.
Perhaps some fading flower then
Would come to life and bloom again.
This is my last and final will,
Good luck to all of you.