The Troy Davis Case: Lessons for Urban Youth

For hundreds of thousands of people across the globe, the world seemed to come to a standstill when the news was released that the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles had turned a deaf ear to pleas for clemency for Troy Davis. Hundreds of thousands of supporters, who range in profile from teenagers in public schools to former presidents, have written letters on behalf of Davis, and hoped that their words would sway the state of Georgia away from the Death Penalty.

Davis was convicted for the shooting death of off-duty police officer Mark Allen MacPhail 22 years ago in a case shrouded with allegations of police coercion of witnesses, blatant inconsistencies in witness statements, a drunken confession from another possible suspect, a lack of physical evidence, and consequently, doubts about whether or not Davis committed the crime.

The rallying cry from people around the globe has been loud and clear: we cannot put someone to death if there is some doubt about whether or not they committed the crime. Human Rights organizations are also expressing condemnation. The NAACP, who undoubtedly connects the Troy Davis case to the fact that he is a black man, a member of the racial group that is arguably, the most likely to interact with the criminal justice system and receive harsher penalties than other racial groups, is speaking up against the death penalty in this case.

As the Troy Davis case unearths the flaws in our justice system, and shines a light on the fact that there are many inequities in society at large, it has brought anger, frustration, and even a renewed sense of commitment to fighting injustice. However, in the midst of the bevy of emotions surrounding this case, it is important that we focus on the many teaching moments it provides us. Therefore, I outline 5 lessons that parents can learn from this case, and that must be shared with urban youth.

1) Urban youth must be aware of this case. In many ways, they are Troy Davis.

This is especially the case for black males. Parents must let youth know that Davis has been placed in a situation that many of them could potentially be placed in as well. Many urban kids exist around crime and it's possible that they could be a witness to one, or be accused of something they did not do. Parents should introduce their children to the case, and discuss any potential risk they have of being in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Let them know that it's important to voice complaints about what they feel is unjust so that they can make the world better. Encourage your children to write letters, or even write a reflection about how they feel about the case. Making them feel like they are part of a social movement empowers them, and also lets them vent their frustrations constructively.

2) All youth must be wary of the company they keep. They should be taught that if something doesn't look or feel right, they should leave immediately.

One of the most powerful pieces of the Troy Davis case is the set of events that led to the murder of an innocent man. Allegedly, Davis, was at a party, left with a friend, and got into an argument with another group of men. He then met with another man who was arguing with a homeless man. The second situation quickly escalated into the shooting of MacPhail, who came to the rescue of the homeless man. It is important for youth to know that any scenario where voices are being raised or someone is arguing with someone else has the potential to escalate into violence. When this happens, they should leave as soon as they can.

3) Remind youth that the unspoken "No snitching" rule is useless.

For many urban youth, their negative interactions with the criminal justice system have caused them to develop the idea that they should not "snitch" on each other, no matter what. The common belief is that a code of street ethics is broken when someone tells another person (especially the police) about a crime that has been committed. It is important to let youth know that this belief is often the source of an innocent person being implicated for a crime they did not commit. In the case of Troy Davis, he witnessed the shooting and did not report it. Instead, another person who has been accused to be the shooter, told police that Davis committed the crime.

4) Youth must be encouraged to describe exactly what they see. Nothing more, nothing less.

In the Troy Davis case, many witness statements that were the anchor of the case against Davis were later recanted. Witnesses mentioned that they felt pressure by the police to make statements, and in one case, mentioned that she believed that the shooter had gotten away. This pressure by the police happens too often to urban youth, and has serious implications on who gets accused and/or convicted of crimes. Parents must let youth know that they do not have to bend to pressure by those who have more power than them. The truth is always sufficient if it is told respectfully.

5) Youth must know that when all is said and done, things may not go their way. However, they must handle every situation with dignity and grace

In the Troy Davis case, one of the most powerful things has been the response of Davis and his family to the recent decision to deny clemency. Even in the face of what they feel to be unjust, the family continues to remain in good spirits and fight until they can no longer do so. This response has done a lot for furthering their cause, and brought much needed visibility to this case. This certainly does not mean that what is right has been done. However, youth must see that this response does much more to further their cause than reacting violently.