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Friday, September 30, 2011

The Point of Religion

I scream inside of my car as the traffic wells up around me along Boulevard heading south towards the Martin Luther King Historic District. The street signs show that I am in Midtown, far off course from my intended destination, Woodruff Park, where many are gathering on this Friday evening for a march in protest of the scheduled execution of Troy Davis. My plan was to meet Emma at the Open Door Community and ride together to the park, but I was distracted by helping my roommate enroll for benefits on the phone, and left Clarkston late.
There is a certain loneliness created by the cloister of a car stuck in the madness of city traffic. The indifference of the world to my destination, my schedule, my life, manifests itself in honks, sirens, screeching brakes, and flashing lights: a pandemonium of noise. Everyone is on their own journey, sealed off from other people and the urban grime. Thoughts of aimlessness swirl inside my skull.
I finally park at the historic site thirty minutes after the beginning of the march, and run along Auburn Avenue to catch up with the crowd, eventually spotting friends from Jubilee and the Open Door. I am greeted warmly and absorbed into the crowd. Holly hands me her sign and I hold it as my newly assumed purpose.

When I return to the apartment after the rally, everyone is sitting in the darkness of the living room with the blue glare of the TV dancing across the walls. They are watching a Thai movie with animated creatures occasionally emerging onto the screen. Hei Nay Htoo listens and laughs, occasionally repeating the Thai phrases with exaggerated diction. Blay Blay happily welcomes me on the couch beside him and I sit for a moment, resting in the nostalgia of watching movies with my family as a child: the feeling of security while suspended in the the film. The memories of familiarity are slowly erased by the foreign tongue.

Three days later I return to downtown Atlanta, this time making it in time to ride with the Open Door to Woodruff Park. The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles made the decision on Monday to continue with the execution as planned. I ride in the van with Emma to park the fifteen-passenger van after letting everyone out at the park.

“So I have questions for you. Civil disobedience? And I forgot, what is the point of religion if not social justice?” asks Emma. I smile, remembering our countless unresolved philosophical debates started in this way.
“What about civil disobedience?”
“Like does it do anything? Or by now is it just part of the system?”
“It is definitely part of the system, but I think it serves to keep powers in check. Perhaps it does not really do anything, but it at least serves to bring things to the surface which opens up the possibility of change.”
“But like how invested do you need to be in order to actually get arrested, like everybody at the Open Door was almost crying at lunch today over Troy and I was just sitting there.”
“Hmm…” I pause, knowing well this feeling of apathy, yet nonetheless a desire to engage. “I suppose if you have no connection to an issue, that might be a problem, but I think demonstrations like this are meant to make you feel something for a cause, like liturgy, to train you out of apathy and isolation and into connection with something larger.”
“I’m not satisfied.”

The march commences from the park. One of the men from the Open Door calls me over with a wave of his hand to help carry their long banner. We move at a quick pace compacting and expanding the banner between lampposts. The chanting quickly begins: “BRICK BY BRICK, WALL BY WALL, FREE TROY DAVIS, FREE THEM ALL! BRICK BY BRICK, WALL BY WALL, FREE TROY DAVIS, FREE THEM ALL! BRICK BY BRICK…” I shout this mantra at the top of my lungs and the rhythm gradually obstructs all thought, as in silent repetition of the daily psalm response on my morning walks.
We cross the street, blocking all traffic, and suddenly all the cars consume us with horns blaring in support, raising thumbs and fists out of windows. The asphalt and black gum-stained concrete resound with a pandemonium of honks and cheers. The sound drowns our chants and I feel shivers run up my spine as though coaxed by altar chimes. We raise the banner and the loneliness wells up from my abdomen to my eyes. We press on, chanting louder, intoxicated by the numinous weight of the words, “FREE TROY DAVIS! FREE TROY DAVIS!”
The crowd eventually reaches a critical mass and the police move in on motorcycles ahead of us to block the road from traffic. We pour into the street as we approach the state capitol. We turn the corner and the capitol building towers tall beige above us like a giant sand castle. A statue of a white man with his hand raised keeps watch over the amassing crowd from the steps. The police have already closed the street in front of the capitol. We stop before joining the vigil to pose with our banner for a press picture.
After two hours of marching and listening to speakers from organizations and family members of the accused, hunger and tiredness move me towards the first van returning to the Open Door. I return home and fix myself a bowl of rice topped with fish curry and pounded chilies leftover in the refrigerator, eagerly eating over the sounds of cockroaches rustling into crevasses, fleeing exposure by the kitchen light. Everyone is already asleep in preparation for work and school on Wednesday morning.

Troy Anthony Davis was executed by the state of Georgia on Wednesday September 21, 2011 at 11:08 PM at the age of 42 after a four-hour delay by the Supreme Court. He spent two decades of his life in prison, prepared for his execution three times before it was finally carried out, maintaining his claim to innocence until the moment of his death. A majority of the witnesses who testified against him for the killing of Officer MacPhail, recanted their testimony, leaving little credible evidence against him. Some members of the MacPhail family were present in Jackson to witness the lethal injection and found some satisfaction in the experience. Troy wrote in an open letter shortly before his death: "I am in a place where execution can only destroy your physical form but because of my faith in God, my family and all of you I have been spiritually free for some time and no matter what happens in the days, weeks to come, this Movement to end the death penalty, to seek true justice, to expose a system that fails to protect the innocent must be accelerated. There are so many more Troy Davis'."

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