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Dave Zirin | The Nation

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Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin

Where sports and politics collide.

On the Racing Death of Indy 500 Champion Dan Wheldon

Today I spoke with Indy Motor Sports anchor Mike King about Sunday’s racing death of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, Dan Wheldon. Just 33 years old, Wheldon stood at the peak of his powers. Then came a fifteen car pile-up at the Las Vegas Speedway, and Wheldon was a casualty of his sport. King, who was understandably distraught, called Wheldon “racing’s Beckham”: British, handsome, and “on race day he was like a politician on Election Day. There wasn’t a baby he wouldn’t kiss or a hand he wouldn’t shake.”

As often is the case after a death in motor sports, there has been an instant call for some kind of reform. But it’s hard to imagine what could be done to make open-wheel racing safer. If you have the stomach to see the crash itself, it seems a miracle that five, six or seven people didn’t die with Wheldon. Unlike their tin-can forbears, open-wheel cars are now constructed with space-age technology and materials. If our personal cars were that safe, they would cost as much as a house. The greater and more somber takeaway is that death is accepted as endemic to the sport. Open-wheel racing is on average 50 mph faster than their NASCAR brethren. The skill set of drivers at a given race tends to be remarkably varied and the stakes are in the millions of dollars. Those ingredients produce a regular rhythm of tragedy acknowledged by all participants. In IndyCar Racing, there have been four deaths since 1996. In all of auto racing, there is a full glossary online of those who didn’t make it off the track. Making the sport safe is like trying to make the NFL concussion-free: it’s like asking a dog to meow.

The drivers understand that death stalks their sport. But what they can’t abide is a track that aided and abetted the crash. There was no reason for Sunday’s race to go off on a Las Vegas track that had already been complained about by multiple drivers and analysts as completely unsafe for open-wheel driving. As Jerry Garrett wrote in the New York Times, “The layout had a basic problem: its oval had been constructed with rather illogical angles and degrees of banking, requiring continual adjustments by drivers accustomed to setting the steering wheel at a given angle and maintaining an expected trajectory. Drivers complained of not being able to find a smooth, safe racing line.” Even worse, in 2007, the embankment angle was changed from 12 degrees to 20 degrees making it even faster and more dangerous. The tight track, combined with the speed created an effect, as racer Scott Meadow said, “more like 30 airplanes racing together than cars.”

In other words, the track was too fast, too small and too crowded. But in the face of complaints from drivers, journalists and other observers, IndyCar’s own website trumpeted the danger of the track on October 16 to gin up interest in the race. The article stated that Sunday’s contest “could be the wildest race of the season.” Headlines like “Hot Spots on hot Las Vegas Track,” noted that “while a hot spot is generally one portion of the racetrack, at Las Vegas it’s the entire race course.” Time magazine caught that the website cited James Hinchliffe, a rookie driver, who said before the race, “The hot spot is every inch of the 1.5 miles. It’s such a grippy track. A place like Kentucky there are bumps and the cars move around a little bit. Here, they aren’t doing that and we are race car drivers and will take every inch that we are given and you have just eliminated all the margin. The racing is so close and when something goes wrong it can really go wrong.”

Before it was announced that Wheldon had died but after the crash, racing star Dario Franchitti said he had long felt the track was not fit for racing. “This is not a suitable track, and we seen it today its nowhere to get away from anybody,” Franchitti said. “One small mistake from somebody and there’s a massive thing,”

Later, driver Oriol Servia said, “We had a bad feeling about this place.” Not surprisingly, Las Vegas Speedway president Chris Powell spoke out against the critiques, saying, “We as a speedway make sure we provide a venue that they come in and make an assessment when they’re ready to race—and they did that exact thing,” Powell said late Monday. “Our speedway conforms to every regulation that any sanctioning body has ever held it to, and we’re very proud of that.”

It’s hard to imagine how anyone can be “proud” at this moment. But it raises the question, In a dangerous sport, if drivers have concerns about their safety, what recourse do they have? Is there a reasonable set of checks and balances to make sure that drivers—can have a say? Writ large, this is why racing needs unions and why drivers need to be able to have a way to protect their lives in the face of unsafe tracks, bottom-line promoters and a corporate culture that sees the drivers’ fates too often as collateral damage. If death is going to be part of this sport, then the drivers should have as much say as possible when their lives hang in the balance. Just as union mines have a fraction of the workplace fatalities as non-union mines, a unionized IndyCar Series means a safer IndyCar Series. It might be difficult to imagine auto racing with the union label, but this isn’t about regionalism or politics. It’s about whether death will continue to find comfort in the world of motor sports.

Dr. John Carlos Raises His Fist With Occupy Wall Street

Last night I had the privilege of introducing 1968 Olympian Dr. John Carlos to the General Assembly at Occupy Wall Street. This morning I had the duty of introducing John Carlos to Senator Chuck Schumer in the MSNBC green room. Both were unforgettable experiences. When Dr. Carlos and I arrived an Occupy Wall Street, it comprised all the ordered chaos you could imagine. People of all backgrounds and ages were packed shoulder to shoulder in Zucotti Park. Police stood at attention, glowering from the outside. Homemade signs ranging from “Undocumented immigrants are part of the 99%” to “We Remember Troy Davis” to “Tax the Rich!” encircled the square. John Carlos looked at me with that twinkle in his eye and said, “It’s great to be home.”

With the help of the Occupy Wall Street regulars who invited us to speak, we worked our way to the front of the General Assembly. Here we encountered our first problem: the agenda had been reordered so announcements would come at the end. We would have to wait “two, maybe three hours” to give five minutes of greetings. I asked the head of the facilitation team if John Carlos could skip the three hours and say just a few words. She looked at my quizzically and said, “Who’s John Carlos?” I answered, “One of the two men who raised their black-gloved fist at the 1968 Olympics.” I then did a poor man’s impression of the medal stand moment, bowed my head and raised my fist. Her eyebrows raised an inch and then her face lit up. She got it. This was someone born years, possibly decades after 1968, and now she was on a mission to make it happen. The other people on the facilitation team were also excited, and they exercised a process point called an “emergency announcement” and John Carlos was able to get on the “People’s Mic” and to say a few words. “I am here for you,” he said in his raspy voice. Then “I am here for you” was repeated loudly in successive waves on the “People’s Mic,” a beautiful moment unto itself, but Dr. Carlos wasn’t done. “Why? Because I am you. We’re here forty-three years later because there’s a fight still to be won. This day is not for us but for our children to come.”

The response was electric as people in the crowd pumped their fists and then mobbed us when we got off “stage.” The next day, the New York Daily News, Salon and Democracy Now! all had reports about the curious presence of the 1968 Olympian in Zucotti Park. But talking to the people in the square, the connection is an obvious one and John Carlos made it well: he is them. His boldness, his daring and his sacrifice in 1968 echo strongly in our struggles today. When we do book events for The John Carlos Story, the crowd is overwhelmingly young. As Carlos said this morning on MSNBC, “I definitely see the connection between then and now. Back then we were fighting the racial struggle. Now it’s broader than that because this economy is affecting all of us. The fat cats have had their day. It’s past time for the mice to get together.”

As Dr. Carlos and I were leaving the MSNBC studio, we bumped into someone also very familiar with Wall Street, albeit the non-occupied sections, New York Senator Chuck Schumer. I made the introduction, on my best green-room behavior, and bit my tongue. Chuck Schumer then looked at John’s body up and down and said, “You’re in great shape! Are you still running?” John paused beautifully and said, “Running for justice.” Schumer, perhaps for the first time, was tongue-tied. I would just add that John isn’t “just running for justice,” he’s running toward justice; and he has a hell of a lot of company.

The Legacy of Al Davis: Oakland Raider, Urban Raider

When I was doing my book tour for Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love, I always had a joke in my back pocket about Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis that never failed to generate a laugh. I said that kids in Oakland wake up screaming in the middle of the night saying, "Al Davis is coming to get me!" It was a play on Davis's intimidating all-black wardrobe, his craggy visage, and the futility of the Oakland franchise. I said he looked "like the Crypt-Keeper." would then use the joke as a bridge to comment that Davis should make parents scream as well because the Oakland Raiders soak Alameda County tax-payers to the tune of $20 million a year. I quoted stadium expert Neil DeMause at fieldofschemes.com, who wrote, "the total public cost of bringing back the Raiders (as of 2003 was)  $201 million, plus the mutilation of a once-attractive baseball stadium." 

I pointed out that Davis also sued the city for hundreds of millions of dollars for mismanaging the property and was awarded another $34 million. Lastly, I raised the way Davis really wrote the blueprint for other owners in how to play one city off another when he moved the Oakland Raiders to Los Angeles and then back to Oakland, in a search for public cash. After I made the joke on The Rachel Maddow Show, I received the following email: 

As a teen, I spent several years at Al's house, as his son Mark and I have been close friends for thirty plus years.  [Al's] door was always open to us kids, and no matter how rowdy or obnoxious, he kept a watchful eye on us.  Look, I know the guy is controversial to those who don't know him, but I have seen first hand how much he can be just a dad, and a good guy…not the monster the press always portrays. I'd appreciate it if you kept your comments to his actions, and didn't mock his personal appearance (due to obviously ailing health) to make a point.  He seems fair game, but I can tell you this sort of thing can get to people, even when they are.

Needless to say, I felt awful and apologized to the person that I used a cheap joke at the expense of an ailing man to make my point. I also had to admit that my accounting of Davis wasn't by any means a fair and full portrait. As has been written extensively in every obituary since Davis’s death last week, the man was undoubtedly a trailblazer. He was the first owner in the NFL to hire an African American head coach, Art Shell, and the first owner to hire a Latino coach in Tom Flores. He also hired a woman, Amy Trask as the first-ever female CEO of an NFL team. Davis hounded the suits at NFL inc. earning all the right enemies among his ownership peers.

In addition Davis took chances on players demonized in the press and ostracized from the league. It was the team of last resort for people like Lyle Alzado, Lester Hayes, Jim Plunkett, and many more. All of these players resurrected their careers in the silver and black. Clearly the emotion on the Raiders sideline yesterday, as they beat the Houston Texans 25-20, is also testament to Davis's connection with his wayward team and coaching staff. It takes a hard soul to not quiver as Coach Hue Jackson bent over and sobbed as safety Michael Huff's interception in the end zone secured the team's victory. Fittingly many of the players Davis was maligned for choosing, like wide receiver Darius Heyward-Bey, kicker Sebastian Janikowski (who tied an NFL record with three field goals of over  50 yards) and the much-maligned Huff, were the stars of the day.

Yet the tributes to Davis can't leave out the aforementioned damage done to Alameda County, as he constantly looked to take more money for a franchise that has not come close to returning on its investment. In 2005, when Davis signed a five-year lease extension with Alameda County, he darkly threatened to leave town, saying, "There are a lot of cities out there who are just waiting, just waiting to raise their hand and say, 'We're interested [in an NFL team]...And the numbers that they'll pay are very great. You saw it happen in Houston. They built a brand new stadium. You saw it happen in Cleveland when they lost the Browns to Baltimore. Brand new stadium. Big, modern edifices...I realize [the price to taxpayers] can't be too high, but whatever it is, you've got to think of the quality of life that we bring to the community, that baseball brings to the community, that basketball brings to the community.

These words are being said today by the Spanos family that owns the San Diego Chargers and Zygi Wilf who owns the Minnesota Vikings, as they play cities against each other in a play for public cash. Even a modest look at urban poverty shows what a disaster these stadium are, leaving little but a scant collection of low-pay, no benefit jobs in their wake. Davis may not have been the "Crypt-Keeper" caricature. But he was also wasn't the saint in the city sportswriters are portraying in the aftermath of his passing. Behind the dark shades and leather jackets, he was the NFL owner who was as much urban raider as Oakland Raider. In 2008, I tried to interview Davis  and emailed him one question and one question alone: "Since you're getting so much tax-payer money, does the public perhaps have a right to partial public ownership of the team?" I never received an answer. Any honest look as the legacy of this NFL titan needs to reckon with the way Al Davis magically turned public money into private wealth, and laid a blueprint for other far less charismatic owners to follow.

The Legacy of Al Davis: Oakland Raider, Urban Raider

When I was doing my book tour for Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love, I always had a joke in my back pocket about Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis that never failed to generate a laugh. I said that kids in Oakland wake up screaming in the middle of the night saying, "Al Davis is coming to get me!" It was a play on Davis's intimidating all-black wardrobe, his craggy visage, and the futility of the Oakland franchise. “I said he looked like the crypt-keeper.” I would then use the joke as a bridge to comment that Davis should make parents scream as well because the Oakland Raiders soak Alameda County to the tune of $20 million of taxpayer money a year. I quoted stadium expert Neil DeMause at fieldofschemes.com, who wrote, "the total public cost of bringing back the Raiders (as of 2003 was)  $201 million, plus the mutilation of a once-attractive baseball stadium." 

I pointed out that Davis also sued the city for hundreds of millions of dollars for mismanaging the property and was awarded another $34 million. Lastly, I raised the way Davis really wrote the blueprint for other owners in how to play one city off another when he moved the Oakland Raiders to Los Angeles and then back to Oakland, in a search for public cash. After I made the joke on the Rachel Maddow show, I received the following email: 

"As a teen, I spent several years at Al's house, as his son Mark and I have been close friends for thirty plus years.  His door was always open to us kids, and no matter how rowdy or obnoxious, he kept a watchful eye on us.  Look, I know the guy is controversial to those who don't know him, but I have seen first hand how much he can be just a dad, and a good guy…not the monster the press always portrays. I'd appreciate it if you kept your comments to his actions, and didn't mock his personal appearance (due to obviously ailing health) to make a point.  He seems fair game, but I can tell you this sort of thing can get to people, even when they are Al Davis the icon."

Needless to say, I felt awful and apologized to the person that I used a cheap joke at the expense of an ailing man to make my point. I also had to admit that my accounting of Davis wasn't by any means a fair and full portrait. As has been written extensively since Davis’s death last week, the man was undoubtedly a trailblazer. He was the first owner in the NFL to hire an African American head coach, Art Shell, and the first owner to hire a Latino coach in Tom Flores. He also hired a woman, Amy Trask as the first-ever female CEO of an NFL team. Davis hounded the suits at NFL inc. earning all the right enemies among his ownership peers.

In addition Davis took chances on players demonized in the press and ostracized from the league. It was the team of last resort for people like Lyle Alzado, Lester Hayes, Jim Plunkett, and many more. All of these players resurrected their careers in the silver and black. Clearly the emotion on the Raiders sideline yesterday, as they beat the Houston Texans 25-20, is also testament to Davis's connection with his wayward team and coaching staff. It takes a hard soul to not quiver as Coach Hue Jackson bent over and sobbed as safety Michael Huff's interception in the end zone secured the team's victory. Fittingly many of the players Davis was maligned for choosing, like wide receiver Darius Heyward-Bey, kicker Sebastian Janikowski (who tied an NFL record with three field goals of over  50 yards) and the much-maligned Huff, were the stars of the day.

Yet the tributes to Davis can't leave out the aforementioned damage done to Alameda County, as he constantly looked to take more money for a franchise that has not come close to returning on its investment. In 2005, when Davis signed a five year lease extension with Alameda County, he darkly threatened to leave town, saying, "There are a lot of cities out there who are just waiting, just waiting for (an NFL team) to raise their hand and say, 'We're interested...And the numbers that they'll pay are very great. You saw it happen in Houston. They built a brand new stadium. You saw it happen in Cleveland when they lost the Browns to Baltimore. Brand new stadium. Big, modern edifices...I realize [the price to taxpayers] can't be too high, but whatever it is, you've got to think of the quality of life that we bring to the community, that baseball brings to the community, that basketball brings to the community."

These words are being said today by the Spanos family that owns the San Diego Chargers and Zygi Wilf who owns the Minnesota Vikings, as they play cities against each other in a play for public cash. Even a modest look at urban poverty shows what a disaster these stadium  are, leaving little but a scant collection of low-pay, no benefit jobs in their wake. Davis may not have been the "crypt-keeper" caricature. But he was also wasn't the saint in the city sportswriters are portraying in glowing obituaries. Behind the dark shades and leather jackets, he was the NFL owner who was as much urban raider as Oakland Raider. I tried to interview Davis in 2008 and emailed him one questions and one question alone: Since you're getting so much tax-payer money, does the public perhaps have a right to public ownership? I never received an answer. Any honest look as the legacy of this NFL titan needs to reckon with the way Al Davis magically turned public money into private wealth, and laid a blueprint for other far less charismatic owners to follow.

'If the South Would Have Won': The NFL and Hank Williams Jr.

In our segmented, culturally segregated, 5,000-channel era, the NFL might be the last entertainment product that tries to be all things to all people. Black or white; Northerner or Southerner; male, or female: the NFL wants your passion and wants your money. Last week, for example, was a nod to the wallets of women everywhere, as all players were tinted in bright-pink to “raise breast cancer awareness.” The gravity of the issue didn’t stop Cowboys owner Jerry Jones from displaying his cage-dancing cheerleaders in a more straightforward display of breast-awareness, hold the cancer.

The broadcasts are also pointedly diverse as over-caffeinated talking heads come in all colors. The NFL and their chief broadcast partner ESPN in particular wants the disposable income of one particularly thorny demographic: your right-wing, gun-toting, Palin-loving, Southern football fans. That’s why ESPN inexplicably hired Rush Limbaugh in 2003 to be part of their NFL pre-game team. And that’s why Bocephus himself, Hank Williams Jr. has sang the Monday Night Football theme song for twenty years. But therein lies the NFL’s problem. It’s a trap game. Eventually Limbaugh had to open his mouth, and just as the sun rises in the East, the bile did spew. He of course spoke out in crudely racist terms about then–Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, everyone in the ESPN corporate offices reached for their vapors, and Limbaugh was gone.

Now Hank Williams Jr. has been bounced from singing about “all [his] rowdy friends” because he appeared on Fox and Friends and compared Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler. ESPN issued the following shocked response, saying, “While Hank Williams, Jr. is not an ESPN employee, we recognize that he is closely linked to our company through the open to Monday Night Football. We are extremely disappointed with his comments, and as a result we have decided to pull the open from tonight’s telecast.”

Hank Williams Jr.’s then put forward a bizarre apology where he felt the need to say, “Every time the media brings up the Tea Party it’s painted as racist and extremists—but there’s never a backlash—no outrage to those comparisons.” So a Tea Party supporter compares The Nation’s first African-American president to Hitler and then says it’s a double standard to criticize him because no one gets mad at those who call the Tea Party racist. I now need more coffee.

The bigger question, Is why was ESPN surprised? This is Hank Williams Jr. we’re talking about, not Amy Grant. The man brags that he’ll never stop “speaking my mind.” Unfortunately, his mind resides somewhere on a plantation rocking chair. It’s not just his past controversial statements, such as when he sang about Obama’s “”terrorist friends” at a McCain Palin fundraiser in 2008. The guy actually wrote a song in 1988 about the Civil War called “If the South Would Have Won.” The lyrics are, “If the South would have won we would have it made. / I’d make my supreme court down in Texas / and we wouldn’t have no killers getting off free / If they were proven guilty then they would swing quickly / instead of writing’ books and smiling’ on TV / We’d put Florida on the right track, ‘cause we’d take Miami back.” (From who? Jews? Cubans? Haitians? Or will Hank go for the trifecta?) “…I said, if the South woulda won / we would a had it made!/Might even be better off!” (In a league where 70 percent of the players are black, 100 percent of the owners are white, maybe this should be the Monday Night theme song.)

The problem, in other words, isn’t Hank Williams Jr. It’s ESPN and the NFL thinking they can stretch the boundaries of their product to unite racists and anti-racists; neoconfederates and people who are ready to put the Stars and Bars in our national rear-view mirror; Redskins fans and those who find that franchise name sickening. We are living in times of profound polarization. If the NFL really wants to cater to the demographic that loves Hank Williams Jr. and Rush Limbaugh, they’d be better ordering the Broncos to just start Tim Tebow.

Occupy the NBA!

“The purpose of Occupy Wall Street is to reclaim the country from corporate interests. The protesters feel as though their political system has been hijacked by Wall Street’s corporations, and as a result their elected officials now serve the interests of the wealthy upper 1 percenters instead of what they call the ‘99 percent.’ ”   —Allison Kilkenny, Citizen Radio

After decades of corporate greed run amok, a viral clarion call has sounded to strike back and “occupy everywhere.” What started as several dozen people saying they would “occupy Wall Street” has become a national movement. Now we have thousands of people who are part of Occupy Boston, Occupy DC, Occupy Los Angeles, Occupy Las Vegas, even Occupy Nebraska. Now we have labor organizations like the Transit Workers Union and 1199 joining the charge. Now it’s high time to take this movement and bring it to the National Basketball Association. We need to “Occupy the NBA.”

Why not? Do you really want to talk about corporate greed piledriving the interests of “the other 99 percent”? Look no further than the NBA. The League’s billionaire owners have locked their doors and threatened to cancel the 2011-12 season following the most lucrative year in league history. They haven’t only locked out the players union but thousands of low-wage workers—the people cleaning the arenas, parking the cars and selling the overpriced flat, foamy swill the league calls beer. They’ve also locked out secretaries and scouts, managers and mascots. Somewhere in Phoenix there’s a guy in a gorilla suit with a sign that reads, “Will dunk for food.”

It’s Wall Street’s version of the high pick-and-roll, their go-to play: magically turning our tax dollars into their profits. Look at the billions that have gone to NBA arenas while public workers are laid off and the infrastructure of our cities rot. As economist David Berri has noted, $2 billion has gone into building eight new facilities. Of that amount, 84 percent, $1.75 billion, has come out of our pockets. That number also doesn’t include the $2 billion in tax dollars being funneled into the Atlantic Yards Project for the soon-to-be Brooklyn Nets. David Stern’s claim that twenty-three of thirty owners are “losing money” on the NBA, while leaving public subsidies out of his math, only demonstrates his ugly contempt for us 99 percenters.

Is it the arrogance of the privileged class that makes your blood boil? Listen to Ted Leonsis, the owner of the NBA’s Washington Wizards. In September, Leonsis said, “Economic Success has somehow become the new boogie man; some in the Democratic party are now casting about for enemies and business leaders and anyone who has achieved success in terms of rank or fiscal success is being cast as a bad guy in a black hat. This is counter to the American Dream and is really turning off so many people that love America and basically carry our country on their back by paying taxes and by employing people.” So we pay for their stadiums, we buy their sweatshop-stitched crap, we work for poverty wages at the park and they’re carrying us on their back? Please kiss me where the good Lord split me.

So what would an “Occupy NBA” look like? The demands are bothobvious enough and placard-ready: “Stop the lockout!” “Public ownership of teams that take public money!” “A living wage for stadium workers!” “Better beer!”

The method should be encampments out in front of every arena. We could gather with food, water, tents, “people’s libraries” filled with the collected works of Zander Hollander and of course, a bunch of basketballs and a hoop. We would also need to dialogue with players and encourage them to start their own league until David Stern stops using his head as a rectal thermometer. As Henry Abbot wrote on ESPN’s True Hoop blog before being methodically tortured in an undisclosed Bristol, Connecticut, safehouse, “So long as taxpayers pay for the stadiums, and players do the work, why, again, do we cut owners in on the deal?

The players have clearly also had enough of the arrogance and absence of accountability in the owner’s box. Last week, the stars finally came out to the negotiations with Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony making themselves heard. When David Stern pointed his finger repeatedly at Wade, the all-star guard responded, “Don’t point your finger at me. I’m a grown man. I have children.” Later, Lebron, D-Wade, Durant and Carmelo all stood at attention, arms crossed, behind a sitting Derek Fisher, the union president, as he resumed negotiations with Stern. Now that’s how to do a union negotiation.

Watching the NBA players develop a backbone, and seeing the reemergence of fightback against corporate greed, it’s difficult to not think about the words of Troy Polamalu during the NFL’s lockout over the summer. The Steelers safety said: “I think what the players are fighting for is something bigger. A lot of people think it’s millionaires versus billionaires and that’s the huge argument. The fact is its people fighting against big business. The big business argument is ‘I got the money and I got the power therefore I can tell you what to do.’ That’s life everywhere. I think this is a time when the football players are standing up and saying, ‘No, no, no, the people have the power.’ ”

Yes we certainly do. I want my basketball, and I know I’m not alone. Let’s Occupy the NBA.

Troy Davis and Our Laser-Pointer Culture

One week ago, the state of Georgia murdered Troy Anthony Davis in cold blood. Despite a death penalty conviction shrouded in doubt and an international outcry, Troy was injected with poison until his heart stopped beating. Despite pleas for clemency from a pope, a former president, Reagan’s FBI director and former Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele, Troy was put to death with chemicals the army uses to euthanize dogs. Despite the work of thousands of activists, there was a legal lynching in Georgia.

The night of Troy’s death saw an unprecedented national conversation about the death penalty. News broadcasts led with Troy’s story. “Troy Davis” was the number-one trending topic on Twitter. Even in my corner of the media world in sports-radio-land, many microphone jocks understood that something momentous and monstrous had taken place, and took the time to open up the phone lines and express their thoughts. (Granted, some of these thoughts might have been better left unsaid.) Some athletes even took to Twitter to express their rage.

Now it’s one week later, and in the world of mainstream as well as social media, Troy Davis is yesterday’s news. The big stories are about whether New Jersey’s unionbusting governor will satisfy his gluttonous ambitions by running for president. It’s about the “heroism” of Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo in leading his team to victory on Monday Night Football with bruised ribs. It’s the false rumors that a sex tape is out there featuring 18-year-old Miley Cyrus. Here we have our ADD media in all its infamy: political intrigue, football and barely legal porn. They’re like a person with a laser pointer torturing a cat by flashing it at different spot on a dark rug, as the cat haplessly leaps from spot to spot. Meanwhile, Troy Davis is still dead. Meanwhile, our government performed a methodical ritualistic murder. This is simply something we cannot afford to casually unsee.

This Saturday, October 1, Troy Davis is being put to rest in Savannah, Georgia. His family has asked that supporters in different cities hold commemorations and wear black armbands or Troy Davis T-shirts. Whatever people do, the family wants us to never forget, because that was in accordance with Troy’s last wishes. “There are so many more Troy Davises," he said. “This fight to end the death penalty is not won or lost through me but through our strength to move forward and save every innocent person in captivity around the globe. We need to dismantle this unjust system city by city, state by state and country by country.”

In DC, we are gathering at 11 am at Tivoli Square (14th and Park NW) and we’ll march to St. Stephens Church at 16th and Newton. There we will hear speakers including 1968 Olympian John Carlos, Dr. Jared Ball and Reverend Graylan Hagler. Then we will walk down to the White House to leave a cardboard coffin at the steps of the White House. The idea that President Obama would say nothing is its own outrage. And to the Obama fantasists, crudely working overtime trying to shore up his left flank for next year’s election, he did in fact say nothing.

But Obama’s silence should only fuel our desire to make sure that Troy isn’t forgotten with the next news cycle. Howard Zinn once said, “It doesn’t matter who’s sitting in the White House. It matters who’s sitting in.” This Saturday, sit, stand and speak out for Troy Davis. Let’s ensure, like Emmett Till before him, that his death haunts those who see black life as expendable. There are, as he said, so many more Troy Davises.

Troy Davis, John Carlos and the Moment That Still Matters

On September 21, the day that Troy Davis was executed in Georgia, 200 very angry Howard University students pumped their fists in front of the Barack Obama’s White House and chanted “No Justice, No Vote.” At that moment, I understood why an image from 1968 still resonates today. It was forty-three years ago this week when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists on the Olympic medal stand and, along with supportive silver-medalist Peter Norman, created a moment seared for all time in the American consciousness.

This week also marks the release of John Carlos’s autobiography, The John Carlos Story, which I co-wrote. When John asked me to write the book, I felt compelled to do it because I’ve long wondered, “Why?” Not why did Smith and Carlos sacrifice fame, fortune and glory in one medal-stand moment, but why that moment has stood the test of time.

Of course, much of the book details why John Carlos took his stand. It was 1968. Dr. King had been assassinated. The black freedom struggle had become a fixture of American life. In the world of Olympic sports, apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia were regulars at the games. There were scant black coaches. Avery Brundage, an avowed white supremacist, ran the International Olympic Committee. John Carlos in particular, in the 1960s, went from being a Harlem high school track star—walking down the street talking both smack and politics with neighborhood regulars like Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell—to being a scholarship athlete at segregated East Texas State. The gap between his sense of himself as a man and going to the South and being treated like a boy drove him politically toward his medal-stand moment.

The answer to “Why do so many of us still care?” was tougher to decipher. In 2010, I appeared on a panel on the history of sports and resistance with Carlos, after which a long line of young people born years—even decades—after 1968 patiently waited for his signature on everything from posters and T-shirts to hastily procured pieces of notebook paper. Why? And why have I seen street-corner merchants from Harlem to Johannesburg sell T-shirts emblazoned with that image?

The most obvious is that people love a good redemption song. Smith and Carlos have been proven correct by history. They were reviled for taking a stand and using the Olympic podium to do it. A young sportswriter named Brent Musberger called them “Black-skinned stormtroopers.” But their “radical” demands have since proved to be prescient. Today, the idea of standing up to apartheid South Africa, racism and Avery Brundage seems a matter of common decency rather than radical rabble-rousing. After years of death threats, poverty and being treated as pariahs in the world of athletics, Smith and Carlos attend ceremonial unveilings of statues erected in their honor. America, like no other country on earth, loves remarking on its own progress.

But it was the Howard students, chanting “No Justice, No Vote” to an African-American president on the night of a Georgia execution, who truly unveiled for me why the image of black-gloved fists thrust in the air has retained its power. Smith and Carlos sacrificed privilege and glory, fame and fortune, for a larger cause. As Carlos says, “A lot of the [black] athletes thought that winning [Olympic] medals would protect them from racism. But even if you won a medal, it ain’t going to save your momma. It ain’t going to save your sister or children. It might give you fifteen minutes of fame, but what about the rest of your life?”

Carlos’s attitude resonates because for all the blather about us living in a “post-racial society,” there are reservoirs of anger about the realities of racism in the United States. The latest poverty statistics show that black poverty rate of 27.4 percent is nearly double the overall US rate. Black children living in poverty has reached 39.1 percent. Then there’s the criminal justice system, where 33 percent of African-American men are either in jail or on parole. The image of Carlos and Smith evokes a degree of principle, fearlessness and freedom that I believe many people think are sorely lacking today. They stood at the Olympics unencumbered by doubt, as brazenly free men. We are still grappling with the fact that they had to do it and the fact that it still needs to be done.

After Troy Davis's Death, Questions I Can't Unask

1. Can Troy Davis, who fought to his last breath, actually be dead this morning?

2. If we felt tortured with fear and hope for the four hours that the Supreme Court deliberated on Troy’s case, how did the Davis family feel? 

3. Why does this hurt so much? 

4. Does Judge Clarence Thomas, once an impoverished African-American son of Georgia, ever acknowledge in quiet moments that he could easily have been Troy Davis?

5. What do people who insist we have to vote for Obama and support the Democrats “because of the Supreme Court” say this morning?

7. Why does the right wing in this country distrust “big government” on everything except executing people of color and the poor?

8. Why were Democrats who spoke out for Troy the utter exception and not the rule?

9. Why didn’t the New York Times editorial page say anything until after Troy’s parole was denied, when their words wouldn’t mean a damn? 

10. Why does this hurt so much?

11. How can Barack Obama say that commenting on Troy’s case is “not  appropriate” but it’s somehow appropriate to bomb Libya and kill nameless innocents without the pretense of congressional approval?

12. What would he say if Malia asked him that question?

13. How can we have a Black family in the White House and a legal lynching in Georgia?

14. Why does this hurt so much?

15. Can we acknowledge that in our name, this country has created hundreds of thousands of Troy Davises in the Middle East?

16. Can we continue to coexist peacefully in a country that executes its own?

17. What the hell do I tell my 7-year-old daughter, who has been marching to save Troy since she was in a stroller?

18. If some of Troy’s last words were, “This movement began before I was born, it must continue and grow stronger until we abolish the death penalty once and for all,” then do we not have nothing less than a moral obligation to continue the fight?

A Statement From Troy Davis

If you were hours from being executed for a crime you did not commit, what would you say? Here are the words of Troy Anthony Davis, on the day of his unjust execution at the hands of the state of Georgia. His generosity of spirit speaks for itself (thank you to Jiva Manske at Amnesty International for sending this to me):

“The struggle for justice doesn’t end with me. This struggle is for all the Troy Davises who came before me and all the ones who will come after me. I’m in good spirits and I’m prayerful and at peace. But I will not stop fighting until I’ve taken my last breath. Georgia is prepared to snuff out the life of an innocent man.”

Troy hasn’t stopped fighting, and neither should we. If there is a demonstration in your area, please attend. If there’s not, grab a sign and start one. People can also call Judge Penny Freesemann at (912) 652-7252 or fax her at (912) 652-7254 and ask her to withdraw the death warrant. We should never mourn when there is still time to fight.

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