This post will sound very different from what you are accustomed to reading on this blog — both more political, and more emotional. I am writing quickly, and from a place of deep grief.
Kelly Gissendaner was executed early this morning by the Sate of Georgia.
I could have been Kelly. By the grace of whatever is sacred in this world, and the privileges of class and education, I am in a different place.
I devoted several hours last night and today trying to engage kindly with people who spewed ugly, hate-filled messages about Kelly’s life and death onto social media platforms. I was struck by two things: the smug, self-satisfied attitudes of the women, and the vengeful rage of the men.
Their messages weren’t about justice.
The death penalty is not an instrument of justice, but rather, a tool of oppression. You see, the states that execute the greatest numbers of people are the same states where lynching was most prevalent. It is not so much a deterrent to crime as much as a message to women and people of color about the ways they must behave if they wish to retain their lives — the same lives that are declared inalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence. Two things, above all, are not permitted: women must not kill men, especially their husbands or lovers. People of color must not kill white people.
The death penalty exists to remind entire groups of people of the fate that will befall them if they challenge white men. Which explains the rage of those men on social media, for Kelly was complicit in the murder of one of their own. It explains, as well, the callous attitudes expressed by the GA Parole Board and the courts that could have stopped her execution. The women, on the other hand, are “successes” compared to Kelly — successful in behaving in ways that do not challenge men. Thus, their smugness. What was missing from the comments was an acknowledgment of our shared humanity.
I draw a sharp distinction people and their behaviors. And I believe, in the depths of my heart, that the vast majority of people, at any given moment, are doing the best they can, given their genetics, upbringing, education, resources and experiences. For some people, the best they are able to do is, objectively, pathetic. I am not excusing harmful or criminal behavior. Yet I know that had I lived Kelly Gissendaner’s life, I might have acted no differently. When people stumble and fail, they need our help, not our condemnation. Justice — not revenge — is needed when crimes are committed. At the same time, we need to learn to soften our hearts and cut each other a break. And sometimes, we need to extend that same compassion to ourselves.
Life is sacred. Kelly was an accomplice to murder. I believe that the reason Kelly did not hold Doug’s life sacred in that moment is that she had not yet come to understand the sanctity of her own existence. She learned that later, in prison. I know and love the people who helped her realize that truth.
With all of the privileges afforded to me — none of which were available to Kelly — I have not yet overcome the trauma and conditioning of my early life. I work on it. I am a better person than I used to be. But I am not a Nelson Mandela, able to walk out of prison with forgiveness in my heart. And Kelly’s heart was more joyful and at ease than my own.
And so I return to my work: the process of becoming the person I am capable of being, and also offering whatever help I can to others who seek the path of love and compassion.
Rest now, Kelly, in the love and the light. And may we all be forgiven for the many ways we fail each other, every single day.
© 2015 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved.