ONE OF THE THINGS we love about Savannah is how she spins her old stories, hangs on to them lovingly like family heirlooms, bringing them out on special occasions, polishing them a little with each retelling.
The flip side of that nostalgia—the side we don’t celebrate—is that not all Savannah’s old stories involve happy things, and how the unhappy tales often resurface again and again when we try to get things done in the present day.
One such old Savannah story— if 25 years is at all old by local standards—is the tale of Mark MacPhail and Troy Anthony Davis, and events which began the night of Aug. 19, 1989.
For those relatively new to town, it’s a very important story to know, with real-world ramifications today. Here’s the short version:
Before construction of the huge, glowing new Joe Murray Rivers Jr. Intermodal Transit Center near MLK and Oglethorpe, that site was occupied by a crappy old Greyhound station with a crappy old Burger King, overlooking a crappy old parking lot. Beyond it loomed little more than the bridge to South Carolina.
That part of Savannah is chock-a-block with new hotels, SCAD dorms, and trolley tour kiosks now, but back then it was the very definition of a “darkness on the edge of town,” as the old Springsteen tune goes.
Officer Mark MacPhail, a 27-year-old Savannah policeman and former Army Ranger with two young children, lost his life near the crappy Burger King drive-thru that night. While working off-duty security, he came to the defense of a homeless man being pistol-whipped in the parking lot in a dispute over alcohol.
A jury found a Savannah man, Troy Davis, guilty of shooting MacPhail with a .38 pistol in the face and the heart as they grappled. MacPhail never drew his gun.
During a two-decade appeals process, Davis became a cause célèbre for popes and presidents, and the focal point of international efforts to stop the death penalty. He aged from a street tough fresh out of his teens to a bespectacled middle-aged man.
The process was so long, in fact, that during that time the Georgia Department of Corrections switched its method of execution, from electric chair to lethal injection.
Davis was executed Sept. 21, 2011, at a state prison in Jackson, Ga. He was buried in Savannah that Oct. 1.
If you’ve learned anything at all about old Savannah stories, you’ll guess there’s a racial aspect to this one. You’d be right: MacPhail was white and Davis was black.
Nearly all the witnesses incriminating Troy Davis were African American. It was a majority African American jury that first found Davis guilty, after only two hours of deliberation.
Race would become a crucial part of the story later, with some very legitimate questions regarding the unequal application of the death penalty. These questions gained new momentum after seven witnesses for the prosecution recanted their testimony.
Race resurfaced again recently, when the Chatham Area Transit board considered putting a memorial to MacPhail near the site of his murder.
In most cities, a monument to a policeman killed in the line of duty would merit zero controversy and an immediate unanimous vote in favor.
But Savannah is not most cities.
Some African American CAT board members—who also hold other elected positions—objected to a monument specifically for MacPhail.
County commissioner Priscilla Thomas said, “There are a lot of hard feelings in this community because at this point they feel that their relatives have been ignored.”
James Holmes, also a county commissioner, said, “When have we [CAT] got into the business of honoring our fallen officers?”
Now’s probably as good a time as any to mention that CAT’s gleaming new Intermodal Transit Center is named for a still-living former politician and CAT director and cost taxpayers about $15 million.
Reasonable people can disagree about Troy Davis’s guilt or innocence, and about capital punishment’s morality, inequitable application, and effectiveness or lack thereof.
But there has never been even the hint of a debate about the appropriateness of MacPhail’s actions. A memorial to MacPhail’s bravery and sacrifice doesn’t have to invoke Davis at all.
In the end, the CAT Board agreed to a weak compromise: A new memorial to all 51 fallen local police officers—even though one such memorial already exists, in the median on Oglethorpe near police HQ.
It was a typical politician’s non-solution solution: Split the difference, avoid as much responsibility as possible, and move on.
Here’s the surprise:
I sort of agree with them.
I agree there shouldn’t be a specific memorial honoring Mark MacPhail.
I agree with MacPhail’s now-grown son, who said, “We will never need a plaque to remind us that a hero fell there.”
I agree that the already-existing memorial to fallen officers is probably sufficient.
But here’s what I want the new memorial to honor:
The memory of all victims of gun violence in Chatham County.
Violence which has claimed dozens of dead and injured victims each year in Savannah since MacPhail’s death in 1989, and since Davis’s execution in 2011.
Three just this past week, one dead.
You’ve probably never heard of a guy named Michael Cooper. His name was rarely mentioned during the two decades the media covered international efforts to release Davis from Death Row.
But Cooper is the unspoken part of this particular Savannah tale. If you’re going to tell these old stories, you need to tell the whole story.
Cooper was also shot in the face that August night in 1989, one hour before MacPhail was killed.
Cooper survived, but several .38 shell casings at his shooting tied Troy Davis to the MacPhail murder, cementing Davis’s guilt in the jurors’ minds.
Mark MacPhail was a hero. Michael Cooper, by most accounts, was far from it.
Regardless, bullets from the same gun changed both their lives and the lives of their loved ones forever.
Bullets don’t care who’s good or who’s bad. Who’s black or who’s white. Who’s a cop or who’s a criminal.
Maybe our memorials to their endless stream of victims should be the same way—faceless, numberless—so we can see the true enormity of the problem facing all of us.