Danny Rolling was executed today and they want to know what I think about it.
It is 4:34 in the afternoon. I am in the office of Jeannette Westlake, acupuncturist and herbalist extraordinaire, when my cell-phone rings. Normally I would not bother to reach for it, sitting there having my pulse read, discussing how my week has been, how I’ve slept (very little), what my energy level has been (very little), and how much I like my job (very little), but I felt the need to answer it, knew I needed to, and reached for it. I did not recognize the number but it was a Gainesville area code. I flipped open the phone.
Is Adam Tritt there?
Yes. And who is this?
Miles Doren with AM850. I spoke with your wife earlier and was wondering if she got to you before I did.
Why, yes, she did.
Oh, good, then you know why we want to interview you. Is this a good time?
No, actually. I have no idea.
But I thought she got to you before I did.
She did. About twenty-five years before you. But I doubt you want what she wants. You don’t, do you?
Oh, I see… (pause, extra long) I wanted to ask you a few questions about the Student Memorial on the 34th Street Wall.
Again? Why? Have they measured how thick the paint is again?
No. They are executing Rolling today.
Are they? I don’t keep up. Why would I?
It is a reporter from Gainesville. It is a bad time. He wants to interview me about Danny Rolling. I have no desire to talk about him again. Again and again. Again.
I’ll have to call you back. Will a half hour be ok? Just in time? Oh, you want to talk with me before he dies. He has less than two hours. I see.
His death has been scheduled. I think of how some feel God calls a person home at a certain time, pre-determined. We do the same. At a little after six this afternoon, in Starke, Florida, we will do what some say only God should. We will commit the act profanus. We will be obscene.
My appointment has finished and I am in the truck and on my way to a peace rally. It is being held in front of a candidate meet and greet. It is at least twenty minutes away and I call the reporter back after plugging in my earphone.
Yes, I am the person who created the student memorial. No, I didn’t do it alone. Paul Chase lives in Gainesville still. Call him. No, I didn’t know Rolling was being executed today.
I have ceased writing. I feel teary and stop to call Paul. It is a few minutes after eleven and too late to be calling and I call anyway. I need to talk, vent. I feel he would understand. He painted the wall with me. I want to tell him how the interview was. How they talked of Rolling continuously. I want to tell him they didn’t understand how I could be against his death, any death. Treated me as though I, whom they had called, had suddenly blackened the names, darkened the day of their celebration. How the interviews ended in awkwardness and the semi-silence of the confusion of a person not hearing what they expected to hear and not knowing what to say in response.
He doesn’t answer and I leave a message. I write more and soon go to bed but it takes me longer than I hoped to sleep.
There were small memorials all over the city. Terse, frazzled, at once jangled and quiet with desperate attempts at safety, small rings of candles, tiny altars, flowers and wreaths were everywhere. People were doing their best to deal with the murders: five students in 48 hours – senseless, absurd, heinous, brutal, in-human.
We sat in an apartment in Corey Village, married student housing for the University of Florida. Paul and Dulce, Myself and Lee. Two couples. There is a wall nearby people had been painting on for years. Graffiti, signs, birthdays, slogans, political, social, comic. The 34th Street Wall was the city’s billboard and the police turned a knowing blind eye to the midnight artistry and the rest of the city stayed clean and clear. It was there we decided to place our memorial. It is there. The memorial is still there. That was 1990.
Somehow, after the memorial, people stopped arguing so much about whether the wall should exist. It was as if Tritt’s panel had become something the town needed.
When the city last resurfaced 34th Street, the plan to widen the bike lane would have required tearing out part of the wall. Instead, the DOT’s Busscher said, officials opted to narrow the median to protect the graffiti.
Sixteen years later, the black-and-white panel hasn’t changed much. New students, who were toddlers when the murders occurred, seem to know not to paint there, even if they don’t know why. (Kelly Benham, 2005. St. Peterburg Times)
We got flack from our wives. The expense. No-one had gas or grocery money. How long would it take? Do you know how? Isn’t it illegal? We don’t have money for food let alone bail. We took the flack. We also took the Honda Spree, both of us on it, to Wal-Mart at nearly eleven at night and bought mistake-paint of whatever colors were there for a dollar or two a gallon, some brushes, a roller and a pan. We spent $11.25, put it all in the milk crate behind us on the scooter and all of it 49cced back to the 34th Street Wall. It was nearing midnight.
More questions. All this is available in newspapers and on television. It was on CNN and 20/20, The St. Pete Times and Tampa Tribune, Miami Herald, Ft. Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, Gainesville Sun, The Orlando Sentinel, The Alligator (where it tore apart the staff and ended potential careers), manifold college newspapers. USA Today, Florida Today. It is in them again and again and again.
My son, 2006, at Palm Bay High School in Melbourne, learned about me in history class, in law class.
At the tenth anniversary, 2000, I was invited back to Gainesville by Keep Gainesville Beautiful and the Tenth Anniversary Foundation. I was thanked in public by officials, by Lt. Sadie Darnell, then spokesperson for the Gainesville police. Privately, later, I told Sadie (who is now running for Sherriff of Alachua County… You go Sadie!) it set a bad example, having me at a golf course function, thanking me in public for an act of vandalism. I was cried over by the families of the five. Why did I do it they wanted to know. It was the thing to do. There was no question.
It was just right. Our thought was the city needed a focus; one place for tears and altars and vigils, one place to pool energy. The wall was recognized and it would be. It would last a week, maybe, on this wall of the ephemeral and the transitory, before being painted over, reclaimed. Maybe not even that long. It would be enough.
We rolled on the black paint at the selected spot; the crest of the wall as it follows the hill at the south wall of the U of F Golf Course on one side, and, on the other side of that serenity, a main artery of the city and one of its busiest streets. Rolling on the midnight paint in the pre-morning darkness. We painted a twenty foot section. Occasionally a car would go by and we would lay low. We didn’t know there was no need.
Then, a large white heart on the right. A red heart in the center of that. The five names on the other half of the wall. It took us until nearly four in the morning before we finished our rough painting, under the heart, “We Remember.” We cleaned up and went home. Paul to Corey Village and me, taking my scooter back to my trailer at Windmeadows. It was the thing to do. There was no question. It was enough.
The next morning there were flowers at the wall. More by the end of the day. By the evening, there were wreaths, candles, altars. People taking pictures.
No. we didn’t expect it to stay. It never did, never does. In the space of a week, with the memorial still at the wall, part of it had been painted over with something rather callous telling us “People Die.” True enough. But, by mid-day, it had been repaired. People were taking it upon themselves to keep the memorial intact. We knew people who kept paint for just that purpose. Across from the wall was Spanish Trace apartments. Residents would notify the right people if the memorial was defaced. It would be fixed by day’s end. A month had passed. We were astonished. An actual group had been formed. They called themselves “Keepers of the Wall.”
In a year, we could barely believe it. Phone calls, interviews, pictures and I told one reporter I actually had thought of painting over it myself. Why? Time to move on, to not have murder as the central focus of the city. And who had a greater right to paint over it than me? But the wall belongs to the city and they had taken the memorial as their own. As long as they took care of it.
And every time they did, it was just a little different. Neater this time, an extra heart another, Always changing slightly.
Five years past. It was still there. People had come and gone, stewardship had passed from person to person, care was taken that care was taken. Fraternities took keeping it up as a social concerns project. Families made it their business to keep the area neat. And then, the father of one of the victims asked the city for permission to do what had never been done: make a portion of the wall permanent. It was granted.
A permit was issued to allow, actually allow someone to paint on the wall. And not just paint, but build. A coquina shell frame was created around the memorial. Our handiwork, the continued handiwork and labour of care was covered with a protective clear coating that would allow any paint put on it to be washed off. The ephemeral had become permanent. The transient, stagnant. That is never a good idea.
It cost quite a bit. And someone made more money off it than they should have and sold the family an inferior coating. It leaked. Water got in. In a few years, it was in need of repair. The Ten Year Anniversary Foundation was created. They needed money and lots of it. And this time it would be done right.
I was asked to take part in the repainting. They said they wanted the continuity of having me help strip the old paint and repaint the memorial anew.
I met some of the parents, grandparents and siblings and there were more pictures and interviews and scraping and chisels and the paint came off in sheets and chunks nearly an inch thick. How many layers of paint in the space of nearly forty years of constant covering and recovering? Well, for the central section, thirty years. Thirty. An inch thickness of paint, nearly two inches in some swollen sections, comes off and cover the sidewalk. Over the space of a weekend, done.
The wall is prepared. I am asked to take a brush and paint. I do, making a brushstroke, then another, then handing it off to a family member, a Paules, a Taboada. I have done what I was asked and I am finished, but for the new set of pictures and interviews.
Now it is sixteen years. The reporters are calling me again.
This is a radio interview.
How do you feel knowing Rolling is about to die?
I turn my phone over and look at the time. 6:10.
I feel terrible. No, I do not believe in the death penalty. It is not a deterrent. No, I feel it is an example of the power over structure and this is accepted so in our culture that those with more power feel it is acceptable to wield it over those with less, as Rolling did over those five students. Silence.
What he did is beyond horrific. And not one person would say he isn’t sick. Torturing someone and slowly bringing about their un-natural death as they wait, a passive participant in their own end. No good person would do what he did. No good person would torture someone with the fear and knowledge of impending, un-natural death. Worse yet to have that scheduled, planned. Who could live with that? A day? A year? Sixteen?
No, Ma’am, I’m not saying how could Rolling live with that. I am asking how could we? If no good person would do that, what are we? What are our laws? What does that make us?
So you don’t feel he should die?
I don’t believe we should kill him.
But what about the families?
She wants a specific answer. I am not following the script and she is pulling at anything she can to elicit the sound bite that will work for her; the one that will do the job. A place for my voice has been scheduled, blocked out, set aside and what I’m saying simply isn’t going to do. I does not fall within their plan and the reporter seems upset I am not validating her belief of what I should believe. And she sounds astonished I feel as I do. That I could feel as I do. Do I get angry? Yes. No, it should not have anything to do with my stance. We are to temper our feelings with knowledge. Why else be human?
Someone once told me something about the angels of our better nature. It stuck.
The families deserve more than revenge.
I tell her while I disagree, I hope it brings them closure. I hope it brings them peace.
Rolling has been in the execution chamber for some twenty minutes. Two intravenous tubes have been inserted into his arms by the execution team; one in each arm. These tubes feed through a wall into an anteroom where the executioner is located. He is on a heart monitor and strapped to a gurney as saline solution begins to flow through the tubes.
Sodium pentathol, at two grams, comes next. This is a short acting barbiturate. It is designed to render the inmate unconscious. Florida has had botched lethal injections. The best laid plans…
The warden gives a signal, the execution team begin with another flushing of saline and then pancuronium bromide is administered. This will paralyze the diaphragm and lungs.
More saline. Then potassium chloride. This interrupts the electrical signal of the heart and it stops beating. The syringes are numbered in order.
At 6:12 the reporter asks if I have anything else I’d like to add.
Yes. In the time I have been speaking with you, you have talked about no-one but Rolling. You talk as though it is wrong of me to not want his execution. The real shame is you keep talking about Rolling, but you never, not once, mentioned the names of the students. Not one time did I hear any of their names. You are more interested in celebrating his death than their lives.
Let us put their names here, right now. Sonia Larson, Christina Powell, Christa Hoyt, Tracy Paules and Manuel Taboada.
I am reminded that, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, recently, two students, Quakers, were murdered. Young children. The Quakers reached out not only to the families of the slain but to the family of the slayer. They honoured the lives of the children by supporting peace. This is not supporting peace. This is perpetuating violence and the students deserve more than that. They deserve better than that. Their families deserve better than that. They deserve better than a wall and vengeance.
“I feel like I should have a sign placed on me saying that I remember Christa, but not with this killing.” (Bonnie Flassig, Gainesville resident now and then and a neighbour of Christa Hoyt)
I turn over my phone to glance at the time. 6:14. At 6:13, Danny Rolling was pronounced dead. While I spoke. We killed a man while we talked of him. Obscene.
I think maybe that interview did not make it onto the air.
Good. Maybe they’ll stop calling.