Workers Vanguard No. 1009
28 September 2012
Tough on Crime Anti-Death Penalty Measure
Abolish the Racist Death Penalty!
Vote Yes on California Prop 34!
In a country that leads the world in the number of people behind bars, disproportionately black, the endurance of the death penalty is rooted in the foundation of American capitalism, which was built on the scarred backs of black slaves. Capital punishment is the supreme declaration of state authority and the monopoly of violence in the hands of this country’s racist capitalist rulers. The so-called “Golden State” of California leads the nation in death row inmates, with close to one-quarter of the more than 3,170 men and women condemned to die. Of the 729 death row prisoners, overwhelmingly concentrated at San Quentin, 14 have exhausted all appeals. The only thing standing between them and the death chamber are court-directed negotiations over which combination of deadly chemicals to inject in their veins to avoid the charge of “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Proposition 34 (the SAFE California Act), which is on the ballot in the November elections, calls to repeal the state’s death penalty and replace it with life without parole. As Marxists, we oppose the death penalty on principle—for the guilty as well as the innocent. We do not accord the state the right to determine who lives and who dies, and welcome any measure against the death penalty or curtailing the reach of the state’s killing machine. While the measure is couched as a means of making the system of capitalist repression more effective and efficient, including by redirecting money to police departments, what is primary for us in calling for a “yes” vote is that the SAFE Act is a referendum on state-sanctioned murder.
The very name ascribed to this ballot initiative by its sponsors, the “Savings, Accountability and Full Enforcement for California Act,” expresses the cruel calculus of capitalist “justice,” weighing the costs of legal murder against the expense of relegating prisoners to a living death on what class-war political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal so aptly calls “life row.” Arguing that “California’s death penalty is an empty promise,” the act appeals for a more efficient and effective punishment. Whipping up the spectre of depraved criminals on the loose, the SAFE Act declares: “Killers and rapists walk our streets free and threaten our safety, while we spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on a select few who are already behind bars forever on death row.... By replacing the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole, we would save the state $1 billion in five years without releasing a single prisoner.” One hundred million dollars of these “savings” is pledged to the cops, courts and prosecutors.
Yet despite all of these sops to the forces of “law and order,” the California District Attorneys Association, the State Sheriffs’ Association and a number of other police agencies are literally screaming murder. Their “Vote No on Prop 34” Web site promotes speeding up the state’s killing machine. It proposes streamlining the appeals process to get rid of “delay tactics” and instituting a one-drug protocol of death, pointing to Ohio, where 14 death row prisoners have been killed by this method since 2009. Declaring that life without parole “will cost taxpayers more in healthcare costs” for aging inmates, these opponents of the SAFE Act argue that savings can be made by no longer housing death row prisoners in single cells. Reveling in barbarism, their “Mend It, Don’t End It” statement concludes with the bloodthirsty complaint that “cop killers, baby killers and serial killers who rightfully received the death penalty do not deserve the benefits they have at San Quentin.”
In our opposition to the death penalty, we are equally committed to the abolition of life without parole, the prisons and all the barbaric institutions of the capitalist state. Our purpose is to arm the working class with the understanding that the cops, courts, prisons and military make up the apparatus for the violent repression of the working class and the oppressed in defense of the power and profits of the capitalist rulers. It will take nothing short of proletarian socialist revolution to sweep this state away.
Voices from Death Row
Some of the condemned men on San Quentin’s death row have also raised their opposition to the SAFE Act. They have spoken out against being entombed for life in prison with their appeals cut off and forced to be unpaid slave laborers as restitution for their alleged crimes. Among these prisoners is Kevin Cooper, a black man framed up for the killing of a white family in 1983. In 2004, only hours before he was to be strapped to the death chamber gurney, Cooper was granted a stay of execution. Despite overwhelming evidence of his innocence and a more than 100-page opinion by Judge William Fletcher of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal arguing that the “State of California may be about to execute an innocent man,” in 2009 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Cooper’s appeal of his sentence.
Cooper argues that the SAFE Act’s repeal of all avenues of appeal for those now sentenced to death is “a step backwards in our ability to challenge our convictions,” condemning them to life behind bars in prisons “worse than death row.” It is a profoundly searing indictment of this country’s judicial system that some prisoners prefer a death sentence on the grounds that this provides some means to prove their innocence and avoids the worse day-to-day violence and torture in the maximum-security prison chambers. The accused and convicted should get the best representation possible and the benefit of all legal redress. Nonetheless, as Cooper’s case itself demonstrates, death penalty appeals provide little more than a facade of “due process.”
In California, the death sentence carries one automatic appeal to the state Supreme Court. According to a 2011 report by senior U.S. Appeals court judge Arthur L. Alarcón and Professor Paula M. Mitchell of the Loyola Law School Los Angeles, the average wait between the original conviction and a decision by the California Supreme Court is ten years, and the death sentence has been upheld in more than 90 percent of the cases. In state habeas petitions, inmates wait eight to ten years simply for appointment of counsel. Since 1978, new evidentiary hearings have been granted in just 31 of the 689 appeals filed. Only after all state appeals have been exhausted can death row prisoners file habeas petitions with the federal courts. Of the 970 people condemned to death in California since 1978, only 54 have obtained new trials from such appeals; 32 other death row prisoners died awaiting a decision.
A major obstacle in this Kafkaesque maze of appeals is finding a lawyer with the qualifications and resources to take on a habeas petition. As San Quentin death row prisoner Darrell Lomax wrote: “There are over 300 people on death row in California who have been here for over 10 years, myself included, who have not yet received appointment of counsel. I have been waiting over 15 years to clear my name” (Socialist Worker, 12 April).
We profoundly sympathize with Cooper and other death house inmates who oppose the SAFE Act. Confined to cages within cages, behind layer after layer of stone walls, iron gates and beset by sadistic screws, the measure appears to deprive them of the sole possibility of relief, no matter how remote, in the racist capitalist courts. They don’t see the possibility of working-class and other social struggle outside the prison walls that might change their fate. And little wonder, as there has been precious little struggle, thanks above all to the endless betrayals by the trade-union misleaders.
But the executed have no appeals. Any fight for their freedom is forever silenced by death. As another prisoner on San Quentin’s death row, Donald Ray Young, wrote: “We said ‘I am Troy Davis.’ Many of us said that we were Stanley Tookie Williams. Cameron Todd Dillingham was another innocent person on death row; the Texas criminal justice system executed him in our name. If we had abolished capital punishment, all three of these men would still be alive, able to prove their innocence to the world. No one enjoys a prison sentence of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP), but it definitely keeps Mumia Abu-Jamal speaking truth to power” (San Francisco Bayview, 5 June).
Does any fighter for Mumia’s freedom think that he would be better off staying on death row because he might have a chance to appeal his frame-up conviction—repeatedly upheld by court after court—before the U.S. Supreme Court? Now off death row, for the first time in more than 30 years, Mumia is able to embrace his wife, family and other visitors, and has access to sunlight and exercise. But we found no “justice” in the Philadelphia D.A.’s decision last December to stop seeking a death sentence. As the Partisan Defense Committee wrote: “While it is welcome that Mumia will no longer be under the threat of state execution, it is an abomination that this innocent man, who has already spent 30 years entombed, is condemned to a living death in prison.... Trade unionists, opponents of the racist death penalty and fighters for black rights must continue the fight to free Mumia” (see WV No. 993, 6 January).
Our fight for Mumia and to abolish the racist death penalty is rooted in the program of the class struggle, looking to mobilize the social power of the workers both in the U.S. and internationally. This faces many obstacles, not least the pro-capitalist labor bureaucrats who overwhelmingly refuse to call their members into action to defend their economic interests, much less in defense of a black political prisoner.
The Warden, the D.A. and
“Law and Order” Liberals
In 1972, the California Supreme Court struck down the death penalty as a violation of the state’s constitution. Later that year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was “wanton” and “freakish,” leading to a moratorium on its application. Those decisions reflected the tumultuous social struggles of the time, from the civil rights movement of the 1950s-60s to the mass protests against U.S. imperialism’s dirty war against the Vietnamese workers and peasants. The struggles on the streets and campuses reached into the prisons and even among U.S. troops in Vietnam, intersecting growing discontent in sections of the working class. After these struggles had subsided or were co-opted or smashed, the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
Today, opposition among sections of the bourgeoisie to the death penalty and prison overcrowding is at bottom driven by considerations of expediency, as seen in arguments that the current system of mass incarceration and death costs too much money and is “broken.” On the other side are those who believe that only the most monstrous measures of repression can keep the working class and oppressed cowed in the face of intensifying exploitation and mounting misery.
The main spokesman for the SAFE Act is Jeanne Woodford, a former San Quentin warden who oversaw four executions and was appointed Director of the Department of Corrections under Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Another prominent supporter is former L.A. County District Attorney Gil Garcetti, a Democrat who was a key actor in the 27-year campaign of frame-up, cover-up and imprisonment of renowned Black Panther Geronimo ji Jaga (Pratt). Now, Garcetti ghoulishly complains that California’s death penalty is “totally ineffective” because “most inmates are going to die of natural causes, not executions” (AP, 24 April).
Other endorsers include the two right-wing Republicans, Don Heller and Ron Briggs, who authored the 1978 California proposition called the “Death Penalty Act,” which expanded the categories and circumstances of crimes punishable by death or life without parole. For them, the state’s kill rate hasn’t been high enough. Briggs wrote in a Los Angeles Times (12 February) op-ed piece: “Never did we envision a multibillion-dollar industry that packs murderers onto death row for decades of extremely expensive incarceration. We thought we would empty death row, not triple its population.”
Joining this chorus are the liberal anti-death penalty advocates of the American Civil Liberties Union, whose Northern California chapter wrote:
“The facts prove that life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP) is swift, severe, and certain punishment. The reality is that people sentenced to LWOP have been condemned to die in prison and that’s what happens: They die in prison of natural causes, just like the majority of people sentenced to death. The differences: Sentencing people to death by execution is three times more expensive than sentencing them to die in prison.”
—“The Hidden Death Tax,”
Given the notorious overcrowding and denial of medical care that forced California prisons into federal court receivership, death by disease, aging and (not mentioned) suicide would clearly be a “bargain” by the calculus of these law-and-order liberals! Similarly, the “big savings” of $100-plus million a year that might be accrued from overturning the death penalty is a drop in the bucket compared to the $8.9 billion the state government spends to maintain its prison hellholes. But such doesn’t feature in the account books of those promoting life without parole as a thrifty alternative to death.
In its article “A Closer Look at SAFE California” (Socialist Worker, 24 May), the International Socialist Organization (ISO) points to the case of Stanley Tookie Williams, who was legally lynched at San Quentin in 2005 with the executioners digging into his arms for 20 minutes to inject their cocktail of death. Accepting the sick bourgeois lie that the prisons are meant for “rehabilitation,” the ISO points to Williams’ work behind bars for gang prevention as having “illustrated how people can change, undermining the claim that the death penalty is reserved for those beyond redemption”! They continue by complaining that “SAFE Act proponents unfortunately have chosen a strategy that negates this potential, instead highlighting life without the possibility of parole.” To promote the notion of “redemption” in prison is to buy into the entire notion of crime and punishment, a barbaric relic of ancient religious codes asserting that one can be “saved” through repentance.
An article titled “Sophie’s Choice 2012: Death Penalty vs. LWOP” by Chris Kinder, a leading spokesman for the Labor Action Committee to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal (LACMAJ), laments: “There’s nothing in the initiative about racism in the system, or why black death-row convicts outnumber whites way out of proportion to population.... Nor does it address why cops routinely get away with murdering people of color in this [sic] streets, or why cops and courts systematically frame up who they want to get without regard to the truth.” While Kinder ends by declaring that “the system itself needs to be overturned,” only someone with an abiding belief in the inherent justice of this system would expect that the cabal of former jailers and prosecutors who authored the SAFE Act would ever address the racial and class bias that is at the core of capitalist justice in this country.
For years, such touching faith in the capitalist state led the reformist left to demand a new trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal from the very courts that framed him up and sentenced him to death for his outspoken defiance of their racist injustice system. The reformists’ purpose was to “broaden the movement” by appealing to law-and-order liberals like the ACLU and others who promote “life” in prison without the possibility of parole.
As revolutionary Marxists, we do not seek to advise the bourgeoisie on the more “humane” or “just” administration of its increasingly decrepit and depraved rule. Whether it is the death penalty, life in prison without parole or imprisonment in general, we oppose the entire machinery of violence that is the capitalist state.
We will vote for Proposition 34. But we understand that ending the death penalty would not fundamentally change the violently racist and oppressive nature of capitalist class rule. It would not free the innocent, like Mumia, languishing in America’s dungeons or spare the victims of racist police executions on the streets. Nor would it alter the slower death of the growing ranks of the poor, jobless and homeless, or the agony of the sick who lack medical care. Our purpose is the fight to forge the nucleus of the revolutionary workers party that will lead the proletariat in overthrowing this system through socialist revolution. When those who labor rule, the death penalty will be abolished for good and the capitalists’ prisons smashed as initial steps in the emancipation of all the exploited and oppressed.