Workers Vanguard No. 1018
22 February 2013
2012 California Ballot
Repeal Death Penalty? BT Votes No
Opposition to capital punishment has long been a tenet of the Marxist movement. In 1913, the famed Socialist Party spokesman Eugene V. Debs wrote that an Arizona measure to abolish the state’s death penalty “should appeal to every just and humane person in the state. Capital punishment is simply a relic of barbarism. There is absolutely no justification for its survival in our present civilization.” One can exclude from the “just and humane” the dubious Bolshevik Tendency (BT), which boasts of opposing a measure to do away with California’s death penalty in last November’s election.
Proposition 34 (the SAFE California Act), a ballot initiative calling to repeal the state’s death penalty and replace it with life without parole, went down to defeat. The BT showed its mettle by announcing two weeks later that they opposed Prop. 34. Under the heading “Why Marxists Voted ‘No’” the BT’s article is a grotesque repudiation of the most elementary Marxist principle on the death penalty and the understanding of the capitalist state as an apparatus for the violent repression of the working class and oppressed.
As we wrote in support of Prop. 34 (“Abolish the Racist Death Penalty!” WV No. 1009, 28 September 2012):
“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.”
One need not be a Marxist to seek the abolition of capital punishment, a tradition that can be traced back to the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. “The Other Death Penalty Project,” an organization of prisoners sentenced to life without parole, succinctly put it: “We encourage a yes vote because any other vote would be in favor of state-sanctioned executions, but for that reason alone.” Following the February 9 execution in India of Kashmir-born Muhammad Afzal for his alleged role in the 2001 attack on its parliament, the South Asia director for Human Rights Watch declared, “Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as an inherently irreversible, inhumane punishment.”
Far to the right of the liberals, the BT did not just stand on the side of maintaining California’s death penalty. They also rewrote history by glorifying the appeals that are purportedly the right of those condemned to death as “limited democratic rights won through past struggles.” In reality, the mass struggles for civil rights led to a decade with no executions, beginning with a de facto moratorium in 1967. Five years later, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all existing death penalty laws as “wanton,” “freakish” and “arbitrary,” directing states to draft new ones. To get around these objections, states rewrote their laws to include minimal restrictions on the imposition of the death penalty, aiming to give a “democratic” veneer to racist legal lynching. In 1976, the first of these laws was approved by the Supreme Court, opening the sluice gates for executions that have since taken over 1,300 lives.
Taking such trappings as good coin, the BT scoffs at our assertion that “death penalty appeals provide little more than a facade of ‘due process’.” Countering that “federal-level challenges from California have actually been upheld in 70 percent of the cases heard,” they neglect to mention that only three of those challenges led to full exoneration and release from prison. For most, the remedy was limited to reversal of the penalty phase of their cases, resulting at best in the same sentence of life in prison called for in Prop. 34!
The BT fawns over the appeals process for those convicted of capital crimes, falsely implying that the same procedures are not available to all others in prison. The only thing they cite that is actually unique to death row inmates is that California “presently pays qualified private attorneys to represent indigent death row prisoners in habeas proceedings.” But the remuneration provided by the state for complicated and time-consuming death penalty appeals is so low that private lawyers almost never take the cases.
Contrary to the rosy picture of California “justice” painted by the BT, one story of the Kafkaesque maze of the death penalty appeals process was told in a statement by Darrell Lomax, who has been on San Quentin’s death row for 16 years: “I have been in a long fight with the federal public defenders’ office, which has tried to work with the attorney general’s office to deny me my constitutional right to a new trial and has refused to assign me state habeas counsel, even though this is mandated by law in my appeals process.... 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” (Socialist Worker, 12 April 2012).
Lomax was among the 46 other death row prisoners in San Quentin who wrote in opposition to the SAFE Act, justly protesting that it would condemn them to the living death of prison and force them to work as slave labor in conditions worse than death row. We profoundly sympathize with these death row inmates who saw the SAFE Act as depriving them of the sole possibility of relief, no matter how remote, in the courts of American capitalism. As we wrote in our article last September on Prop. 34: “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 avoid the worse day-to-day violence and torture in the maximum-security prison chambers.”
In arguing to maintain California’s death penalty as the slim thread to freedom for at best a scant few, the BT is content to shoot craps with other people’s lives. This argument can only be premised on the lie that those sentenced to die in California will rarely be executed. As elsewhere, California’s capitalist rulers will seek to empty their death row and reduce the expense of capital litigation either by eliminating the death penalty or eliminating the inmates.
Last year, the California Supreme Court ominously threatened attorneys who file repeat habeas corpus challenges to the death sentence. Reveling in a perceived mandate to get the state’s killing machine back up and running after Prop. 34’s defeat, the Los Angeles and San Mateo counties District Attorneys went to court demanding immediate execution warrants for three death row inmates. The forces of racist law and order who led the campaign against Prop. 34 are promising to put forward their own initiative in the 2014 elections to speed up the killing of the more than 700 death row prisoners in California. Unmentioned by the BT is that dead men have no appeals.
The BT despicably crows, “It is good that Proposition 34 failed—had it succeeded, it might have become a model for similar campaigns in other states.” What states do they have in mind? Texas, where 28 were executed in the past two years? Or maybe Arizona, Oklahoma or Mississippi—runners up in the legal lynching sweepstakes? That the BT shows such contempt for the lives of the predominantly black and Latino denizens of death row is hardly a surprise to us. Since its inception over three decades ago, the BT has been marked by a particular disdain for the struggles of the oppressed—not least those of black people in the U.S. As just one recent example, this outfit stands out for not having published a protest against the racist vigilante killing of black youth Trayvon Martin that sparked outrage and demonstrations across the country last year.
The BT disingenuously invokes the case of class-war prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, an innocent man who spent 30 years on death row before his sentence was reduced to life in prison in 2011. Noting that Mumia’s lead attorneys Leonard Weinglass and Daniel Williams sabotaged his post-conviction relief hearings in 1995-96 by refusing to introduce powerful evidence of his innocence, they go on to denounce the “Liberals who turned their backs on Mumia...because they shrank from drawing the obvious conclusions about American ‘justice’ exposed by his frame-up.” This is rich coming from the BT. Their involvement in Mumia’s defense was to conciliate the reformists who subordinated the demand for Mumia’s freedom to the call for a “new trial,” promoting illusions in the justice of the capitalist courts in order to appeal to these same liberals.
The BT statement on Prop. 34 devotes not a single word to fighting to mobilize the working class and its allies in struggle for the abolition of the racist death penalty. Instead, their maximum demand is for an “honest campaign which educates people about the racism and barbarity of the death penalty” as against the capitulation to the police and their supporters by those who drafted the SAFE Act.
Only those blinded by their own illusions in “law and order” liberals would have expected anything different from the SAFE Act’s authors and main spokesmen. Among them were the former warden of San Quentin, who oversaw four executions during her tenure, and the Republican architects of California’s 1978 “Death Penalty Act” as well as the ACLU. In opposition stood the statewide associations of cops, D.A.s and prison guards, which 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. And that was the side taken by the so-called Bolshevik Tendency.
We are for the abolition of the death penalty for everyone, not just those who live long enough and are lucky enough to win the appeals lottery. Our program is rooted in the class struggle, seeking to mobilize the social power of the multiracial working class in opposition to the death penalty, life without parole, solitary confinement and all the other barbaric institutions of the capitalist state. Through such struggle our purpose is to win the working class to the understanding that the bourgeois state is not some “neutral” agency but rather exists to defend the class rule and profits of the capitalist class against those they exploit and oppress. To put an end to the grisly workings of capitalism’s machinery of death—be they the executioners on death row or the cops gunning down black and minority youth on the inner-city streets—requires sweeping away this entire system and its state through proletarian socialist revolution.