Workers Vanguard No. 1046
16 May 2014
Botched Execution in Oklahoma: Racist Torture
Capital Punishment Is State Murder
For 43 minutes of a botched execution, Clayton Lockett writhed in agony before his heart finally gave out. Prison officials had warmed up to the barbaric act by tasering him first thing in the morning on April 29, after Lockett resisted being taken for an X-ray. He was found to have a self-inflicted cut on his arm, but the authorities did not consider the wound serious enough to delay putting an end to his life. At 5:22 p.m., Lockett was restrained on the execution gurney. Struggling to find a suitable vein for the life-ending IVs, the “doctor” resorted to one in his groin. In order to shield the dozen witnesses to a legal lynching from the obscenity of viewing Lockett’s crotch, officials covered the area with a sheet. At 6:23, the first of three drugs was injected. Over the next 19 minutes, Lockett violently convulsed on the gurney and cried out, “Oh, man!” An officer drew the blinds to hide from view what was taking place. The intravenous line was checked only to reveal that the drugs were not entering the bloodstream but being absorbed into tissue. After nearly an hour of torture, and ten minutes after the execution was called off, Lockett finally expired.
Condemnation of Lockett’s ordeal was swift and international. A spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said the process could amount to “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” under international human rights law. The conservative London Economist was more blunt, declaring it: “Cruel, Unusual and Reprehensible” (30 April). France’s Foreign Ministry denounced the execution and called for a moratorium on executions in the U.S.
The Obama administration’s well-oiled hypocrisy machine went into high gear. Reiterating his support to the death penalty, Obama called the gruesome spectacle of Lockett’s execution “deeply disturbing,” adding, “we have seen significant problems—racial bias” and “situations in which there were individuals on death row who later on were discovered to have been innocent.” In what has become a reflex, Obama turned to Attorney General Eric Holder for a Justice Department “analysis” of problems with capital punishment. As meaningless as such an analysis would be—since almost all executions are carried out by the individual states over which the attorney general has no jurisdiction—Holder’s office made it even weaker, indicating that the review will be limited to how executions are carried out.
Holder, who professes to personally oppose the death penalty, has authorized federal prosecutors to seek it in over 30 cases. Recently, the Justice Department announced it will seek the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, accused of the bombing that killed three people at last year’s Boston Marathon. Federal government intervention makes it possible to pursue the execution of Tsarnaev, as Massachusetts state law does not allow capital punishment.
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. Our opposition to the death penalty extends as well to China and the other bureaucratically deformed workers states, where execution is a prop for the rule of brittle parasitic bureaucracies.
Capital punishment is the supreme declaration of state authority, the ultimate expression of the monopoly of violence in the hands of this country’s racist capitalist rulers. Fighters for labor’s cause have long been targeted for death by the U.S. state, most famously the Haymarket anarchists, labor organizers who fought for the eight-hour day, in 1887; IWW organizer Joe Hill in 1915; and anarchist workers Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927.
Lockett wasn’t the first on death row to be chemically tortured to death this year. In January, Ohio inmate Dennis McGuire took 26 minutes to die, gasping for air. After that, Lockett sued to stay his execution, demanding the state of Oklahoma reveal the source of the drugs it would use to kill him. Shortly before his execution date, the state’s Supreme Court issued a stay. Governor Mary Fallin decreed that she would ignore the court’s ruling and state legislators moved to impeach the justices, backing the court down. Following Lockett’s state-induced heart attack, Fallin called off the execution of Charles Warner, who had been scheduled to die the same night in the nightcap of a grisly doubleheader. Fallin later ordered a 60-day moratorium on executions.
The European Union’s 2011 ban on exporting drugs for lethal injections has forced the U.S. executioners to seek out secret suppliers and turned men like Lockett into human guinea pigs. Litigation in many states over the use of substitute chemicals put a speed bump in front of the death machine. Now, with the courts giving the green light, the executioners are trying to step up the pace.
Exposure of the cases of innocent men and women sentenced to death has stoked growing antipathy to capital punishment. Last year, juries meted out 80 death sentences, compared to 315 in 1994. Though 32 states have the death penalty, only nine of them carried out executions in 2013. Eighteen states have abolished the death penalty, most recently Maryland in 2013 and Connecticut in 2012. In February, Washington’s governor Jay Inslee announced that he would issue a reprieve in every death penalty case that crossed his desk.
As American as...Lynching
Several hundred years ago, when the bourgeoisie was a revolutionary class, its representatives opposed medieval cruelty. The frame-up and torture of French Protestant Jean Calas in 1762 for murder, and his subsequent execution on the wheel, led Enlightenment philosophe Voltaire to write his famous On Toleration, a statement against religious persecution and backwardness.
No European country except Belarus applies the death penalty, and most Latin American countries have abolished it. Russia hasn’t carried out an execution since 1996 and formally declared a moratorium in 1999 (a year in which 98 were executed in the United States). The U.S. and Japan stand out among advanced capitalist countries for their use of the death penalty, which they maintain as part of their criminal codes.
The bourgeoisies of other countries have ample means of state repression. The continued use of the death penalty in the U.S. speaks to the particular depravity of this country’s capitalist rulers. Descending ever deeper into naked state brutality, “civilized” representatives of the American bourgeoisie openly debate how to torture and kill. Six years ago, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia ranted, “Where does this come from that in the execution of a person who has been convicted of killing people we must choose the least painful method possible? Is that somewhere in our Constitution?” (International Herald Tribune, 7 January 2008).
Capital punishment is heavily overlaid with religious concepts of retribution. Its endurance is rooted in the origins of American capitalism—which was built on the backs of black slaves. Slaves were killed with impunity for “crimes” ranging from insolence toward whites to rebellion against the slave masters. It took a bloody Civil War to smash slavery. The subsequent betrayal of Radical Reconstruction by the Northern capitalists resulted in the denial of basic rights to black people in the South, and the compacting of black people as a race-color caste at the bottom of society throughout the U.S. The post-Reconstruction Jim Crow system was maintained by lynch law terror. More than 3,000 black people were lynched between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the dismantling of Jim Crow. More than two-thirds of those legally lynched nationally between 1930 and 1967 were black people. The death chamber is supplemented by killings of ghetto and barrio youth on the street by cops acting as judge, jury and executioner.
The legacy of slavery can be seen in the dungeons of death row. Of the more than 3,000 men and women awaiting execution, over half are black or Latino. California has the largest death row population, but capital punishment remains a largely Southern institution. Since 1976, over 73 percent of executions have taken place in the states of the former Confederacy—and 45 percent of those in Texas and Virginia. Currently fighting for his life in Texas is Duane Buck, sentenced to death on the basis of the “expert” opinion of a psychologist that because Buck is black he posed a future danger to society!
The mass struggles of the civil rights movement 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—not as “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibited by the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, but as “wanton,” “freakish” and “arbitrary.” The Court directed states seeking to reinstate the death penalty to draft new laws, 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.
When capital punishment was reintroduced in the U.S. amid anti-crime hysteria, we noted in “Abolish the Death Penalty!” (WV No. 117, 9 July 1976): “The Marxist attitude toward crime and punishment is that we are against it.... Socialists do not proceed from the standpoint of punishing the offender. Such a vindictive penal attitude is fundamentally a religious rather than a materialist conception of social relations.”
Indeed, a humane and rational society may find a need to separate certain dangerous individuals—for the protection of others, as well as the offenders themselves. This would be done without stigma or deprivation and with education, medical care, rehabilitation and the goal of reintegration as a productive member of society, which was the approach of the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky that led the October 1917 Russian socialist revolution. The determination that the legal apparatus of a workers state would not be based on retribution found its fullest expression in the 1919 party program, which advocated “a fundamental alteration in the character of punishment, introducing conditional sentences on an extensive scale, applying public censure as a means of punishment, replacing imprisonment by compulsory labor with retention of freedom, and prisons by institutions for training, and establishing the principle of comradely courts.” Even under conditions of extreme hardship, the Bolshevik regime insisted that the working conditions in the prisons be covered by the general labor code that provided trade-union pay rates, food rations and other benefits.
Upon taking power, the Bolsheviks eliminated the death penalty from the legal code. This did not mean that the Bolsheviks flinched from the necessary and extraordinary measures of Red Terror required by the Civil War against imperialist-backed counterrevolutionary forces. But it was only after the Stalinist bureaucracy usurped political power from the proletariat that the old “tortures and torments” denounced by the early Soviet government, including the death penalty, were resurrected.
Capitalism is neither humane nor rational, especially in the U.S. where punishment has increasingly become a spectator sport thanks to the plethora of reality shows chronicling prison life. The lust to administer pain and punishment was expressed in the mind-bending 2007 Supreme Court decision prohibiting the execution of an insane person until the prisoner is lucid enough to have a “rational understanding” of the punishment he is about to receive. In this calculus, the torture of Lockett was no aberration—it just went on a little too long.
Prisons in the U.S. are rife with horrors, not least solitary confinement. These dungeons teem with some 2.2 million people—a quarter of the world’s prison population—some 60 percent of whom are black or Latino. This vast, historically ingrained system of racist repression cannot be fundamentally changed through tinkering here and there. Unlike liberals who pose life without parole—i.e., being entombed in prison for life—as an “alternative” to the death penalty, we are equally committed to the abolition of life sentences without parole. Our purpose is to arm the working class with the understanding that the cops, courts and prisons, along with the 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.