Workers Vanguard No. 1096
23 September 2016
California Propositions: Yes on 62, No on 66!
Abolish the Racist Death Penalty!
Last year, the United States ranked fifth in the world in the number of people executed at the hands of the state, coming in just behind Saudi Arabia. While the medieval rulers of that country behead the accused in a public square, America’s capitalist rulers prefer the more “humane” method of lethal injection, perpetrated out of public view in prison death chambers. Last year, the Supreme Court rejected a suit brought by three death row inmates in Oklahoma against the state’s use of a drug that is the chemical equivalent of being burned alive. Arguing that the inmates had failed to come up with an “available and preferable” means of being put to death, the Court’s majority decision written by Justice Samuel Alito concluded:
“While most humans wish to die a painless death, many do not have that good fortune. Holding that the Eighth Amendment demands the elimination of essentially all risk of pain would effectively outlaw the death penalty altogether.”
Indeed, the purpose of the death penalty is to inflict cruel and unusual punishment as a statement of the ultimate authority of the state and its monopoly on the means of violence. A barbaric legacy of medieval torture, its endurance in the United States is rooted in the origins of American capitalism, which was built on the hideously brutalized labor of black chattel slaves.
The profits that were wrung out of the slave trade and plantation labor were maintained through terror and murder. After the defeat of the Southern slavocracy in the Civil War and the dismantling of Radical Reconstruction by the Northern bourgeoisie, Jim Crow segregation was enforced by lynch mobs. By the 1930s, such extralegal murder was increasingly supplanted by state-sanctioned executions. Black men and women accounted for over two-thirds of those put to death between 1930 and 1967, when amid the mass struggles of the civil rights movement a de facto moratorium on capital punishment was temporarily imposed. Today, more than 40 percent of those on death row are black.
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 capital punishment extends as well to China, North Korea and the other bureaucratically deformed workers states, where execution is a prop for the rule of the parasitic bureaucracies.
In the U.S., the death penalty, while rooted in anti-black racism, is upheld as the ultimate punishment for anyone deemed as a threat to the capitalist social order. Working-class fighters who have been killed at the hands of the state include: the Haymarket anarchists, abolitionists and labor organizers who fought for the eight-hour day, hanged in 1877; IWW organizer Joe Hill, shot by a firing squad in 1915; anarchist workers Sacco and Vanzetti, sent to the electric chair in 1927.
Hundreds of other labor militants have died at the hands of strikebreaking cops and scabs. But it was out of such struggles that the industrial unions in this country were forged in the 1930s, bringing black workers, who were among the most militant fighters, into their ranks. And it will be out of future hard-fought working-class battles that the vital instrument for getting rid of this decaying system of exploitation, racial oppression and state-sanctioned murder will be forged: a multiracial revolutionary workers party to lead the fight for a socialist America.
The Death Penalty Debate
America’s imperialist rulers are accustomed to killing on massive scales—from the A-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to the killing fields of Vietnam, to today’s wars, occupations and drone strikes against the peoples of the Near East. At home, the rulers’ racist cops have a kill rate that is greater by orders of magnitude than that of any other advanced capitalist country, with one study putting it at 70 times that of the combined total of seven European countries. The U.S. also holds a commanding global lead in the numbers of people behind bars, claiming 22 percent of the world’s prison population.
Exposure of cases of innocent men and women sentenced to death, and in some cases executed, has stoked growing antipathy toward capital punishment. The number of executions is down considerably, especially compared to the late 1990s. But for much of the bourgeoisie the main concern is not the justice system’s proclivity to frame up and kill innocent people nor the unspeakable torture inflicted by the drug cocktails used to carry out executions. Instead, what concerns a wing of the bourgeoisie, Democrats and Republicans alike, is that it is spending too much money on prisons and that the death penalty is similarly too expensive. On the other side are those who believe that only the most monstrous measures of repression can keep the working class, black people and the poor sufficiently cowed in the face of increasing destitution. This debate is reflected in various state referendums that will be voted on as part of the November elections.
In Nebraska, where a Republican-dominated legislature voted to repeal the death penalty in 2015 arguing that “taxpayers have not gotten the bang for their buck,” there will be a state referendum on maintaining capital punishment. In Oklahoma, a resolution calling to amend the state’s constitution to enshrine the death penalty, deny that it is “cruel and unusual” punishment and allow for any method of execution, will be on the ballot. In California, which leads the nation in the number of people on death row, there will be two propositions representing both sides in the death penalty debate.
Proposition 66, which is endorsed by a cabal of state prosecutors, cops and prison guards, calls for speeding up executions. To get around the legal challenges to lethal injections, it would make the state’s cocktail of death secret. It would also cut back the appeals process for death row inmates—rights that were already curtailed by Bill Clinton’s gutting of habeas corpus in the 1990s—while forcing lawyers, however inexperienced, to take their cases.
In opposition, Proposition 62 known as “The Justice That Works Act,” calls for replacing the death penalty with life in prison without parole. A CounterPunch (29 August) article “Death to the Death Penalty in California” by Marjorie Cohn, a law professor and a former president of the National Lawyers Guild, argues that Prop. 62 would guarantee “that the worst criminals would never be released,” require “convicted murderers to work and pay restitution” to their victims and “save taxpayers $150 million per year.”
Such is the cruel calculus of death at the hands of the capitalist state, 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.” Nonetheless, as principled opponents of the death penalty, we welcome any measure against state-sanctioned murder. We say: vote “yes” on Prop. 62, “no” on Prop. 66! As we wrote in calling for a vote for a similar proposition on the California ballot in 2012 (WV No. 1009, 28 September 2012):
“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.”
As Marxists, we understand that ending the death penalty will not fundamentally change the violently racist and oppressive nature of capitalist class rule. It will not free the innocent, like Mumia, languishing in America’s dungeons or spare the victims of racist police executions on the streets. Nor will it alter the slower death of the growing ranks of the poor, jobless and homeless, or the agony of the sick lacking proper medical care. Our purpose is to 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 the initial steps in the emancipation of all the exploited and oppressed.