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Workers Vanguard No. 987

30 September 2011

Troy Davis Execution: Racist State Murder

Troy Davis is dead. At 11:08 p.m. on September 21, Davis, a 42-year-old black man, was murdered by the legal guardians of the capitalist ruling class. For 22 years, Davis fought to prove his innocence of the 1989 killing of off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah, Georgia, only to spend the last moments of his life strapped to an execution gurney. For its part, the U.S. Supreme Court went through the charade of reviewing his petition for a last-minute stay of execution. As protests took place around the world, hundreds of Davis’s supporters rallied outside the Jackson, Georgia, prison—officially known as the Diagnostic and Classification Prison—while millions followed the story on TVs, radios and cell phones, hoping for a semblance of justice for this black man caught in the American “justice” system.

The killing of Troy Davis was racist legal lynching! In place of hooded KKK nightriders were pin-striped prosecutors and black-robed judges, along with the Board of Pardons and Paroles, which turned down Davis’s bid for clemency the day before the execution. In place of the lynch rope were needles dispensing the life-ending chemical cocktail. The substantial evidence of Davis’s innocence meant nothing. A white uniformed enforcer of capitalist law and order had been killed, and this black life had to be taken in return. Here is a stark demonstration of the workings of the capitalist state—an instrument of organized violence to protect the class rule and profits of the tiny handful of capitalists against the workers and the oppressed. The death penalty is the ultimate sanction of a “justice” system that is not only stacked against workers and the poor but also, in this society founded on slavery and maintained on a bedrock of black oppression, racist to its core.

The story of Troy Davis’s frame-up is a familiar one for black people in this country. In 1991, he was sentenced to death after a frame-up conviction based on questionable “eyewitness” identifications, dubious accounts that he confessed and testimony coerced by the cops. Not a shred of physical evidence linked him to the killing. Seven of the prosecution’s nine witnesses have since recanted. The only holdouts were a man who may be the actual killer and another who first denied being able to identify the shooter, only to finger Davis at trial two years later.

What sets Davis’s case apart were the worldwide calls to stop his execution, ultimately including even former FBI director William Sessions and former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr—both staunch proponents of capital punishment—as well as the Pope and ex-president Jimmy Carter. Protests were held in cities internationally following the signing of his death warrant on September 6. In the last days of his life over 600,000 people signed petitions on Davis’s behalf. Just as a federal court judge last year dismissed evidence of Davis’s innocence as “smoke and mirrors,” the state authorities answered these calls for mercy with contempt.

Almost a century ago, Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs powerfully condemned the barbarism of the death penalty, writing in a May 1913 letter: “The taking of human life through criminal impulse or in an hour of passion by an individual is not to be compared to the immeasurably greater crime committed by the State when it deliberately puts to death the individual charged with such crime. Society may not consistently condemn murder as long as it is itself red-handed with that crime.”

As Marxists, we oppose the death penalty on principle and everywhere—from the capitalist U.S., Japan, Iran and Russia to the Chinese deformed workers state. This principle applies for the guilty as well as the innocent. We do not accord the state the right to decide who shall live and who shall die. Abolish the racist death penalty!

Legacy of Slavery

Other than the U.S. and Japan, every advanced capitalist country has eliminated capital punishment as part of its criminal code. The European bourgeoisies are brutally repressive. But the continued use of the death penalty in the U.S. speaks to the particular depravity of this country’s capitalist rulers. More fundamentally, capital punishment in the U.S. is rooted in the origins of its capitalist system, which was built on the backs of black slaves. Under the Slave Codes, blacks were killed with impunity for “crimes” ranging from insolence toward whites to rebellion against the slave masters.

This legacy can be seen today in the dungeons of death row. Of the more than 3,200 men and women there, over 40 percent are black, and another 12 percent are Latino. Among the 36 states that maintain the death penalty, California has the largest death row population. But capital punishment remains a largely Southern institution. Over 70 percent of executions since the Supreme Court reinstituted the death penalty in 1976 have taken place in the states of the former Confederacy—and more than half of those in Texas and Virginia. In Davis’s Georgia, black males make up 15 percent of the population but constitute nearly half of those on death row.

Among those speaking out against the racist death penalty is the family of James Anderson, a black auto worker who was brutally murdered by white-supremacists in Jackson, Mississippi, on June 26 (see “Lynch Mob Murder of Black Worker,” WV No. 985, 2 September). In a letter to the Hinds County district attorney, Anderson’s sister Barbara Anderson Young asked that he “not seek the death penalty for anyone involved in James’ murder,” noting the family’s religious opposition to capital punishment. She added, “We also oppose the death penalty because it historically has been used in Mississippi and the South primarily against people of color for killing whites.”

The cheapness of black life to the American ruling class is evident not just in who is sent to death row, but also in whose loss of life constitutes a capital offense. Although blacks and whites are murder victims in roughly the same numbers, 80 percent of those executed have been convicted of killing a white person. Just hours before Troy Davis was put to death, the state of Texas executed Lawrence Brewer, one of three racist thugs convicted for the gruesome 1998 killing of James Byrd, a black man who was decapitated as he was dragged to death from the back of a pickup truck. While Texas has carried out over 470 executions since 1976, Brewer became only the second white person ever executed in the state for the murder of a black person.

The discriminatory application of the death penalty was sanctified by the U.S. Supreme Court 24 years ago in the case of Warren McCleskey, a black prisoner who was executed in Georgia in 1991. McCleskey’s attorneys presented the Court with an authoritative study detailing that black people in Georgia convicted of killing whites were sentenced to death 22 times more frequently than those convicted of killing blacks. In rejecting McCleskey’s appeal, the Supreme Court explicitly acknowledged that to accept this premise would throw “into serious question the principles that underlie our entire criminal justice system.” In its callous pronouncement, the court expressed a basic truth. McCleskey was a victim of the racism that pervades the criminal justice system—who the cops stop on the street, who the prosecutors choose to indict, what charges and sentences are sought, who sits on juries, who gets paroled and who gets executed.

The buildup to Troy Davis’s execution sparked something of a public discussion on capital punishment in the bourgeois press, especially as it intersected the ascendance of Texas governor Rick Perry as a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination. Earlier this month, Texas authorities had planned to execute four prisoners in the space of a week. Among those was Duane Buck, whose September 15 execution was stayed by the Supreme Court at the last minute. Convicted of killing his former girlfriend and a friend of hers in 1995, Buck was one of seven black men sentenced to death based on the “expert” testimony of a Texas prison psychologist that because they were black they should be expected to engage in violent behavior in the future!

Death Penalty: Bipartisan Policy

At the September 7 Republican candidates’ debate, Perry received a wild ovation for having overseen 234 executions. He further burnished his credentials by assuring moderator Brian Williams that this body count never cost him a wink of sleep. In an editorial titled “Cheering on the Death Machine,” the New York Times (11 September) declared that Perry’s “attitude about death may make sense in the hard-edged Republican primaries, but other voters should have serious doubts about a man who seems to have none.”

There is no question that the sinister Christian fundamentalist Perry is an outright reactionary, one of several in the Republican contest. But the Democrats—the other party of racist capitalist rule—are themselves no slouches in administering the rulers’ assembly line of death. Barack Obama, a supporter of the death penalty, refused to intervene as time ran out for Davis, with press secretary Jay Carney declaring: “It is not appropriate for the president of the United States to weigh in on specific cases like this one, which is a state prosecution.”

Obama was not so shy about “weighing in” on the case of death row political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther spokesman and a MOVE supporter who was framed up and sentenced to death on false charges of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981. State and federal courts have repeatedly refused to hear the massive evidence of Mumia’s innocence, including another man’s confession to the killing. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Michael Smerconish, a right-wing Philadelphia journalist leading the calls for Mumia’s head, asked Obama about Mumia’s case. According to Smerconish, Obama replied by denying knowing much about the case while assuring him nevertheless that anyone convicted of killing a cop should be executed or imprisoned for life.

What to expect of the Democrats can be seen in the case of Shaka Sankofa, who was executed in June 2000 at the height of the presidential campaign in the face of international opposition similar to that which sought to stop Davis’s execution. As then-governor of Texas George W. Bush and his advisers weighed the political risks of stopping the execution—or not—his Democratic opponent, Al Gore, not only reaffirmed his commitment to the death penalty but gave the go-ahead to execute a likely innocent man, declaring that “mistakes are inevitable.” Eight years earlier, Bill Clinton interrupted his first presidential campaign by flying back to Arkansas, where he was governor, to oversee the execution of Rickey Ray Rector, a brain-damaged black man.

The liberals at the New York Times may be appalled that Rick Perry and the Republican right openly revel in state murder and indifference to the likelihood of killing innocent people. But Perry & Co. are only giving voice to what has been ruling-class policy—implemented by Democrats and Republicans alike—to massively bolster the repressive forces of the capitalist state. It was Clinton’s 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act that cut off the possibilities of presenting new evidence of innocence by eviscerating the right of federal habeas corpus to overturn state death sentences. By 2010, the prison population had reached 2.3 million people, over half of whom were black and Latino, the majority convicted on nonviolent drug charges. In the calculations of the American bourgeoisie, the urban ghettos, which used to provide a reservoir of unskilled labor for the auto plants and steel mills, are simply written off as an expendable population, revealing the racist rulers’ impulse to genocide.

While a widely cited poll shows that nearly two-thirds of the population continues to support the death penalty, there has been a drop in public support over the past several years. The fact that more than 130 people on death row have been proven innocent since 1973, including through DNA testing in recent years, has given sections of the ruling class some pause in the accelerated rush to execution, and juries have become a little more reluctant to issue death sentences. On March 9, Illinois became the fifth state since 2004 to eliminate the death penalty.

In their attempts to fine-tune the system of capitalist repression, liberals often promote the living death of “life without parole” as an alternative to state execution. A New York Times (12 September) editorial upholds life without parole as “a sound option” in capital cases even though it complains that this sentence is otherwise often misused. The Times pointed out that blacks make up 56.4 percent of those serving life without parole in the U.S. but only 37.5 percent of the country’s prison population. This statistic further underscores that there can be no fair or “humane” system of “justice” for minorities or for the working class as a whole in a society based on the exploitation of labor and maintained through the special oppression of black people.

While the face of death row is now primarily black and Latino, fighters for labor’s cause have also been targeted for death by the capitalist state: the Haymarket anarchists, labor organizers who fought for the eight-hour day and were put to death in 1877; IWW organizer Joe Hill, executed in 1915; anarchist workers Sacco and Vanzetti, who died in the electric chair in 1927. This ruling-class venom toward those perceived as challenging their oppressive rule is seen today in the death sentence hanging over the head of Mumia, a prize-winning journalist renowned as a powerful voice for the oppressed.

Following the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, James P. Cannon, founder and secretary of the International Labor Defense, wrote: “It is the vengeful, cruel and murderous class which the workers must fight and conquer before the regime of imprisonment, torture and murder can be ended. This is the message from the chair of death. This is the lesson of the Sacco-Vanzetti case” (“A Living Monument to Sacco and Vanzetti,” Labor Defender, October 1927). This too must be the lesson of the case of Troy Davis, whose murder at the hands of the state will be avenged when a workers party leads all the exploited and oppressed in a socialist revolution that sweeps away the entire barbaric apparatus of capitalist repression.


Workers Vanguard No. 987

WV 987

30 September 2011


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