Workers Vanguard No. 1153
19 April 2019
Abolish the Racist Death Penalty!
Last month, California, which leads the country with the highest number of prisoners condemned to die at the hands of the state, granted a temporary reprieve to its 737 death row inmates. Democratic governor Gavin Newsom, referring to the death penalty as “unjust” and “wasteful,” signed an executive order that closes the notorious death chamber at San Quentin State Prison and repeals California’s lethal injection protocols for the duration of his tenure. The moratorium on executions takes place against the backdrop of rising public opposition to capital punishment and debates over what constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment.” The order also explicitly cites the high costs associated with capital punishment, reflecting the financial calculations of a wing of the ruling class.
Any measure that stays the hand of the state’s executioners, such as the California moratorium, is welcome. As Marxists, we do not accord the capitalist state the right to decide who lives and who dies, and we oppose the death penalty on principle—for the guilty as well as the innocent. The death penalty is cruel and barbaric. Its endurance in the U.S., alone among advanced capitalist countries aside from Japan, is the racist legacy of centuries of slavery and segregation, the lynch rope made legal. Indeed, the majority of executions have taken place in states of the former Confederacy, and black people have always been sentenced to death in disproportionately large numbers. Today, they make up 42 percent of those on death row nationwide, while accounting for only 13 percent of the population.
At the same time, we recognize that even the abolition of the death penalty will not change the violent and oppressive nature of capitalist class rule. It will not free the innocent languishing in America’s dungeons, alter conditions for those suffering the torture of prison hell or change the reality of cops gunning down black and Latino youth who are depicted as inherent criminals by this country’s rulers. Newsom made clear he did not plan to overturn any of the death sentences, pledging that “no one who commits a heinous crime will avoid swift and severe punishment, including a life behind bars.” His successor will have the option of restarting the killing machine.
On April 1, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed its support to the death penalty in the case of Russell Bucklew, upholding the planned lethal injection of the Missouri inmate, who risks choking and suffocating on his own blood due to a rare medical condition. According to the majority opinion, the Constitution “does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death.” The ruling ignited a wave of liberal condemnation of Republican-appointed justices. There was no similar outcry in 2016 when all but one of the liberals on the court supported reimposing the death sentence on two men in Kansas. As these decisions show, the high court of racist American capitalism is a reactionary institution, no matter who sits on the bench.
Exposure of cases of innocent people sentenced to death or executed, combined with a series of botched executions, has stoked growing popular hostility to the death penalty. Significant elements of the ruling class uphold it as the weapon of the state’s ultimate authority. Reactionaries often justify it with reference to religious notions like “an eye for an eye.”
The death penalty also serves as a way for the rulers to exact revenge on those who refuse to be bowed. There is a long history of its use against labor militants, such as the Haymarket martyrs in 1887, and fighters for black rights. Such was also the case with the 2005 legal lynching of Stanley Tookie Williams in California, who had been convicted of four murders. Williams, who always maintained his innocence, became an anti-gang and anti-crime crusader in prison, as portrayed in the docudrama Redemption. But because Williams refused to confess, the state killed him, sending the message that black life counts for nothing. The authorities were especially infuriated that he had dedicated his 1998 book, Life in Prison, to George Jackson, Mumia Abu-Jamal and others imprisoned for their political views.
Newsom’s recent move was hardly a bold initiative. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have abolished capital punishment, and the governors of four other states have issued moratoriums. Two decades ago, George Ryan, the Republican governor of Illinois, temporarily halted executions there and commuted over 160 death sentences.
One can only marvel at the hypocrisy of California politicians fawning over how that “blue state” now shows the way to a more “humane” criminal justice system. Its prisons are among the worst of the worst in terms of overcrowding, lack of medical care and abuse by guards. Horrific conditions in the solitary isolation chambers at the supermax Pelican Bay State Prison sparked a two-month hunger strike by prisoners in 2013. During last year’s nationwide prison strike, California inmates denounced despicable labor conditions as “modern day slavery,” pointing to their enlistment in the dangerous job of fighting wildfires, for which they received $1 an hour plus $2 a day.
The death penalty is at the pinnacle of the capitalist class’s monopoly of organized violence against those it subjugates—the working class, black people and all the oppressed. The cops, courts, prisons and military are the core of the capitalist state, whose purpose is to defend the rule and profits of the exploiters. We oppose the entire machinery of state repression.
One week before Newsom announced the moratorium, Sacramento exploded in protest over the decision not to prosecute the police who killed Stephon Clark a year ago. The unarmed 22-year-old black man was gunned down in a hail of 20 bullets while standing in his grandmother’s backyard. California attorney general Xavier Becerra excused the killers on the grounds that they had reason to fear their lives were in “imminent danger.” Becerra has also refused to release the records of crimes committed by the police, as was mandated under a state law enacted last year.
Democrats: False Friends of the Oppressed
Newsom’s claim that the death penalty is a “failure” received kudos from a number of “law and order” Democrats. One such is 2020 presidential contender Kamala Harris, who as San Francisco district attorney (2004-11) and California attorney general (2011-17) fought tooth and nail to uphold wrongful convictions and pack black and brown people off to prison. Today, Senator Harris proclaims that she opposes capital punishment because it is “immoral, discriminatory, ineffective and a gross misuse of taxpayer dollars.” Her actual track record, though, is one of defense of California’s death penalty, including by successfully appealing a 2014 federal court ruling that declared it unconstitutional.
Harris was also key in maintaining the racist conviction of Kevin Cooper, a black man framed up and sentenced to death for the 1983 murder of a white family. Repeated requests for advanced DNA testing by Cooper’s defense attorney to prove that the police had tampered with evidence were turned down by Harris and former Democratic governor Jerry Brown. Only after New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote an exposé on Cooper’s case last May did she cynically proclaim: “As a firm believer in DNA testing, I hope the governor and the state will allow for such testing.”
The Democratic Party is nothing but the other party of racist capitalist rule. Liberal darling Bernie Sanders, who is supported by an array of fake-socialist groups like the Democratic Socialists of America, has declared his opposition to the death penalty, offering that “the state itself, in a democratic, civilized society, should itself not be involved in the murder of other Americans.” Sanders has made a career out of serving the interests of America’s “civilized” imperialist rulers, who commit mass murder, both at home and abroad.
Sanders voted for Bill Clinton’s 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which vastly expanded the list of federal crimes punishable by death, provided for putting 100,000 more cops on the streets and devoted billions more to prison funding. He voted for the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which virtually eliminated habeas corpus appeals in state courts for those sentenced to death, even in the face of compelling evidence of wrongful conviction or even actual innocence. The prison population exploded and the assembly line of death was kicked into high gear, with 98 executions in 1999.
We Marxists recognize that the brutal and depraved rule of the bourgeoisie cannot be reformed. Our purpose is to forge a revolutionary workers party that can infuse the working class with the understanding that the entire capitalist state apparatus must be swept away by proletarian socialist revolution. When those who labor rule, the racist death penalty will be abolished for good, as one of the initial steps in the emancipation of all the exploited and oppressed.