Workers Vanguard No. 883

5 January 2007


Abolish the Racist Death Penalty!

Revulsion over Execution Horrors

“It seemed like Angel Nieves Diaz would never die,” wrote Associated Press reporter Ron Word (, 15 December 2006). It took two doses of poisonous chemicals and 34 minutes for the state of Florida to kill Diaz on December 13. This horror was reminiscent of the fate of Stanley Tookie Williams almost exactly a year earlier in the face of an international outcry against his scheduled execution in California. Executioners spent 20 minutes digging into Williams’ arms trying to insert needles for the lethal injection. In the face of such blatant torture, even pro-death penalty politicians have a hard time touting lethal injection as a “humane” form of execution. After the killing of Diaz, Florida governor Jeb Bush halted all executions. Judges in California and Maryland have stopped lethal injections in those states as well, while seven other states have instituted partial moratoriums.

Such moves are in marked contrast to the rush to eliminate restrictions on the death penalty that prevailed for most of the past 30 years. In fact, in 2006 the courts handed down 114 death sentences, less than 40 percent of the yearly average throughout the 1990s. The prior speedup on death row was codified in the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act signed by Democratic president Bill Clinton, which virtually eliminated the right of habeas corpus appeals for those sentenced to death in the state courts. Clinton swore his loyalty to the death penalty in 1992 when, as governor of Arkansas, he left his first presidential campaign in order to oversee the execution of Rickey Ray Rector, a brain-damaged black man.

The fact that state governments are tinkering with the death penalty does not signal a “change of heart” by the U.S. capitalist rulers who wreak death and destruction from Baghdad to New Orleans. Rather, state officials seek to clean up their procedures for legal murder when there has been a sharp drop in public support for capital punishment. While more than 80 percent of those polled in 1994 were for the death penalty, the figure fell to 64 percent a little over a year ago. Much of this change in opinion stems from publicized instances of innocent people sentenced to death as well as the torture of Williams, Diaz and many more. According to the Innocence Project, by this Christmas 188 convicted felons (including many on death row) had been exonerated nationwide through DNA testing.

In 2000, George Ryan, then the Republican governor of Illinois, commuted all state death sentences and declared a moratorium on capital punishment after he was confronted with proof that 13 death row inmates had been wrongly convicted. (Having faced heavy blowback for this decent act, Ryan was sentenced in September to six and a half years in prison on mail fraud, tax fraud and other charges.) While we welcome any spanner thrown into the machinery of legal lynching, such moratoria do not fundamentally undermine the death penalty. Thus, in its recent action, the Maryland court specifically rejected the argument that the death penalty is racist and based its decision solely on a technicality concerning the manner in which the state’s death penalty was adopted. In California, the judge ruled that the particular mixture of chemicals used was cruel and unusual but noted that the death penalty “can be fixed” by using other chemicals.

Whether it be electric chairs turning victims into human fireballs, gas chamber asphyxiations or the chemical torture that today dominates America’s death chambers, executions are cruel and inhuman. The death penalty is a barbaric legacy of medieval torture, and in the U.S. of black chattel slavery. It is a system of legal murder that reinforces the brutalization of society in all respects. As Marxists, we stand for the abolition of the death penalty everywhere 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.

Racist Legal Lynchings

The death penalty stands at the pinnacle of the capitalist state’s arsenal of repression—an apparatus made up of the army, cops, courts and prisons that protects the property, profits and class rule of the capitalist class. In addition to the thousands of poor and working people who have died at the hands of the state, the capitalist rulers have repeatedly staged exemplary executions of their perceived opponents for the sheer purpose of instilling terror—from the Haymarket martyrs in 1887 to Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927 and the Rosenbergs in 1953. In the capitalist rulers’ sights today is death row political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, a Black Panther Party spokesman in his youth, later a MOVE supporter and award-winning journalist, who was framed up and convicted of a crime he did not commit and sentenced to die explicitly for his political beliefs. The forces of racist “law and order” represented by both the Democratic and Republican parties want to see Mumia dead because they see in him the spectre of black revolution, a voice of defiant opposition to the oppression of black people that is a cornerstone of American capitalism. The fight to save Mumia and free him from prison hell must be a key focus of the struggle to abolish the racist death penalty.

In the U.S., it is overwhelmingly black people, Latinos and the poor that the courts put on death row. In 1987, when black Georgian Warren McCleskey challenged his death sentence by presenting indisputable facts of the racist application of capital punishment, the Supreme Court declared such bias an “inevitable part of our criminal justice system.” In rejecting McCleskey’s appeal, the Court acknowledged that his premise “throws into serious question the principles that underlie our entire criminal justice system.”

Today, black people make up almost 42 percent of the death row population—three times more than their representation in the population. Legal lynchings are supplemented by the rampant killings of ghetto and barrio youth on the street by cops who act as judge, jury and executioner. Last week, seven New Orleans cops were charged with murder or attempted murder for having killed two people and wounding four others attempting to flee the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, while in New York City anger continues to boil over the police killing of Sean Bell in November.

The origins of capital punishment in the U.S. are rooted in the Southern slave system. The numerous “crimes” for which the Slave Codes prescribed torture and death included rebellion and attempted rebellion, hitting a white person in self-defense or any other act deemed “insolent” or a challenge to the slaveholders. The Civil War smashed the slave system, but, with the betrayal of Radical Reconstruction by the Northern capitalists, a new system of racist exploitation was established through repression of the freedmen’s fight for land, education and civil rights. A rigid system of legally enforced segregation called Jim Crow was imposed and maintained by KKK terror and police-state suppression of black people. At the heart of Jim Crow was lynch-law terror. In the 1890s, black people were lynched at a rate of over one every other day. By the 1930s, the state carried out executions at a rate of one every other day. The extralegal terror of the KKK was largely supplanted by the state’s legal lynching. Between 1930 and 1967, black people composed more than two-thirds of those executed nationally.

In 1967, the death penalty was put on hold by the capitalist rulers, who faced tumultuous civil rights struggles and burgeoning anti-Vietnam War protests. U.S. imperialism also sought to present a more liberal image for American “democracy” in the world arena, where it competed for influence with the Soviet Union. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was “wanton and freakish” and ordered states to rewrite their laws. But by 1976 the protest marches had stopped and busing for school integration was defeated by a combination of racist mobs in the streets and liberals in Congress. A vicious racist backlash against the minimal gains of the civil rights movement was unleashed. The racist “war on crime” that took off in the early 1970s was augmented in the 1980s with the “war on drugs,” leading to mass black incarceration. In 1976, the Supreme Court restarted the machinery of legal murder, which has taken more than 1,000 lives since.

As industry was being decimated in the 1970s and 1980s, the prison population grew by a million—one place for every job lost on the assembly line. From 1995 to 2005, more than three million industrial jobs were eliminated. Today, with 2.2 million people in prison or jail, the U.S. has 25 percent of the world’s prison population—and 60 percent of it is black or Latino. Some 12 percent of black men aged 25 to 29 years old are behind bars. With no jobs to offer, the racist rulers have increasingly relegated black people to be imprisoned, legally lynched or used as fodder in U.S. imperialism’s dirty, predatory wars.

Fight Capitalist Repression!

A recent poll by the Death Penalty Information Center showed that when presented with the choice of life imprisonment without parole, support for capital punishment dropped to 48 percent. This “alternative” has long been sought by many death penalty abolitionists and liberals who preach that the state’s repressive apparatus can run more efficiently and with better public relations without executions. We Marxists do not offer advice on how to administer the capitalist state. We are opposed to the bourgeoisie’s entire machinery of repression. This includes the vast enhancement of repressive tools adopted under the pretext of the “war on terror.”

As Marxists, our attitude toward crime and punishment is that we are against it. Marxists aim to ultimately rid the world of crime and law by eliminating the system of capitalist imperialism through world proletarian revolution. But even before this has been achieved, we have no use for retributive punishment, which is fundamentally a religious conception of social relations. Our attitude toward proponents of “life without parole” was expressed by Karl Marx in The Holy Family (1844). Polemicizing against the German “Critical critics,” Marx condemned those who quarrel with the world of law “not over ‘punishment’ itself, but over the kinds and methods of punishment.” As to retributive physical justice, Marx wrote:

“This is the Christian means—plucking out the eye if it offends or cutting off the hand if it offends, in a word killing the body if the body gives offense; for the eye the hand the body are really only superfluous sinful appendages of man. Mass-type jurisprudence, too, in agreement here with the Critical, sees in the laming and paralysing of human strength the antidote to the objectionable manifestations of that strength.”

Following the first U.S. execution since 1967, we wrote in “State Butchers Gilmore” (WV No. 141, 21 January 1977):

“The reinstitution of the death penalty is not just another legal argument lost before an increasingly reactionary Supreme Court. It is one among many proofs of the failure of capitalism in its death agony to fulfill its promise of a decent life…. Only the victorious proletarian revolution that overthrows the bourgeois state will abolish the death penalty for good and smash the prisons, in the course of rooting out the whole vicious cycle of crime, punishment and repression caused by capitalism.”