In 1939, Billie Holiday sang of blacks hanging from trees in the protest classic “Strange Fruit.” Since then, the means of racist execution have changed from extra-legal lynching to cold and calculated state murder, but the inherent cruelty of execution and the aim of preserving ruling-class power remain.
The September 21, 2011 execution of Georgia state prisoner Troy Anthony Davis at 11: 08 p.m. by lethal injection sheds a powerful spotlight on the criminal “injustice” system and capital punishment practiced in the United States. The campaign to defend and save Troy Davis’ life became an international struggle with celebrities, civil rights organizations, public officials, students and grassroots activists demanding a stay of execution.
The Georgia State Board of Pardons and Parole denied Davis clemency even when he offered to take a polygraph test; even a last-minute effort to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court using the “Hail Mary” defense to stop the execution failed. Davis was accused and convicted without clear physical evidence of slaying Savannah, Georgia cop Mark MacPhail on August 19, 1989. Over the years, seven of the nine prosecution witnesses recanted their testimony that they saw Davis killing MacPhail. There were significant charges of police coercion and misconduct as Davis maintained his innocence from day one to the end.
Execution, U.S. Style
The United States joins Bangladesh, China, Iran, North Korea, the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and the UAE as one of the states that maintains the death penalty. These countries account for a significant number of the world‘s executions. Interestingly, the U.S., a self-proclaimed pillar of “democracy” and “freedom” in the world, voted against a United Nations non-binding resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty in 2007.
Since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S in 1976, 1,267 people have been executed. There are 34 states, including the military and the federal government, that practice this barbaric method of social control. In the U.S. this fundamentally brutal method is used to oppress the working class, the poor and especially people of color. A 2007 study of death sentences in Connecticut conducted by the Yale University School of Law revealed that “African-American defendants receive the death penalty at three times the rate of white defendants in cases where the victims are white. In addition, killers of white victims are treated more severely than people who kill minorities, when it comes to deciding what charges to bring,” (http://www.amnestyusa.org).
People of color account for 43% of total executions since 1976 and 55% of those currently awaiting execution. The vast majority of those executed were poor. About 90% could not afford a lawyer when they went to trial. They had to rely upon a court-appointed lawyer. This clearly shows the role class and racial oppression play in capitalist America.
The Parties of Law and Order
The right-wing Texas Governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry boasted about his record on the death penalty at a Republican/Tea Party debate on September 7, 2011. Texas holds the record for the largest number of executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Under Perry’s administration, 234 people have been executed. Perry is positioning himself to be “tough on crime” and as the “law and order” candidate. Big business and Republican and Democratic politicians are using this rhetoric as part of the overall offensive against the working class, poor, youth and, in particular, people of color.
Former President George W. Bush - then Texas governor - presided over the execution of Shaka Sankofa (formerly Gary Graham) despite serious questions regarding his case: he had a part-time defense lawyer who fell asleep during the trial, which depended on the testimony of a single witness. Former Democratic President Bill Clinton, while serving as governor of Arkansas during the 1992 presidential campaign, oversaw the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a mentally disabled man who could not comprehend what was happening to him. Rector asked to have the dessert from his last meal saved for later.
A New Movement to Abolish the Death Penalty Needed!
“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” - Mother Jones
The execution of Troy Davis has sparked a new discussion on the need to abolish the death penalty. A decade ago there were demands from anti-death penalty activists, organizations and politicians like George Ryan, then Republican governor of Illinois, who, based on evidence proving the innocence of the death row inmates in the state‘s death row system, put a halt to executions. There were demands for a moratorium rather than the abolition of the death penalty.
But in reality the task remains to oppose capital punishment and to abolish it. We cannot be satisfied with reforming a system that is inherently racist and class-biased, hoping for a moratorium in this or that state. The fact that most nations of the world, including most capitalist democracies, have stopped using the death penalty shows that abolition can be accomplished. The death penalty is but one instrument in U.S. capitalism’s toolbox of oppression. U.S. capitalism does not rely exclusively on capital punishment for its survival, but wresting away this brutal means of social control remains necessary.
The outpouring of working-class support, protest and organizing to save Troy Davis’ life means that we must continue the struggle to abolish the death penalty and fight for prisoners’ rights. The Georgia state prisoners’ strike last December, the resumed Pelican Bay prisoners’ hunger strike, and the example of political prisoners like Mumia Abu-Jamal show of the fighting spirit of the most oppressed in our society. If they can fight behind barbed wire, gates and armed guards, we can organize and fight back against the dictatorship of Wall Street.
We urgently need mass demonstrations to demand jobs for all at a living wage and union benefits, free education from pre-K to college, and ending police violence. Wall Street has two corporate parties, we need one of our own: a mass party of working people that will organize, stand and speak in the interests of workers, youth, poor and people of color.
The crisis of capitalism is demanding a new vision of society based on human need, cooperation and solidarity. Working to abolish the death penalty is part of both the immediate fight against racism and class oppression as well as the struggle for democratic socialism.