I began this blog in May 2009 following the death of Marcia Powell at Perryville State Prison in Goodyear, Arizona. It is not intended to prescribe the path that leads to freedom from the prison industrial complex.

Rather, these are just my observations in arguably the most racist, fascist, militaristic state in the nation at a critical time in history for a number of intersecting liberation movements. From Indigenous resistance to genocidal practices, to the fight over laws like SB1070 and the ban on Ethnic Studies, Arizona is at the center of many battles for human rights, and thus the struggle for prison abolition as well - for none are free until all are. I retired the blog in APRIL 2013.

Visit me now at Arizona Prison Watch or Survivors of Prison Violence-AZ

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Write a Letter. Save a Life.

I have an old Amnesty International poster I've been lugging around for 20 years now; I always hang it on the wall in front of my desk, so I see it when I look over the top of my computer screen. It's a black and white photograph of an old Royal typewriter, with the caption at the bottom reading: "This is one of the most powerful weapons in the fight for human rights. Write a letter. Save a life."

So, when Amnesty asks me to sign a petition, send an email, or write a prisoner a card, I often do. I write even if it looks my letter will be just one of thousands going to an embassy mailroom. Even if it looks like my letter may be just one of a handful drowned out by the silence of millions, I write. And I write even if it seems like it won't really matter, because for all I know that letter could be just what was needed for the collective conscience to finally register a resounding "no!" to torture, rape, genocide, slavery, and the death penalty.

As a result of organizing by Amnesty, the NAACP, and several other international groups and celebrities, a couple of congressmen from Georgia are looking at drafting legislation specifically to stop the execution of Troy Anthony Davis. The Supreme Court is giving the case one final look - they've refused to consider it several times already. In the meantime, the NAACP is training 300 organizers to take up the PR campaign to get Georgia - or someone - to stop the execution and give him a new trial.

The link at the bottom of the column to the left goes to Amnesty International's website about Troy. Whatever else one thinks about the death penalty, we have a principle of justice in America that precludes us from executing the innocent, and if Troy Davis' jury had available to them then what we have now, they never would have found him guilty - much less sentenced him to die.

I don't believe in the death penalty for either the innocent or the guilty, but I hope this campaign saves Troy's life, and that it leads to the truth about innocence. Troy's case may not be all that exceptional. In one prominent study, 68% of all death sentences were reversed on appeal because of serious errors in the original trial. Black men have been found to be mistakenly identified as guilty parties in cross-racial identifications more often than white men. Black men are also intentionally portrayed as criminals to deflect attention from white people's crimes. And then there are the Baldus studies, which demonstrated that in Georgia defendants convicted of killing whites were 4.3 times more likely to get the death penalty than anyone convicted of killing blacks - evidence that the state values the lives of white people more than it values the lives of blacks. That pattern has been repeated in studies across the country.

Need I say that Troy - an African American man - was convicted of killing a white police officer?

I'm inclined to agree with Thurgood Marshall: that if most Americans really knew the truth about the death penalty, it would be so disturbing to them that capital punishment would be abolished. Specifically, we would find it "shocking, unjust, and unacceptable..." Yes, it costs a lot more money to prosecute someone under the death penalty than it does to just send them to prison for life. And yes, sometimes the innocent are condemned and executed. But that's not what Justice Marshall found so repugnant about it. It's that it's outright racist, and has a long history of racist application across the country. Out of the approximately 16,000 executions conducted in America from 1608-1945, only 30 were of whites for crimes against blacks. Thirty. Now look at the Baldus findings, presented to the Supreme Court in the McCleskey v. Kemp case in 1987. By a 5-4 majority the Court ruled that evidence of institutionalized racism isn't enough to show that one's consitutional rights are violated by discrimination. As Powell essentially argued in the majority opinion, if we give an inch on the death penalty, the legitimacy of the whole criminal justice system is in question. In retirement he said that was one decision he would rule differently on now, by the way. Think of what that might have changed...

So I have concerns about the direction of death penalty abolition campaigns these days, though I understand the temptation of an open door where there was once a stone wall. A campaign emphasizing abolition because of the risk of executing the innocent implies that executing the "guilty" is okay, leaving open the use of capital punishment in cases where evidence of guilt is "incontrovertible". Having abandoned the whole principle of humanity and dignity, then, where are we on arguing it's cruel and unusual to execute anyone?

Then there's the economic argument - some bills are getting pushed through to repeal the death penalty because implementing it is so expensive. A few states, though, did what I'd expect death penalty adherents to do: they tried changing their laws to expedite the capital punishment process, making it cheaper to ultimately execute someone. The economic argument would suggest skipping the appeals process altogether and having everyone summarily shot once sentenced. That would save money.

But it's not like I'm the one in there fighting on this one - I just write letters, sign petitions, and try to spread the word. I want to make it clear why I oppose the death penalty, though: it's racist and it brutalizes us as a people. I hope the folks leading the charge to abolish it don't let us forget those very basic things. If Americans abolish it because it's too expensive or needs to be tweaked, then there's room for improvement. State executions, we should maintain, cannot be "improved"; there's no such thing as a good death penalty.

It may be awhile yet before the death penalty is abolished across the country. In the meantime there are people like Troy Davis. Even the Innocence Project has taken up his case. So, if you get a minute, visit Amnesty's site, and write a letter today; save a life.

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