How do we make our case?

By: Marlene Martin

Every social movement is faced with the question of how to win its demand.

 Abolitionists who fought to end slavery had varying opinions about how to go about this. Surprising as it might sound today, many white abolitionists who opposed slavery did so not believing that Blacks should have the same political or social rights as whites. The American Anti-Slavery Society, a group with chapters all across the country dedicated to eradicating slavery, wrote in its constitution that Blacks should have "equality with whites," but stipulated that this should mean only "civil and religious privileges," not full equality.

  The reasoning many used to justify this position was that to advocate social equality would invite a backlash against abolition. Others just didn't believe Blacks were the equals of whites--they bought into the predominant bunk that Blacks were somehow inferior to whites. And others thought that to raise the demand of social and political equality was premature and could defeat the struggle against slavery.

  While many white abolitionists held these ideas, not all did. Some were unequivocally for the full emancipation and equality of Blacks--social, civic, political, religious. And Black abolitionists consistently took on and challenged prejudices within the movement.

  Today, in the fight for abolition of the death penalty, we face challenges about how to make our demand. How do we best advance our cause? Do we have to craft our message to appeal to more conservative quarters in order to get closer to abolition? Or is doing so paving a road to abolition that is fraught with misguided and sometimes outright offensive arguments?

  Abolitionists won an important victory at the end of last year when New Jersey became the first state to abolish the death penalty legislatively. Now abolitionists around the country are looking at how New Jersey activists did it and trying to model themselves along the same lines.

  But activists should take pause. Some of the arguments put forward about how the New Jersey victory came about are troubling.

  For example, in some instances, it is being proposed that abolitionists should not highlight the fact that the death penalty is racist--because race is a divisive issue that will only push people away from our cause.

  Yet racism has everything to do with the death penalty and is prevalent throughout the criminal justice system. To marginalize this is to deny one of the most offensive aspects of the death penalty.

  The legacy of racism in this country is a long one, and its connection to the criminal justice system dates back to slavery. During the post-Reconstruction period at the end of the 19th century, thousands of Blacks were lynched in the South.

  This makes us cringe today. Yet we see African Americans today legally "lynched" by a court system that tolerates racism at every level--from prosecutors' decisions to seek the death penalty (the death penalty is sought overwhelmingly when the victim is white) to legal restrictions on redress due to racial bias (in 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged in McCleskey v. Kemp that racism existed in the justice system, but essentially reasoned that it had to be tolerated, or, in the words of Justice Powell, "the principles that underlie our entire criminal justice system would be thrown into question").

  "The persistence of this issue (racism) continues because we have not adequately dealt with the legacy of racial apartheid in a lot of areas," said Bryan Stevensen, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, at a forum on the death penalty, "but certainly in the criminal justice system. We have to talk about it more, not less."

  Another troubling aspect to the arguments of some in our movement is the emphasis that abolitionists should reach out to law enforcement, as well as stress the finality of life without the possibility of parole sentences as a "just" alternative to the death penalty.

  Some have suggested that the money saved by abolishing the death penalty should be put towards more police on the street. But more cops on the street isn't "crime prevention." The roots of crime stem from poverty, and more cops on the street will not do anything to address that question.

  Police serve a certain function in our unequal and racist society--they quell unrest, and they patrol the poor urban areas to make arrests and harass people. They do little to prevent people from joining gangs or offer any solutions. A 2007 report from the Justice Policy Institute on Gangs found, "More police, more prisons and more punitive measures haven't stopped the cycle of gang violence."

  The same can be said about the sentence of life without the possibility of parole--it offers no solution to preventing crime.

  But is emphasizing life without the possibility of parole sentences a necessity in advancing abolition? Many murder victims' family members think so.

  Some testified to the New Jersey commission which studied the death penalty that the appeals process extended to all death row prisoners only caused the families of victims to relive their pain over and over again. JoAnne Barlieb, who lost her mother to murder, said, "I can only hope to save other families from the grief of the never-ending appellate process."

  Everyone can empathize with the emotional turmoil of this. Yet it was the very process of appeals that allowed now more than 129 prisoners to be released from death row, and many others to have their sentences reduced.

  We should not be lauding the fact that those with life sentences will have less of a chance to challenge their imprisonment in court. Do we not recognize that the errors, racial bias and other flaws in the death penalty system exist throughout the criminal justice system? Then why would we be for fewer appeals and not more?

  Many progressive activists in New Jersey emphasized the importance of "incapacitating offenders" by locking them away for life to ensure public safety. As Lorry Post, now the director of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, "We want full punishment for people, but we want to lock them away; we don't want to kill them."

  This lock-em-up-for-life approach is out of step with the rest of the Western industrialized world--which, by the way, has a fraction of the number of homicides that the U.S. has. In these countries, a "life" sentence means no more than 25 years, and in some countries, 12 years--with their release, prisoners have varying degrees of probational oversight.

  Is this not a more humane way to approach the issue? Can't we create support programs, education and resources to help people eventually rejoin society? And for those suffering mental illness who commit capital crimes, isn't it better that they be treated in a mental health facility or some structured supervised setting, rather than incarcerated?

  Derrel Myers, who lost his only son to gun violence, faults society for its disregard for the young, its cutting back on programs for youth, its lack of good-paying, meaningful jobs and its inadequate social safety net.

  At a protest against the impending execution of California death row prisoner Stan Tookie Williams, Derrel said, "The death penalty is not just an individual issue of crime and punishment; it's connected to the latger social problems of racism, inequality and poverty. If we were a truly just society, one that respected all children in all their great diversity, one that offered real equal opportunity, liberty and justice for all, our son Jo Jo would be here, living a hopeful, loving and generous life. And so would the young man who killed him."

  There are other "victim" voices that need to be heard--those of the condemned. Their families also suffer when their loved one is on death row and when they are executed.

  "A new set of victims is created among the family members of the condemned who watch," Jim Willett, a former warden, told the Houston Chronicle. "I wondered most about the mothers who saw their sons being put to death. Some would just wail out, crying. It's a sound you'll never hear anyplace else, an awful sound that sticks with you."

  Lastly, there is the "cost-effectiveness" argument. Many abolitionists tout the fact that the death penalty costs more to impose than a life-without-parole sentence as a strong reason for abolition.

  This may be an appealing reason for politicians who face state budget shortfalls. But imposing a life-without-parole sentence is cost-effective because of the appeals it denies these prisoners. No doubt untold numbers are languishing in prison with a life without the possibility of parole sentence, unable to prove their innocence or unjust sentence because they have so little opportunity available to address their issue in court.

  How we advocate for abolition shapes the direction of our current fight and paves the way for future struggles concerning the criminal justice system. The sad fact is that the death penalty is only the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the iceberg has all of the same problems we see with the death penalty, and we can't pretend otherwise.

  Looking back at how others went about fighting important battles like the struggle against slavery can give us insight into the importance of what we raise today. Frederick Douglass and the militant abolitionist groups who fought slavery always included as a part of their program a call for equal rights for free Blacks as well as an end to slavery. That wasn't always in line with other abolitionists, but it was absolutely the right thing to do.

  In our fight to end the death penalty, we should highlight the racism of the capital punishment system, and how it is used almost exclusively against the poor. And we should point out that the rest of the criminal justice system is fraught with the same problems.

  To embrace life-without-parole sentences is not a solution to the problem of crime. Instead, we should call on politicians to pay attention to the causes of crime--and suggest that they start by eradicating poverty, which is the breeder of crime.