How we fight for abolition

California 2005, thousands protested the execution of Stan Tookie Williams
By: Randi Jones Hensley

In November, the people of California will vote on the Savings Accountability and Full Enforcement Act (also known as SAFE or Proposition 34), which would replace the death penalty in California with life without the possibility of parole.

Abolishing the death penalty in California would be a huge victory as the state makes up one-fourth of the entire country’s death row population. If Proposition 34 passes, over 700 people would be taken off death row, and the growing trend towards abolition would continue after the end of the death penalty in Connecticut, Illinois, New Mexico, and New Jersey.

Executions have been on hold in California since 2006 because of controversy surrounding the inhumane three-drug execution method, but they could quickly resume as other states have adopted a one-drug protocol, and California would likely follow suit unless the death penalty is abolished. Currently, there are 14 prisoners who have exhausted their appeals and would be up for execution in California. So the stakes are high, and people’s lives literally hang in the balance.

But SAFE has stirred up much debate among activists and prisoners. There are some very unsavory parts of the bill that need a full discussion. The driving motive behind SAFE is the millions of dollars it will save California, not any compassionate feelings for prisoners. This becomes clear when you read the act with its references to prisoners as “monsters,” some of whom need to be locked up forever to ensure our communities are “safe.” Because SAFE is a ballot initiative, any changes would have to be come through future ballot initiatives, so modifications would be difficult to make.

Included in the bill is a large fund for law enforcement and prosecutors. The money would come directly from getting rid of the mandatory appeals process for death row prisoners. While prisoners with life sentences can technically still file appeals, they can only do so if they can afford to hire a lawyer, since SAFE would eliminate the mandatory legal representation afforded death row prisoners.

It’s no surprise that prisoners who desperately need those appeals to prove their innocence or other problems with their cases object to SAFE. The majority of death row prisoners would be left without representation, as they have no means to hire a lawyer.

Creating a large pool of money that goes directly into law enforcement’s hands in order to “save lives” is one of the most backwards parts of SAFE, considering that police murder a Black person every 36 hours in this country, according to a recent report. It’s hard to imagine that the families of Alan Blueford, James Earl Rivera Jr. or Oscar Grant—all innocent men of color killed by police in California—would feel safer with more police on the streets.

Law enforcement and prosecutors are on the front lines of what author Michelle Alexander calls the “new Jim Crow,” which is responsible for locking 2.3 million people behind bars, disproportionately African Americans and Latinos. We want to end this injustice, not help strengthen it.

While SAFE author Jeanne Woodford, a former San Quentin warden who oversaw four executions, claims that locking people in prison for life is a way to make our communities safer, we know that is simply not true. Our movement needs to seek out real solutions for the causes of crime.

When Stan Tookie Williams was young, he co-founded the Crips. He was sentenced to death in 1981 and spent years in solitary confinement at San Quentin. During his time at San Quentin, Tookie underwent a complete transformation. He spent his remaining years writing children’s books and doing whatever he could to prevent gang violence. His work landed him five nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize and the reputation of a peacemaker.

In a 2001 interview, Tookie was asked what could have prevented him from going down a wrong path in the first place. His response was:

“I needed a variety of things. There is no one elixir that would have helped me to transform my life. I needed a father at home, which I didn’t have, a more ethnic-conscious base to teach me who I am and what my potential could be. I needed encouragement, just like these kids need now. I grew up spoon-fed with negative stereotypes, and the problem with that is that if you’re fed them long enough, and you digest them long enough, you start believing them and living them out.”

The problem of crime will not be solved by dumping more funds into law enforcement. Politicians often seek to get “tough on crime” without ever getting tough on the causes of crime. For example, tackling unemployment, housing problems, poverty, poor education—these are the things that need funding. Politicians also need to change policies that send people to jail for low level drug crimes and end harsh sentencing like the death penalty and life without parole as many other developed countries have done.

As death row prisoner Steve Champion says, “I profoundly disagree with how the large fund of money will go directly to police and prosecutors if SAFE is passed. The money can be spent on education—schools are being closed and the university system is lacking funds, community organizations that deal with domestic violence, gang prevention, caretakers, etc.”

The debate around SAFE has kicked up many questions for those fighting state-sponsored murder: What should the movement for abolition look like? With a growing number of states without the death penalty and support for executions on the decline, how should our movement set itself up for future battles? Is abolition our only goal? And how should we get there? Who should we align ourselves with to achieve abolition?

A look at the extraordinary life of Stanley “Tookie” Williams and the grassroots mobilization to save his life will shine light on what our movement should look like.

Despite an outpouring of support from all over the world, Tookie was executed on December 12, 2005. But Tookie’s death would not be in vain. Following the very vibrant grassroots movement that tried to save his life, support for the death penalty in California decreased by 10 percent after his execution, which has contributed to Prop 34 garnering the signatures to get on the ballot in the first place. His legacy leaves many important lessons for activists now seeking to abolish capital punishment.

Abolitionists should aim to highlight prisoners’ humanity. Many of SAFE’s most vocal advocates routinely refer to death row prisoners as “murderers and rapists.” They often say prisoners deserve a life behind bars. Some proponents even go so far as to say that terrible prison conditions are what prisoners deserve for the crimes they have committed.

For activists who have worked very closely with prisoners and their families, this is an absolutely shameful way of portraying the people we care about. It doesn’t take into account the powerful transformations that people go through, the circumstances at the time of the crime, or the fact that many people behind bars are innocent.

Politicians trying to appear “tough on crime” and the media have done a good job of portraying death row prisoners as the “worst of the worst” and as monsters. Those of us who are trying to fight the death penalty should not join in on that rhetoric. Instead, we should work to put a human face on the death penalty; we should work to give prisoners’ family members a platform to speak from, to fight for better conditions inside of prisons, and to advocate rehabilitation programs inside of prison walls.

It’s important for us to remember how the death penalty was abolished in Illinois. It certainly wasn’t by presenting death row prisoners as “killers and rapists who should never again see the light of day.” Instead, activists and family members of prisoners struggled for decades to get the faces and voices of death row prisoners out from behind prison bars and to share their stories with the world.

Whether or not you are in support of Proposition 34, we must acknowledge that the rhetoric being used to promote the bill is out of step with building an effective anti-death penalty movement that is poised to take on other issues that the very broken criminal justice system presents—things like mass incarceration, police terrorism, poverty, and racism.

As abolitionists, we want nothing more than to see the death penalty abolished in California and all over the United States. But we’re not so short-sighted that we’ve forgotten about the larger picture. We know the death penalty is just the tip of the iceberg of a very broken system; our fight for abolition should be a fight for humanity and justice, too.