View Full Version : Racism, resistance and the death penalty

lord patch
05-11-2007, 11:44 AM
Racism, resistance and the death penalty
By Gloria Rubac
Published May 10, 2007 12:55 AM

Hours before he was executed on March 7, Joseph Nichols told his mother what had happened to him as the prison prepared to move him from death-row housing in Livingston, Texas, to the death house in Huntsville.
Joseph Nichols

Joseph Nichols

“They cut off all my clothes and stripped me naked. I finally got a pair of boxers but my feet were shackled together, my hand were chained and then another chain bound my feet, went up over my shoulders and bound my hands. This is how our people were brought here from the motherland, naked and chained, and this is how I will leave.”

Nichols was executed despite front-page articles in the Houston Chronicle and opinion pieces explaining his innocence. On the gurney, with the IV loaded with poison, he blasted the prison personnel who had ordered him to shave or be disciplined the evening before his execution.

More and more in Texas, prisoners are not going willingly to their executions, but are fighting until the end. They are also actively protesting the conditions of severe isolation and torture. The DRIVE Movement, an activist organization on Texas death row, has held several hunger strikes in the last year, as have several individuals.

Roy Pippin, who had steadfastly maintained his innocence, was executed on March 29, after his month-long hunger strike exposing the horrific conditions on Texas death row won significant media attention.

In his last statement while on the gurney, Pippin said: “I charge the people of the jury, the trial judge, the prosecutor that cheated to get this conviction. I charge each and every one of you with the murder of an innocent man. All the way to the CCA, Federal Court, 5th Circuit and Supreme Court. You will answer to your Maker when God has found out that you executed an innocent man. May God have mercy on you. ... Go ahead, Warden, murder me. Jesus, take me home.”

Last summer, Michael Johnson, another Texas prisoner who had always maintained his innocence, slashed his own throat rather than let the state kill him. Before he bled to death, he wrote on the wall of his cell in his own blood, “I did not kill that man.”

In November 2006, after Willie Shannon was executed, he was laid in his casket dressed as a Black Panther, a reflection of his politics. He was a member of Panthers United for Revolutionary Education—PURE—a Texas death row organization.

Executions in the United States have dropped to the lowest levels in 10 years. The number of death sentences and the population of death row are also decreasing. For the first time ever, the Gallup Poll has reported that more people favor life in prison without parole over the death penalty.

During the 1990s there were about 300 death sentences given each year. Now the number is around 125. Even in Texas, death sentences are down 65 percent from 10 years ago.

Because of the issue of innocence, juries are less willing to condemn someone to die. Over a dozen states have halted executions due to innocence and also the rising evidence that the method of lethal injection kills prisoners while they are still conscious. The New Jersey legislature had a hearing scheduled for early May that could end lead to that state ending the death penalty.

In recent years, a number of major newspapers have changed their position on the death penalty and are now calling for its abolition. In the past month, both the Chicago Tribune and the Dallas Morning News reversed their longstanding support for capital punishment. And the Sentinel of Pennsylvania simply called the death penalty “useless.”

Amnesty International reported that executions worldwide fell by more than 25 percent last year, down from 2,148 in 2005 to 1,591 in 2006. Of all known executions that took place in 2006, 91 percent were carried out in six countries: China, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan and the United States.

Over half the world’s countries have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice.

In the United States, the death penalty is used mainly in the former slave-holding states of the old Confederacy. Between 85 percent and 90 percent of all U.S. executions take place in the South. This is no accident. Racism plays such a huge role in the death penalty because it is a direct outgrowth of the legacy of slavery and lynchings.

During the last 125 years there have been thousands of illegal, extra-judicial lynchings in the United States, primarily in the South, primarily done by whites against Blacks. The majority took place in the late 1800s and the first half of the 1900s.

Today, in the 21st century, it is the era of legal lynchings.

They are still carried out mainly by whites and used mainly against people of color. Ninety-eight percent of all district attorneys in the United States are white, and only 1 percent is Black. It is these district attorneys who decide whether a defendant will face the death penalty.

States that sentence the most people to death also are the states that had the most illegal lynchings in the past, according to a study released in 2002 by sociologists at Ohio State University.
Historically unjust

The one factor that most determines whether a defendant will be sentenced to death is the race of the person killed. Even though Black and white people are murdered in nearly equal numbers, 80 percent of people executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 had cases involving white victims.

Only 14 white people have ever been executed for the murder of a Black person, while 215 Black people have been executed for killing whites.

Conversely, white women represent only 0.8 percent of murder victims—yet 35 percent of those executed since 1976 were sentenced to die for killing a white woman.

The over-all picture of capital punishment shows nationality involved at every turn. If a white person is murdered, whether the defendants are Black or white, they are at least five times more likely to be given the death penalty than if a Black person is murdered.

African Americans are the least likely to serve on capital juries but the most likely to be condemned to die.

In Texas, racism in the criminal justice system was openly practiced until recently. Defense attorneys in Dallas remember that until the mid-1980s so-called Black-on-Black murders were known around the courthouse as “misdemeanor murder.” Attorney Fred Tinsley reported in 2000, “At one point, with a Black-on-Black murder, you could get it dismissed if the defendant would just pay funeral expenses.”

The U.S. Supreme Court twice found the method of jury selection in Dallas unconstitutional. In response, Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade developed a system of training prosecutors to excuse people of color, women, Jews and those physically disabled.

Wade reprimanded a prosecutor in the late 1950s for allowing a Black woman on a jury, telling him, “If you ever put another n——-r on a jury, you’re fired.”

An African American, Thomas Miller-El, was sentenced to death in Dallas in 1986. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered that he be retried because all African Americans except for one were excluded from his jury. He is now at the Dallas County Jail awaiting a new trial.

In Philadelphia, where political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death, the odds of receiving a death sentence are 38 percent higher in cases in which the defendant is Black. In fact, in Pennsylvania, over 70 percent of those on death row are African American; this is the highest proportion in the country.

The United States is a little over 225 years old. It was built on land stolen from the Indigenous peoples and Mexico, and on the backs of African slave labor. It became highly industrialized during the last hundred years and today is the leading imperialist power because it exploits its large working class, a growing proportion of whom are African American, Latin@, Arab, Asian and Native American.

National oppression and racism is so tightly woven into the fabric of life in this country that it colors all aspects of life from birth to death, including death at the hands of the state.

“The movement to abolish the death penalty is growing and learning that if executions are to end, we must be a movement of all peoples, particularly those of us who make up the majority on death row. No change has ever come willingly. We must fight for it. But with unity and struggle we will see the end of this crime called capital punishment,” said Njeri Shakur, a leader of the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement for over a decade.

The writer is a long-time organizer with the TDPAM.
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