By Alton B. Pollard, III and Henderson Hill
The United States of America was born in violence. The brutality, severity, and ubiquity of violence during slavery preceded and followed our country’s founding. It was, indeed, inscribed and fundamentally baked into the parchment of our constitution. For many of us this is a difficult and disturbing truth to face, but one we know too well. It persistently unsettles the meaning of our democracy and search for a more perfect union. It too often disturbs long-cherished beliefs and practices and disrupts visions of what our future holds. The death penalty has been and remains an essential and consistent form of this American violence—often its messenger—and it is time to stop.
For the first peoples of this land, communities of African descent, other communities of color and poor people, news about America the violent, is not really news at all. Ours is a different recognition grounded in a historic set of oppressions established through searing social custom, legislative fiat, religious teachings, and racial taxonomies. Enslavement, segregation, discrimination, criminalization, removal, poverty, second-class citizenship, and all manner of brutality and violation are its legacy. It is a legacy that continues still, nowhere more prominently than in the continued administration of the death penalty.
Oppressions based on race, gender, class, sex, ethnicity and so much more have had deep material and spiritual consequences for our national community life. Long before ascending to the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall battled the death penalty on behalf of Black lives in the South that were diminished and treated as inconsequential, cheap, abbreviated, and expendable. Marshall’s 1940’s heroics in the killing fields of Lake County, Florida, included exposing and challenging brandings, lynchings, rape, abuse, burnings, and bombings. Today, many of those atrocities have given way to predatory lending, redlining, mass incarceration, health disparities, voter exclusion, three strikes, stop and frisk, and stand your ground. The struggle against state-sanctioned violence, homegrown terror, sexual aggression, bullying, profiling, shootings, killings, and assassinations racks the increasingly fragile American psyche. The death penalty, then as now, is the tip of this iceberg.
“Death and the instruments of death must be eliminated from our criminal justice system. Our historic struggle against state-sanctioned terror requires it.”
There is so much in our experience as African Americans, as a people who have undergone the terror, who were once forcibly enslaved, the raped and the lynched, the foreclosed and the incarcerated, to warrant our hatred of this country. This simple and seldom-expressed truth courses through our veins and has always been known and feared in this land by others, including the perpetrators. Yet somehow, African America remains true to itself, waging justice in the face of this nation’s grave shortcomings, and our own apprehensions no less, declaring that we will find a way to live together in this rainbow nation and world and not perish together as fools. We care enough to advocate for right, to challenge institutional racism, to be collectively angry and morally indignant over the senseless loss and devaluation of Black lives. In critical solidarity with other communities of struggle, we are forging new meanings of justice and the birth of a new nation.
Truth telling, the call for public conversations on race, racism, and recognition of intersectional realities – state and domestic forms of violence, police shootings and the shootings of police, health and gender equity, queer and transgender equality, Islamophobia and immigration, to name a few – is terribly important. We must learn how to talk meaningfully about and act effectively against the complex realities of racism. No death penalty trial, whether in Charleston, Boston, or Texas, will contribute one iota, to this necessary national conversation. A new vocabulary and a new resolve in this present moment are required.
Truth telling also requires something even more courageous of us. Sometimes, we have to commit to do the unnoticed restorative work of laying the foundation, of walking the talk, of consensus-building, of consciousness-raising, one individual at a time, of sustaining the movement toward a more just, sustainable, and inclusive world that is ours to envision even if it has not yet appeared on the horizon.
One year ago in Charleston, South Carolina, nine people were killed during Bible study and prayer, by a twenty-one year old self-professed white supremacist; five survived, including a child. In the current maelstrom, there are those who seek to hold the killer accountable by death. Such a response is certainly understandable. In some quarters it may even be accepted wisdom. But successful prosecution of the death penalty extends our national cycle of violence and death and the almost certain continued disproportionate execution of people who are Black, Brown, poor, and impaired – the traditional subjects of capital punishment, a penalty rooted in racial terrorism.
We, therefore reject the notion that you offer reparations to those who have suffered racial violence by offering more violence. Our just obligation is to hold the killer fully accountable, honor the legacy of the lives lost, and promote the restoration of health and well-being to a devastated community. A severe prison sentence of life without possibility of release, and ultimately death in prison is a devastating, lifelong punishment that powerfully, importantly, rejects the barbarism of state-inflicted death. It also allows for redemption. Death and the instruments of death must be eliminated from our criminal justice system. Our historic struggle against state-sanctioned terror requires it. The God of life expects no less.
There is a resurgent movement today insisting it is time to end state violence and systemic oppression, to break the endless cycle of racial animus, trauma, and death. Nineteen states have abolished the death penalty, seven in the last decade. Four Governors have imposed moratoria on executions and new death sentences and executions have been reduced nationwide. The Democratic Party platform during this critical election year calls for abolition and public support for the death penalty is at an all-time low. Dismantling the death penalty is a crucial component for communities of struggle to reach their full potential.
A wellspring of strength is found in the most incredible of places: The historic Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The nine murdered saints. The five survivors.
There is an opportunity to unite with countless courageous others who have called on our nation and our world to learn to return love for hate at this crossroads in history. Nelson Mandela. Martin Luther King, Jr. Coretta Scott King. Bernice King. Daddy King. Thurgood Marshall. Desmond Tutu. William Barber. Bryan Stevenson. Cornel West. Harry Belafonte. KRS-One. Big Boi. Ta-Nehisi Coates. Michelle Alexander. Angela Davis. Some of those others have directly lost loved ones to violence. Some have directly challenged the prison-industrial complex. All have opposed the death penalty. All are champions for justice. All have said that the death penalty only perpetuates the endless cycle of death. All say Not in Our Name. All have testified that the right to life and dignity is greater than retribution and fear. Life requires more from us than death. Let us work for such a world above all else.