The Death Penalty as Ritualized Mob Violence

lena baker

Lena Baker

The execution of Troy Davis by the state of Georgia has outraged many, placing the gruesome and barbaric practice of capital punishment under the microscope.

A black man who at the least was apparently innocent – and at most definitely innocent – was executed despite serious questions about his case. Most of all, there was ample evidence that Davis was not the man who killed Mark MacPhail, a white off-duty police officer in 1989.

When a white conservative audience cheered presidential candidate and Texas Governor Rick Perry over his execution record at a recent debate, it underscored what is wrong with the death penalty.

Even as 138 death row inmates have been exonerated since 1973, surely many innocent souls were executed. But Perry asserted that he does not lose sleep over the notion that someone among the then-234 prisoners he put to death was innocent.

“No, sir. I’ve never struggled with that at all. The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place of which – when someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, they get a fair hearing, they go through an appellate process, they go up to the Supreme Court of the United States, if that’s required,” said Perry.

The governor added, “But in the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you’re involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is, you will be executed.”

The shock value of Perry’s assurances that his death machine is thoughtful – the U.S. Supreme Court just stayed two Texas executions – was matched only by the bloodlust of the lynch mob that applauded him. I say lynch mob because the death penalty, like the motives of a bloodthirsty mob seeking vengeance, was never about guilt or innocence.

Capital punishment is ritual mob violence, plain and simple.

No one claims that the death penalty deters crime, because it doesn’t, and there is no need to go there in any case. There is no need for a cost-benefit analysis with a form of punishment so purely ritualized – up to the serving of the last meal to the condemned person, symbolizing that which he or she does not deserve.

And diehard supporters of capital punishment will focus on the need for justice and finality for the victims’ families. Yet they will not entertain the role that race, class and politics driven biases, not to mention outright incompetence and malfeasance, play in the administration of state-sponsored death.

Ancient peoples used the scapegoat as the personification of their hatred, fears and frustrations. They sacrificed the scapegoat to transfer their sins and cleanse society. In modern times, scapegoats have served a more rational role of preserving the status quo.

As the social psychologist Eliot Aronson has theorized, people in adverse situations may be inclined to lash out at the source of their problems, but may find it hard to retaliate against the direct cause of their frustrations. So they lash out against those who are hated, visible and powerless.

david loveScapegoaters unite to eliminate the perceived cause of their problems, even the randomly selected perpetrator, as social thinker René Girard posits. Even if there was an actual crime, the mob would not seek the actual perpetrator. The actual perpetrator is probably a member of the community, and his elimination would bring retaliation. Rather, a random scapegoat is targeted. Yet, the community will believe that the scapegoat is guilty, that she is actually responsible for the community’s problems.

And the ritual killing either will bring relief to the mob, or further fuel their anger.

Scapegoats are victims of a highly psychological process, but economics and politics are involved as well. In America, blacks have served historically as the consummate racial scapegoat—blamed for failed policies, accused of committing crimes real or imagined, targeted for violence and their economically exploited. Stereotypes justified the violence visited upon black people, and a regime of slavery and Jim Crow normalized the dehumanization of people of color.

It is no accident that prisoners of color, particularly blacks and Latinos, are disproportionately represented on death row, or that a vast majority of executions take place in a small number of Southern states where lynching and racial violence were commonplace. And lynchings were public spectacles where tickets were sold, the spectators had picnics, and members of the crowd kept body parts of the victim as souvenirs.

In the early twentieth century, Southern states, fearing the passing of an anti-lynching statute by Congress, brought lynching into the justice system. The courts assured the mob that black defendants would receive a quick guilty verdict, provided the mob allowed the system to do its part.

Indeed, the courts served as an effective venue for racial violence. Between 1924 and 1972, when the Supreme Court found capital punishment unconstitutional, Georgia executed 337 blacks and only 75 whites.

David A. LoveOne of those 337 was Lena Baker, the only woman to die in Georgia’s electric chair, known as “Old Sparky.”. A black maid, her crime was being in an abusive and exploitative relationship with her employer Ernest B. Knight, a white man, who kept her as a slave, threatened her life, and locked her up for days at a time. One day Baker fought back in an act of self- defense. The two “tussled” over a pistol, which fired, killing Knight. She was found guilty of murder by an all-white-male jury, in a trial that lasted less than a full day. The jury came back after less than a half hour of deliberation. Baker was pardoned posthumously in 2005.

So the Troy Davis execution, like so many before him, was a lynching. Remember that with ritualized killings, guilt or innocent is beside the point. Someone must die, and anyone will do.

David Love
Executive Editor, Black Commentator

Published by the LA Progressive on September 30, 2011
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About David A. Love

BlackCommentator.com Executive Editor, David A. Love, JD, is a lawyer and journalist based in Philadelphia, and a contributor to the Progressive Media Project, McClatchy-Tribune News Service, In These Times and Philadelphia Independent Media Center. He contributed to the book, States of Confinement: Policing, Detention, and Prisons (St. Martin's Press, 2000). Love is a former Amnesty International UK spokesperson, organized the first national police brutality conference as a staff member with the Center for Constitutional Rights, and served as a law clerk to two Black federal judges. His blog is davidalove.com.