Recently I attended the 12th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty in Austin, Texas. Participants included death penalty abolitionists, and members of Witness to Innocence — over two dozen freed death row prisoners who spent years in prison, and once faced certain execution for crimes they did not commit. The day’s events included a walk past the governor’s mansion, and a rally on the Capitol steps.
One thing that struck me about the event in Austin was the presence of Occupy Austin protestors who were present to speak and lend their support. Clearly, they get it. They understand the link between the struggle for economic justice and the fight to end the death penalty in America. Perhaps you don’t. Allow me to explain.
Both movements seek to reform an unjust, rigged system that stacks the deck against poor and working people. The Occupy movement rails against greed and corruption on Wall Street, and unprecedented wealth inequality brought about by policies of theft that transfer resources from the have nots — the 99 percent — to the have alls — the top 1 percent.
They’re angry that they must subsidize the lifestyles of the big bankers who caused our misery, as nearly 46 million are on food stamps, and almost 50 million (16 percent) are mired in poverty. And a lost generation of college graduates saddled with mortgage-sized student debt is jobless and living at home with their parents.
Meanwhile, the anti-death penalty forces would end a practice that discriminates against people of color and poor whites, those who lack high-priced lawyers and often cannot afford to buy justice.
Capital punishment operates under a pretense of justice, when in reality it represents pure vengeance and mob retribution, favoring expediency and finality over finding the real killer. Those who administer the death penalty seem to care little about evidence and actual guilt or innocence. We all witnessed this with Troy Davis in Georgia, and with other problematic capital cases, including Cameron Todd Willingham and possibly now Hank Skinner in Texas.
Innocent men and women have been executed in the face of police coercion and jailhouse snitches, evidence tampering, incompetent court-appointed defense counsel, prosecutorial misconduct and racism sanctioned from the bench.
And 139 innocent people have been exonerated since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. We will never fully comprehend what these people experienced in their personal Hell — as they suffered for years behind bars while the state planned their murder. Many of them have told me their stories. The exoneration of these innocent victims provides no proof that the system works. Rather, many of the wrongfully convicted were freed with outside help, including dedicated lawyers, activists and journalism students, despite the best efforts of certain judges and prosecutors to block crucial exculpatory evidence and put them to death. It is a scathing indictment of the U.S. justice system.
As Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once said, “This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a court that he is ‘actually’ innocent.”
America’s economic and justice systems thrive on winners and losers, and someone is made to pay in the end. America’s government has been sold to the highest bidder in the form of concentrated and unchecked corporate power. In the eyes of many, the political system is working for the few and against the vast majority of everyday people. Unlimited campaign finance is a scourge upon the land, operating as a legalized bribery scheme for the rich and famous. And the death penalty is part of a kangaroo court system in which poor and working class people become scapegoats for society’s ills. These scapegoats are utilized to help deflect attention from the nation’s problems, as we are all promised that their imprisonment and/or execution will make our problems disappear.
For years, the public had been sold on broken institutions that breed inequality, insensitivity and injustice. But there is ample proof that the people are no longer buying it. And the death machine — not unlike American-style capitalism with its socialized risk and privatized gain — is so inherently flawed that tweaking around the edges simply will not do.
Fundamentally broken, it must be scrapped and replaced. What is needed is what Dr. King called a radical revolution of values, so that this nation emphasizes human rights over property rights, and upholds people over money.
Now that is why the death penalty abolition movement has so much in common with the Occupy Wall Street folks. Both know the fix is in.