On June 16, the State executed Eddie Duval Powell, 41, and Lee Andrew Taylor, 32, in Alabama and Texas respectively. On Tuesday, June 21, the State of Texas also executed Milton Mathis, 32, and last Thursday, the State of Georgia put a needle in arm of Roy Blankenship, 55, and used an animal sedative as part of the three-drug process to kill him.
Mr. Blankenship “grimaced, jerked, lunged from side-to-side, gasped and appeared to yell out” when the drug was administered. http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/lawyer_seeks_probe_after_execution_using_animal_sedative_goes_awry/ [There is a long history of executions by lethal injection going wrong. For a history, see http://www.amazon.com/execution-protocol-Americas-punishment-industry/dp/B0006DL6WM] In addition, many more individuals were “scheduled” to be executed over the past week an a half, but received stays of execution—for how long is uncertain.
After doing an article search on these individuals, it was clear that the majority of articles and online commentary portrayed these men as nothing more than their crimes, their trials, and their deaths by execution. A few articles mentioned racial disparities and dis/ability in a very limited and abstract way, at best. Yet what do we actually know about these individuals as people? What do we know about their histories, their personalities, their families?
Despite the explosion of articles about mass incarceration and the death penalty, there has been little coverage of individual and historical narrative, and instead the kourts and media, and even a majority of non-profit and philanthropic organizations, have focused on cost and innocence in anti-death penalty decisions and efforts. On the one hand, it is heartening that the media and non-profit world are finally discussing this topic. The recent spotlight on criminal in/justice issues has surely been a factor in some movement (however small and complicated) toward reducing prison population, such as the recent decision in California. [Seehttp://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/24/us/24scotus.html ] [But see http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130833741&ps=cprs (regarding the prison lobby’s role in Arizona’s newest racist immigration law, SB1070)]
Yet if we take a step back, a bigger, more fundamental question looms large: why is much of society’s focus finally on criminal in/justice related issues? Is it finally because people are linking the prison-industrial complex (PIC) to involuntary servitude, and seeing the death penalty as a tool for executing people of color, poor people, and people with dis/abilities? Or perhaps criminal “justice” (and NOT the PIC) has become a media focus because this topic is now “sexy,” and the media has merely found another way to eroticize these marginalized communities and their oppression? Is the focus growing because people who are not subject to the PIC are finally relating to those who are most affected by it? Or is it that, during this economic collapse, white upper-middle class people are finally being affected by the PIC because of the overwhelming cost of executions and mass incarceration, and are thus merely acting in their own self-interest?
Looking at recent articles gives us a glimpse into the answers to these questions. There were a number of articles about the men who were executed over the past week, and not one of them talked about the men who were killed–who they really were as people. Also missing from the discourse was a conversation about the way institutionalized racism, ableism and classism plays a role not only in the PIC, but in these individuals’ lives outside of prison—as opposed to just their execution. Similarly, there were articles about the cost of mass incarceration and innocence cases, but I found no article from a major publication that discussed the connection of the PIC to institutions of slavery and genocide.
Instead, most of the articles covering the deaths of these men focused only on their crime and eroticized their executions. This lack of individual and historical narrative in the media and in academic and social discourse allows for continued “other-ing” and dehumanization of those executed and imprisoned by our government. Even The Huffington Post, usually a staple in my daily blog search, posted articles about the cost of the death penalty [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sYyQcQSqpbI]; brief articles of the executions [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20110616/us-alabama-execution/ and http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20110616/us-texas-execution/ ], with no real acknowledgement of these men’s lives as opposed to their crimes and execution; and an article on famous death row last meals, complete with a slideshow [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/17/famous-last-meals_n_879020.html?ir=Crime#s293776&title=Robert_Dale_Conklin ].
The last article in particular caused a visceral reaction stemming from anger and disgust. There was no purpose to the article other than to entertain the readers, and no information to educate. Instead, the article perpetuated the exotification of the individuals on death row. Those of us who work and have worked with the people on death row and their families/loved ones, and those of us whose family/loved ones have been incarcerated, know the humanity and complexity of each and every person who is locked up and put to death. All I could think about while looking through that slide show is the men I worked with—the calls from their moms and grandmoms, friends and lovers; the fear; the anxiety; the pain; the hope too, for so long, and the resilience; the individual and collective histories; the stories . . . and then, all those lives and histories were reduced to pictures of steak and lobsters for the “fun” of the rest of us.
In addition to perpetuating the problems of exotification and dehumanization of people who are incarcerated, the current mainstream discourse creates the perception of isolated injustices separate from historical narratives of institutionalized oppression. For example, while some articles concerning the executions over the past week mentioned the racial bias in jury selections and executions (two incredibly important points—see http://www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/clemency-urged-alabama-execution-looms-2011-06-14-0 ; http://www.ncadp.org/index.cfm?content=19 ; http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/AMR51/046/2003/en/bd8584ef-d712-11dd-b0cc-1f0860013475/amr510462003en.pdf), this limited scope of coverage makes the racism in these cases appear both individualized to this one person and also compartmentalized to this person’s criminal trial and incarceration, as opposed to an all-pervasive and driving force behind the entire PIC, and a product of centuries of institutionalized oppression, all of which ultimately resulted in each individual’s execution.
Contrary to the mainstream discourse separating the individual stories of today from the historical narratives of slavery, genocide, and systematic oppression, the connections are strong and resonant. Many of us who have worked with individuals on death row have done extensive investigation (including through the oral history of family members, friends, and neighbors) into that person’s individual and familial history—about three generations back—and placed that history within the context of systematic marginalization. Despite the common refrain from conservatives and white liberals alike that “slavery was so long ago,” and thus distinct from today’s narratives, the process of tracing a person’s history demonstrates so clearly the impact of centuries of institutionalized racism and classism on an individual’s life. From slavery; to sharecropping; to segregation and jim crow; to the creation by whites of barrios, ghettos, and reservations; to the relocation of peoples to those areas; to the placement of poor people and people of color in substandard housing, superfund sites, and schools; to exposing people of color and poor people to toxins (seehttp://www.jstor.org/pss/3487423); to sterilization of people of color, incarcerated people, and people with dis/abilities (see http://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/; http://www.npr.org/2011/06/22/137347548/n-c-considers-paying-forced-sterilization-victims ); to the establishment of regulatory governmental agencies for the poor; to the corruption of those governmental agencies that run for personal and corporate profit; to blockbusting and redlining; to the policing of communities of color, there is no person who is not profoundly affected by those histories and narratives. [See http://www.amazon.com/Warmth-Other-Suns-Americas-Migration/dp/0679444327/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1309208280&sr=1-1 ] Thus, by limiting any discussion of injustice to an individual’s legal experience, the present mainstream discourse creates a false distance between this country’s history of slavery and genocide and what is happening more covertly through our kourts, industry, and other government institutions and agencies (the Police, HUD, DSS, DPH, etc.).
The framework of this discourse is not accidental; instead, it reflects the reality that the interests of ruling class whites drive the discussion regarding criminal in/justice and the death penalty. Rather than addressing the roots of racism, classism, and ableism, this limited dialogue manages to “other” those affected and create distance between the Oppressor and the Oppressed, while still providing a false sense of progress that distracts us from the true nature of the PIC and its history. For example, when the most recent California decision regarding prisons was handed down, it was hailed as a significant achievement for prison reform. However, Michelle Alexander, citing the theories of Professor Derrick Bell, cautioned treating the decision as a landmark in prison reform, instead noting that the decisions for prison “reform” only extended so far as ruling white interests. As Professor Alexander notes, “[m]any have given up all hope of persuading the white electorate that they should care about the severe racial disparities in the criminal justice system or the racial politics that birthed the drug war. It’s possible now, they say, to win big without talking about race or ‘making it an issue.’” [See http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/15/opinion/15alexander.html] Indeed, Professor Alexander reminds us, a number of organizations, such as the FrameWorks Institute, “advise advocates to . . . avoid discussions of ‘fairness between groups and the historical legacy of racism.’” [See article; also http://www.amazon.com/New-Jim-Crow-Incarceration-Colorblindness/dp/1595581030 ]
And this tactic has been used for centuries to stifle radical change and mass organization, particularly within the kourts—which provide the semblance of justice and due process while simultaneously serving as one of the most powerful tools of institutionalized oppression. We know by now that the legal system, operated primarily by wealthy, white men, operates to serve the interests of that very community. In his book Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform, Professor Bell dissects school desegregation, the Brown v. Board decision, and the unfulfilled promises of racial reform. [Seehttp://www.projectcensored.org/top-stories/articles/2-us-schools-are-more-segregated-today-than-in-the-1950s-source/ (explaining that schools are more segregated now than they were in the 1960s)] Professor Bell articulated two kinds of “silent covenants” that have steered policy, institutional development, and caselaw over the years. The first type is “racial-sacrifice covenants,” which encompass decisions that “sacrifice the freedom interests of blacks to resolve differences of policy making whites.” (p. 38) The second type is “interest-convergence covenants,” in which “black rights are recognized and protected when and only so long as policymakers perceive that such advances will further interests that are their [whites'] primary concern.” (p. 49) In this framework, which we see now in the discourse regarding criminal in/justice issues, people of color, poor people, and people with dis/abilities are at best third-party beneficiaries when it serves the interests of whites, at worst the subjects of institutionalized violence and oppression, but never in control of any decisions or progressing towards true liberation. As Assata Shakur notes in her autobiography, “[a]mong the most common lies are that Lincoln freed the slaves, that the Civil War was fought to free the slaves, and that the history of Black people in amerika has consisted of slow but steady progress, that things have gotten better, bit by bit. Belief in these myths can cause us to make serious mistakes in analyzing our current situation and planning future action.” ( see http://www.amazon.com/Assata-Autobiography-Lawrence-Hill-Co/dp/1556520743/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1309208419&sr=1-1 p176)
Therefore, the current mainstream discourse in media, academic, and legal communities, by discussing issues of cost, innocence (which, as opposed to institutionalized racism, threatens white people with wrongful incarceration), and isolated injustices, and by excluding individual and historical narratives of institutionalized oppression, allows for limited reform on white people’s terms while simultaneously creating a sense of progress. While it is not my place as a white woman to determine what stories should and should not be told, or to deice how the PIC and executions should be connected to histories of slavery, jim crow, and genocide, at the very least there are undeniable facts about the current system that remain invisible in mainstream dialogue. Most obviously, the State is systematically executing people of color, poor people, and people with dis/abilities on death row. In prison, poor people and people of color are taken away from their families, put in cages, given a number and then work for next to nothing while essentially being charged money to be in prison. Yet the current framework for discussing the PIC and all that it entails ensures that people of color, poor people, and people with dis/abilities remain merely third party beneficiaries when it suits the white ruling class. This is not reform, this is not progress. As Michelle Alexander noted in her NYT op-ed, “we ought not fool ourselves: we will not end mass incarceration without a recommitment to the movement-building work that was begun in the 1950s and 1960s and left unfinished.”
Richard Bible is scheduled to be executed on June 30.