Workers Vanguard No. 1112
19 May 2017
Arkansas Legal Lynching Machine
Abolish the Racist U.S. Death Penalty!
In just eight days—from April 20 to 27—the state of Arkansas executed three black men, Ledell Lee, Marcel Williams and Kenneth Williams, and one white man, Jack Jones. Governor Asa Hutchinson had originally ordered eight men to die in the span of eleven days, which would have set a record pace since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. The four men who received stays of execution remain on death row. The pretext for the executions was to beat the clock on the April 30 expiration of midazolam, a component of the lethal injection cocktail for which no alternative is readily available. The real point, however, was to kick-start the machinery of death in a state that had last held an execution in 2005.
The assembly line of death in Arkansas has thrown a spotlight on the depravity of capital punishment—and the racist U.S. ruling class that wields it. Witnesses to Kenneth Williams’s execution reported that after injection he lurched forward as many as 20 times; he was observed convulsing, jerking and making sounds that were audible in an adjacent room. The scene recalled the 2014 Oklahoma execution of Clayton Lockett, who writhed in agony for over 40 minutes before succumbing.
Ledell Lee’s 1993 conviction for the murder of a white woman had all the hallmarks of a racist frame-up. From a crime scene covered in blood, the only physical evidence linking Lee to the murder was the phony “forensic” identification of three hairs that supposedly came from a black man. The trial judge and the assistant prosecutor were sleeping together. Lee’s court-appointed trial attorney presented no alibi, and the attorney at his post-conviction hearing was so drunk, he was taken away for drug testing. From death row Lee told a BBC journalist: “My dying words will always be as it has been ‘I am an innocent man’.” The Innocence Project and the ACLU fought to get DNA testing of the crime scene’s physical evidence. The state refused. Ledell Lee is no more.
Joining an April 14 protest outside the Arkansas Capitol was Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three, who served his own time on Arkansas’s death row. Targeted in a “satanic abuse” witchhunt, Echols and his friends were falsely convicted for the 1993 murder of three eight-year-old boys. Echols won his release in 2011 following a huge campaign in his defense, including DNA evidence that confirmed his innocence. On the day of Lee’s execution Echols pointed out: “Local politicians maintain they have never made a mistake, that the system is infallible, and that they have never sentenced an innocent man to die. I know this is false, because for 18 years I sat on Arkansas’ death row and waited on the state to murder me for something I didn’t do.”
As Marxists, we oppose the death penalty on principle—for the guilty as well as the innocent. We do not accord the state the right to determine who lives and who dies. A barbaric legacy of medieval torture, its longevity in the United States is rooted in the origins of American capitalism, which was built on the hideously brutalized labor of black slaves. More than 40 percent of those on death row are black (and another 13 percent Latino). As opposed to the liberals, we do not seek to advise the bourgeoisie on the more “humane” administration of its decrepit rule. Whether it is the death penalty, life in prison without parole or imprisonment in general, we oppose the entire machinery of violence that is the capitalist state.
Nearly 250,000 signed a petition urging Arkansas governor Hutchinson to stay Kenneth Williams’s execution. Though a majority of the public still favor the death penalty, support has diminished significantly over the past two decades—a product of the growing number of exonerations of innocent men and women, often the result of DNA testing of evidence. Finding jurors more reluctant to impose capital punishment and frustrated at what they view as the slow pace of executions, prosecutors, lawmakers and judges have calculated life without parole to be cheaper than the millions of dollars consumed by capital prosecutions and years of appeals. Today, the Trump administration, as part of a broader enhancement of the repressive powers of the state, is seeking to reverse this trend.
Donald Trump rode to the presidency on a “law and order” platform targeting black people and immigrants. An ardent proponent of the death penalty, Trump has called for the execution of “pedophiles.” His openly racist attorney general, Jefferson Sessions, has called for lifting formal restraints on the cops, re-igniting the “war on drugs,” which promises to throw more black and Latino youth into America’s dungeons, and ordered federal prosecutors to seek the maximum sentences for those facing trial.
The first act of Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, was to cast the decisive vote against a stay of execution for the men facing execution in Arkansas. Meanwhile, a Republican state senator in Arkansas is calling for the impeachment of a black judge, Wendell Griffen, who issued a temporary restraining order to block the April executions and then took part in an anti-death-penalty vigil outside the governor’s mansion on Good Friday. Similarly in Florida, Governor Rick Scott promptly removed all death penalty cases from Aramis Ayala, a black female state’s attorney for the Orlando area, who announced on March 16 that she would not seek the death penalty, including for a man accused of killing a policewoman. After announcing her opposition to the death penalty, Ayala received a noose in the mail.
For its part, the capitalist Democratic Party is no less committed to the death penalty than the brazenly racist Republicans. Under the Obama administration, the number of federal prisoners on death row increased, while the cops wantonly carried out summary executions of black people on the streets.
In Arkansas itself, there were no executions between 1976, when the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment, and 1990, when legal lynching was reintroduced to the state by William Jefferson Clinton. Since then, 30 men and one woman have been executed in the state. During his run for president in 1992, Clinton left the campaign trail to personally preside over the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a black man so brain-damaged from a gunshot to the head that he wanted to save the pecan pie from his last meal for later. Clinton’s “dog whistle” to racist white voters propelled him into the White House, where he ended “welfare as we know it” and presided over the gutting of affirmative action in education and the mass incarceration of black and Latino youth. As president, he accelerated the racist death penalty with his 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which gutted habeas corpus appeals for death row inmates—a model for state laws across the country intended to streamline the road from courthouse to death house.
A Legacy of Slavery
The death penalty stands at the pinnacle of the state’s arsenal of repression—an apparatus consisting of the army, cops, courts and prisons that protects the class rule, property and profits of the capitalist class. While the face of death row is now primarily black and Latino, fighters for labor’s cause have also been targeted for death by the capitalist state: the Haymarket anarchists, labor organizers who fought for the eight-hour day and were put to death in 1877; IWW organizer Joe Hill, executed in 1915; anarchist workers Sacco and Vanzetti, who died in the electric chair in 1927.
While nearly every other advanced industrialized capitalist country has abolished capital punishment (with the notable exception of Japan), its persistence in the U.S. is a legacy of black chattel slavery and the continued oppression of black people. The 20 executions carried out last year, and the ten thus far this year, took place in just seven states. All of them were in the South and most in the former Confederacy, where slaves could be killed with impunity for “crimes” ranging from insolence toward whites to rebellion against the slave masters.
It took a bloody Civil War to smash slavery. But the promise of black freedom was betrayed when the Northern capitalists ended the period of Radical Reconstruction by withdrawing federal troops, leaving black people impoverished and largely defenseless. With the Ku Klux Klan and other race-terrorist outfits as the spearhead, the white propertied classes subjected black people to legally enforced racial segregation, stripped them of all democratic rights and held them down through terror, especially lynching. The black population was consolidated anew—and remains to this day—as a specially oppressed race-color caste.
Capital punishment in America is a direct descendent of and replacement for the lynch rope. In the 1890s, black people were lynched at a rate of one every other day; in the 1930s, executions took place at the rate of one every other day. A 2015 study by the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative noted, “By 1915, court-ordered executions outpaced lynchings in the former slave states for the first time.” In the period between 1910 and 1950, black people made up 75 percent of those executed across the country.
In 1967, amid the mass struggles of the civil rights movement, a de facto moratorium on capital punishment was temporarily imposed. In 1972 the Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional as practiced and ordered states to rewrite their laws. A mere four years later, the Court gave the green light for the killing machines to resume their grisly work. Eighty-one percent of the 1,452 executions in the last 40 years have been in the South.
The racist application of the death penalty was sanctified by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1987 case of Warren McCleskey, a black prisoner executed in Georgia in 1991. McCleskey’s attorneys presented an authoritative study detailing that black people in Georgia convicted of killing whites were sentenced to death 22 times more frequently than those convicted of killing blacks. In rejecting McCleskey’s appeal, the Supreme Court explicitly acknowledged that to accept this premise would throw “into serious question the principles that underlie our entire criminal justice system.” In its callous pronouncement, the Court expressed a basic truth: McCleskey was a victim of the racism that pervades the criminal justice system and the entire American capitalist order.
For a Multiracial Revolutionary Workers Party!
Little expresses the cruelty of capital punishment better in the U.S. than the legislative and judicial contortions to give state murder a humane gloss. The adoption of lethal injection, beginning in the early 1980s, was promoted as a supposedly more humane way of killing prisoners than electrocution. In fact, lethal injection was implemented by Nazi Germany as part of its Aktion T4 “euthanasia” program to dispose of lebensunwertes Leben (“life unworthy of life”).
In 2007, the Supreme Court prohibited the execution of a psychotic person unless the prisoner was lucid enough to have a “rational understanding” of the punishment he was about to receive. This is what the courts refer to as “evolving standards of decency.” When capital punishment was reintroduced in the U.S. amid anti-crime hysteria, we noted in “Abolish the Death Penalty!” (WV No. 117, 9 July 1976): “The Marxist attitude toward crime and punishment is that we are against it.... Socialists do not proceed from the standpoint of punishing the offender. Such a vindictive penal attitude is fundamentally a religious rather than a materialist conception of social relations.” Indeed, a humane and rational society may find a need to isolate certain dangerous individuals. This would be done without stigma or cruelty, and with education, medical care, rehabilitation and the goal of reintegration as a productive member of society. This was the approach of the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky that led the October 1917 Russian socialist revolution.
As Marxists, we fight for the abolition of the death penalty. But we also understand that ending capital punishment will not fundamentally change the violently racist and oppressive nature of capitalist class rule. Our aim is to complete the unfinished tasks of the Civil War by fighting for black liberation through socialist revolution. What is necessary is the forging of a class-struggle workers party with a significant black leadership component. Such a party will be built in opposition to both parties of capital and will be dedicated to mobilizing the social power of labor in defense of the interests of all working people and the oppressed. When those who labor rule, the entire apparatus of capitalist state repression will be smashed as part of sweeping away this barbaric system and opening the door to an egalitarian socialist future.