The View From San Quentin Village

It was kind of surreal: a couple of thousand people jammed onto a normally quiet residential street of pricey bungalows along San Francisco Bay. The crowd and the floodlights made it impossible to see the imposing walls of San Quentin Prison or even the entrance gates just a few yards away. The sound system on the makeshift stage was poor, but the diverse mix of Christians, leftists, community activists, urban youth and other death penalty opponents made a powerful witness late Monday night to the state-sanctioned murder of Stanley “Tookie” Williams.

It was not the eloquent words of Jesse Jackson or Angela Davis or the beautiful singing of Joan Baez that I will most remember. Far more moving than what these or other celebrities had to offer were the words of former street gang members, some still in their teens, whose lives had been turned around by Williams’ anti-gang writings and activism. From behind prison walls, Williams was able to reach those involved or susceptible to involvement in gang activities in ways that none of the under-funded government or private volunteer programs had ever been able to do. These youths, who looked rather uncomfortable behind the microphone facing the glare of lights, asked those listening to consider how many more lives could Williams have saved had he been allowed to live?

I have always opposed the death penalty. Yet there was something about this particular execution that has moved me like no other. Part of it, or course, had to do with the strong possibility that Williams was in fact not guilty of the murders for which the jury — which failed to include any African-Americans — convicted him. For me, however, I was most struck as to how this case spoke of the immorality of the government’s ( and, according to public opinion polls, the majority of the American people’s ) refusal to recognize the possibility of personal redemption. Ironically, the United States boasts the highest number of people in the industrialized world, both overall and proportionately, who practice Christianity, a faith tradition rooted in that very principle.

Despite Americans’ longstanding distrust for “big government,” there remains strong support for the ultimate form of government power – the authority to take away human life. We have remained a free people in large part because we have maintained a healthy skepticism of governmental authority whether it is from the executive, legislative or judicial branches. To support the death penalty is to believe in the infallibility of governmental institutions, and that is the first step towards fascism.

The death penalty has already been eliminated in virtually every Western democracy. Abolition of capital punishment has been one of the very first acts upon the ouster of dictatorial regimes by the nonviolent people power movements of recent years which have swept the globe from the Philippines to Eastern Europe and beyond. Even armed revolutionary movements, such as SWAPO in Namibia and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, eliminated the death penalty as soon as they came to power.

Today, 97% of all executions worldwide take place in just four countries: China, Vietnam, Iran and the United States. Indeed, much about capital punishment can be said simply by the company we keep.

Christian opponents of the death penalty like to point out the response of Jesus to capital punishment, then carried out primarily by public stoning: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Indeed, whatever one’s religious inclination, executing convicted murderers does raise questions about hypocrisy: The very government which advocates that death is the appropriate response to the wanton taking on innocent human life has in recent years demonstrated its willingness to kill thousands of civilians through its air and missile strikes against population centers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Where does one stop if the death penalty is applied to those convicted of first-degree murder? The Vietnam veteran who admits to having killed civilians? The industrial polluter who causes deaths from cancer or respiratory diseases? The legislator who cuts funds for badly-needed social programs which result in deaths from exposure, malnutrition, and preventable diseases? The administration officials and members of Congress responsible for the U.S. invasion of Iraq?

On the eve of his scheduled execution in 2003 for the fatal shooting ten years earlier of an abortion doctor in Pensacola, Florida, Paul Hill petitioned Governor Jeb Bush to commute his death sentence. Bush, who strongly opposes abortion, nevertheless argued that even though you may believe that someone is a murderer, it does not give you the right to take away that person’s life, and insisted that Hill’s execution should therefore be carried out. Surprisingly few commentators even noticed the irony.

There is always a level of arbitrariness in any legal system, particularly in a country where the wealthy and powerful carry such a disproportionate degree of political power. Indeed, no rich person has ever been executed in modern U.S. history. Yet the sentence of death raises the stakes of this inequality to such a degree that the only way to insure fairness is in the outright abolition of capital punishment.

Perhaps this is why the government wanted Tookie Williams to die: the power of his message was not just in preaching against gangs and gang violence, but his recognition that the temptation for poor young people in this country to become involved in street gangs was not as much a reflection of personal moral failure as it was the failure of the whole political and economic system to provide them with better alternatives or the hope for a better future. Indeed, there may have been those who thought it better that these alienated youths focus upon killing each other and terrorizing their communities than organizing together to work for justice.