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Battling the Death Penalty With James Baldwin

Photo by Denna Jones | CC BY 2.0

If you’re thirsting to understand our increasingly cold, jaundiced, at times carcinogenic society, James Baldwin’s singular insight about America and his dizzying, divine command of the English language are as refreshing as an icy elixir on the hottest day in hell.

Moreover, for death penalty abolitionists, Baldwin’s writing is particularly poignant in the wake of: (1) the Supreme Court’s recent refusal to reconsider the constitutionality of the death penalty, and, “wipe the stain of capital punishment clean” (In the aftermath, Reuter’s Andrew Chung soberly observed that “[t]he Supreme Court has not seriously debated the constitutionality of the death penalty since the 1970s”); (2) the Trump administration’s doubling down on a harebrained, ass-backward plan to put drug dealers to death; (3) the abominable push by legislators in several states to kill death row inmates by electrocution or even nitrogen gas—an unconscionable, ungodly, untested method (harkening back to atrocities like the gassing of the Jews, including my great-grandmother, during the Holocaust)—a method so gruesome and likely to cause pain and suffering, it’s not even accepted by the World Society for the Protection of Animals as a form of euthanasia; and last, but certainly not least, (4), the ignominious fact that Alabama has been consistently torturing poor death row inmates for a very long time, and currently, is primed to pump its nasty chemical cocktail into a long-incarcerated octogenarian (on April 19th).

In his magnificent essay, “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity,” Baldwin made sense of such dastardly developments, writing: “There is such a thing as integrity. Some people are noble. There is such a thing as courage. The terrible thing is that the reality behind these words depends ultimately on what the human being (meaning every single one of us) believes to be real. The terrible thing is that the reality behind all these words depends on choices one has got to make, for ever and ever and ever, every day.”

Of course, Baldwin’s right (was he ever wrong?). Noble, courageous people exist in America—people with integrity who know it’s morally wrong to gas or electrocute other human beings to death. Yes, noble, courageous people exist in America, people with integrity, people who’re willing to call lethal injection the vile torture it is; good people exist in America, people who know killing is wrong under any circumstance, no matter how it’s done, or, most critically, who’s doing it.

It is these and all good people whom Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was addressing in his 1954 sermon on “Rediscovering Lost Values,” when he proclaimed: “The thing that we need in the world today is a group of men and women who will stand up for right and be opposed to wrong, wherever it is.” But almost as if issuing a direct rejoinder to King, here again comes Baldwin with his blistering, bare-knuckled truth, its percipient glare so white-hot that it threatens—if we do not learn from it—to burn down all we claim makes America great, if it has not already.

In “The Uses of the Blues,” Baldwin explained that “[p]eople who’ve had no experience suppose that if a man is a thief, he is a thief; but . . . . [t]he most important thing about him is that he is a man and . . . if he’s a thief or a murderer or whatever he is, you could also be and you would know this, anyone would know this who had really dared to live.”

And so, if we who have dared to live—and while less blameworthy, even those who have not—continue to deny this truth, if we continue to deny our collective identity, and that this means that each and every one of us, no matter how damaged, how defective, how depraved, how guilty, are nevertheless human, if we don’t reverse course on this damnable death penalty and fast, not in some meandering, interminably slow, plodding fashion, Baldwin’s diagnosis of America will be as incurable as it is inescapable: “The failure on our part to accept the reality of pain, of anguish, of ambiguity, of death has turned us into a very peculiar and sometimes monstrous people.”

Reinforcing this sentiment in a brilliant piece included in last year’s blockbuster collection of criminal justice reform essays called “Policing the Black Man,” Marc Mauer, executive director of the sentencing project, wrote: “The United States is one of the only industrialized nations that still maintains the death penalty; this both casts a stain on our moral standing and exerts an upward pressure on the severity of punishment across the board.” Only we, fellow citizens, through our mighty electoral power, can change this. No longer can we rely on our feckless Supreme Court to do it for us. And, as it has from time immemorial, history will judge.

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Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.

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