FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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.

More articles by:

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.

Weekend Edition
November 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jonah Raskin
A California Jew in a Time of Anti-Semitism
Andrew Levine
Whither the Melting Pot?
Joshua Frank
Climate Change and Wildfires: The New Western Travesty
Nick Pemberton
The Revolution’s Here, Please Excuse Me While I Laugh
T.J. Coles
Israel Cannot Use Violent Self-Defense While Occupying Gaza
Rob Urie
Nuclear Weapons are a Nightmare Made in America
Paul Street
Barack von Obamenburg, Herr Donald, and Big Capitalist Hypocrisy: On How Fascism Happens
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fire is Sweeping Our Very Streets Today
Aidan O'Brien
Ireland’s New President, Other European Fools and the Abyss 
Pete Dolack
“Winners” in Amazon Sweepstakes Sure to be the Losers
Richard Eskow
Amazon, Go Home! Billions for Working People, But Not One Cent For Tribute
Ramzy Baroud
In Breach of Human Rights, Netanyahu Supports the Death Penalty against Palestinians
Brian Terrell
Ending the War in Yemen- Congressional Resolution is Not Enough!
John Laforge
Woolsey Fire Burns Toxic Santa Susana Reactor Site
Ralph Nader
The War Over Words: Republicans Easily Defeat the Democrats
M. G. Piety
Reading Plato in the Time of the Oligarchs
Rafael Correa
Ecuador’s Soft Coup and Political Persecution
Brian Cloughley
Aid Projects Can Work, But Not “Head-Smacking Stupid Ones”
David Swanson
A Tale of Two Marines
Robert Fantina
Democrats and the Mid-Term Elections
Joseph Flatley
The Fascist Creep: How Conspiracy Theories and an Unhinged President Created an Anti-Semitic Terrorist
Joseph Natoli
Twitter: Fast Track to the Id
William Hawes
Baselines for Activism: Brecht’s Stance, the New Science, and Planting Seeds
Bob Wing
Toward Racial Justice and a Third Reconstruction
Ron Jacobs
Hunter S. Thompson: Chronicling the Republic’s Fall
Oscar Gonzalez
Stan Lee and a Barrio Kid
Jack Rasmus
Election 2018 and the Unraveling of America
Sam Pizzigati
The Democrats Won Big, But Will They Go Bold?
Yves Engler
Canada and Saudi Arabia: Friends or Enemies?
Cesar Chelala
Can El Paso be a Model for Healing?
Mike Ferner
The Tragically Misnamed Paris Peace Conference
Barry Lando
Trump’s Enablers: Appalling Parallels
Ariel Dorfman
The Boy Who Taught Me About War and Peace
Binoy Kampmark
The Disgruntled Former Prime Minister
Faisal Khan
Is Dubai Really a Destination of Choice?
Arnold August
The Importance of Néstor García Iturbe, Cuban Intellectual
James Munson
An Indecisive War To End All Wars, I Mean the Midterm Elections
Nyla Ali Khan
Women as Repositories of Communal Values and Cultural Traditions
Dan Bacher
Judge Orders Moratorium on Offshore Fracking in Federal Waters off California
Christopher Brauchli
When Depravity Wins
Robby Sherwin
Here’s an Idea
Susan Block
Cucks, Cuckolding and Campaign Management
Louis Proyect
The Mafia and the Class Struggle (Part Two)
David Yearsley
Smoke on the Water: Jazz in San Francisco
Elliot Sperber
All of Those Bezos
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail