The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Pushing the death penalty in Michigan
– taking the state backwards 158 years

Mar 15, 2004

In Michigan, a new campaign has begun to legalize the death penalty. It's one more of many attempts to impose upon society an ignorance and inhumanity coming straight out of the Middle Ages.

Michigan actually has a heritage it should be proud of – it was the very first English-speaking governmental body in the world to legally abolish the death penalty. And it had refused to impose it even before getting statehood in 1837.

It was largely due to the activity of the anti-slavery movement that was rooted in Michigan among the small farmers that there were no official executions in Michigan after 1830. In 1828, Patrick Fitzpatrick, a Detroit resident, was accused of rape and murder in Windsor, Ontario, and hung there by the authorities. Another clearly cruel and vindictive public execution in Detroit in l830 also repelled many people. And when, five years later, someone else confessed to the murder for which Fitzpatrick had been hung, opposition to any further executions solidified. In l846, a prohibition against capital punishment was written into the Michigan constitution.

Today, the legislation to begin amending the Michigan constitution is called the Bowens-Fettig bill, named after two police officers who were recently shot down on the street. Parents of those young cops have been put forth as spokespeople for a movement in support of changing the constitution.

It's understandable that parents would be horrified by the murder of their children. But if a legislator can introduce a constitutional amendment bill within two weeks of this murder, it's obvious the bill was already prepared, waiting for the moment that its introduction could play on popular sympathies.

It's equally obvious that this campaign could not be organized by the parents, from their small towns, who have neither the money nor the contacts nor the resources needed to do it. Behind the campaign are reactionary forces who use these parents for their own ends, putting forth the backward idea of vengeance – an eye for an eye, or in this case, a life for a life.

The same forces, representing only the interests of the wealthy, are today attacking workers' wages, jobs, pensions, medical care, workers' children's schools, the social safety net – the entire range of social gains made by the working class in its struggles over the last hundred years or more.

Ever since the death penalty was abolished in 1846, there have been attempts to re-introduce it. Those attempts have always been thrown back by a population in the state that understood a number of things about the death penalty. Barbaric, it encourages more barbarism and violence in the society that uses it, not less. And in a class and racist society, it is never imposed equally.

For 158 years the people of Michigan have protected a heritage that takes society forward, not backward into a more violent time.