The Spark

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

California executes Tookie Williams as the world watches in disgust

Jan 2, 2006

On December 13, a few hours after Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had denied clemency and the U.S. Supreme Court had rejected a last-minute appeal, California put Tookie Williams to death.

His execution exposed once again the death penalty for what it is: a horrible, barbaric act which has no place in a civilized society.

This was certainly the reaction of many people in other industrialized countries, where Williams’ execution gained more attention than it did here. In countries where the death penalty has been abolished for decades, people expressed disbelief and disgust that a country that pretends to be civilized continues this barbaric practice.

In fact, Williams’ case shows what’s behind the death penalty, and it’s not the protection of society. There is no doubt that Williams was a notorious criminal, thrust into a life of crime at a young age. But in prison he had a chance to study and became articulate. He wrote books warning young people about the dangers of joining gangs. Even people who advocated Williams’ execution had to admit that he no longer was a danger to society. Killing Williams served only one purpose: revenge.

In the end, that’s what the arguments in favor of the death penalty boil down to – the right to exact revenge. Not just any kind of revenge but a medieval, indeed tribal-style, revenge that harks back three thousand years ago: “An eye for an eye.”

Politicians have pushed a vengeful blood lust on a population fearful about crime. The number of Americans who oppose the death penalty has been increasing however. This is in part because dozens of convicts on Death Row have been proven innocent thanks to new technology such as DNA testing. But hopefully it’s also because people in the U.S. are becoming more civilized!

Some politicians have responded to this trend, and several states have suspended executions by issuing “moratoriums” on the death penalty.

In California, some politicians now talk about a moratorium – mainly Democrats who control both chambers of the state legislature, and might pass it to embarrass Schwarzenegger.

But “moratorium” does not mean abolishing the death penalty. It’s just a way to push the issue out of the spotlight, as politicians have done before. In the 1960s, a mobilized black population, spilling into the streets, opposed the death penalty along with other reactionary practices. Many states stopped executing people in the late 1960s, and the U.S. Supreme Court issued a moratorium in 1972. But as the pressure from the streets receded, the death penalty came back with a vengeance. More than 1000 executions have already been carried out in the U.S. since the Supreme Court re-instituted executions in 1976.

The spokespersons of the U.S. ruling class always claim to represent the “free” and “civilized” world. But they don’t hesitate for a moment to push the death penalty, that barbaric relic of nomadic, tribal societies, as a way to manipulate popular sentiments and promote their own careers.