This State of Killing and Abandonment

Although I wrote this piece about three months ago, I would like to dedicate it to the memory of Miriam Carey, an unarmed, possibly depressed, Black woman who was killed by police in Washington, DC on October 3, 2013.  Investigators called her life “typical.”  As we mourn Miriam, let us organize to overcome the violence of ‘typical’ State-sponsored death.

The forty-eight hours of June 25 to June 26, 2013, were filled with killing and abandonment.

On the evening of June 26, Texas performed its 500th inmate execution since reinstating capital punishment in 1976.  Texas executed Kimberly McCarthy, a Black woman convicted of murdering her white neighbor, Dorothy Booth.  Though a judge originally delayed the execution due to evidence of racism in the court proceedings, eventually the judicial process played out, and now McCarthy is dead.  After McCarthy’s execution, Booth’s son was quoted as saying, “We’re just thinking about the justice that was promised to us by the state of Texas.”

What does it mean when the State promises justice?  It means that an exchange must take place.  The State will bestow justice onto a wronged person, and in exchange, the State wants blood.  The State promises justice, and justice comes in the form of the lifeless body of a Black woman.  Justice comes in the form of State violence against women of color.

Perhaps this view of how justice plays out in the United States—as an exchange that ends in State violence—sounds melodramatic.  But in the United States, women, especially women of color, make up the fastest-growing segment of the population being incarcerated.  Incarceration comes with violence.  It can be the violence of capital punishment, or just the daily violence of enduring imprisonment: solitary confinement, assault, lack of adequate health care, and unpaid or low-paid work, among other abuses.  Regardless of the specific violence, the American justice system is carceral, the violence is ordinary, and someone always has to pay, to do the work of payment.

Just a day before the State killed Kimberly McCarthy, the Supreme Court invalidated Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.   This invalidation means that certain state governments (including Texas) that have histories of passing discriminatory voting rules would not be subject to federal government preclearance for any further changes to those rules.  What does this mean at the everyday level?  People will lose their right to vote—and have already lost their right to vote—simply for being themselves due to the enactment of voter ID laws.  People of color, especially women of color, youth, the elderly, and transgender people, will pay the highest price, literally.  To get a new ID to vote because you do not already have one or because you identify as a different gender than previously  means paying hundreds of dollars for both the identification card and transportation.  If you cannot afford to pay this poll tax, you cannot vote.

What is the logic behind this invalidation?  First, the State constructs a crisis: if too many people of color vote, there must be voter fraud.  Never mind that voter fraud rarely occurs in the United States.  Then, the State ‘solves’ the crisis: it repeals laws that protect voting rights and enacts new discriminatory laws.  Meanwhile, the people most affected, like Black women, must labor to protect their rights where the State has abandoned them.  They must do the work of buying new ID’s, of navigating new institutional barriers, and work to organize against a racist and sexist system.  And the State says justice has been served.

In forty-eight hours, people in the United States saw the State both kill and abandon.  Both processes target marginalized populations that the political-economic system produces as worthless.  We are left with an increasingly violent State, bent on extracting as much value from marginalized people as possible, and distributing that value to those who already possess so much.  We end up with more violence and work for the marginalized and less work for the already rich and powerful.  Then the State declares that we are a nation with justice for all.

So when some question why the United States’ political system does not ‘work’ for so many people, the answer seems painfully obvious: it is violent.  This violence lies in the fast and slow deaths of those the State deems valueless.  It lies with a conception of justice where someone always has to pay with their blood or time.  It lies in an economic system where people work harder and harder for a future of less and less.

Organizing against violence and for a political system that works for all requires more than minor tweaking of State policy.  We all must be brave enough to organize, do research, make alliances, and combat the systemic violence around us, as well as do the work to care about each other in the process.  Against killing and abandonment, organized care must triumph.


(Photo Credit: David J. Phillip / AP)

The `taint of racism’ for Black Women and Girls On Death Row

Paula Cooper, savoring her freedom

Between Kimberly McCarthy and Paula Cooper lies either a chasm or a tremendous healing.

Texas is poised to execute Kimberly McCarthy, a 52-year-old African American woman accused of having murdered her White neighbor in 1997. If McCarthy is executed, she will be the 500th person to be executed by Texas since the death penalty was reinstated, in 1976. Texas is far and away the leader in this field, with Virginia a distant second.

According to Maurie Levin, McCarthy’s current attorney, the case must be revisited because the proceedings were `tainted by racism.’ That `taint’ is many layers deep and covers much. In Texas, 283 people are currently on Death Row: 39.2% are African American; 29.7 percent are Latino; 29.7 percent are White. Those racial demographics are geographic as well. Texas has 254 counties. In the past five years, 22 counties have sent people to Death Row. It’s not `Texas’ that fills the death rosters … but it is Texas that executes them. Rick Perry holds the record as the U.S. governor presiding over the most executions ever carried out. Texas is #1; Rick Perry is #1.

Nationally, Harris County, Texas, is the top county for executions, both in Texas and the United States. #2 is Dallas County. Kimberly McCarthy’s case was heard in Dallas County. In Dallas County, it was almost impossible for African Americans to get on a jury. McCarthy’s jury had one African American on it. That was no accident, according to Maurie Levin. It was also no accident that the attorneys who sort of represented McCarthy in her earlier forays never touched on the racial composition of the entire proceedings. Why would they? McCarthy was an African American, coke addicted woman worker who was accused of having brutally murdered a 71-year-old White woman. Case closed.

Last week, Indiana demonstrated that there’s a better way. Paula Cooper walked out of prison, not quite yet a `free woman’, but not a prisoner and not on Death Row.

In 1985, Paula Cooper was 15 years old. She was accused of having murdered Ruth Pelke, who was 78 years old. Cooper is African America; Pelke was White. Paula Cooper was convicted of murder and, at the age of 16, was sentenced to death. At that time, she was the youngest Death Row `guest of the State’ in the country.

A local, national, and global campaign erupted at the prospect of a 16-year-old girl being sentenced to death. Two years later, the Indiana Supreme Court agreed, and set aside the death penalty. The Court sentenced Cooper to 60 years behind bars.

In the intervening decades, Cooper has earned a college degree and time off for good behavior. On Monday, June 17, 2013, Paula Cooper walked out of prison.

That’s not all that changed during those decades. The prosecuting attorney in the case came to oppose the death penalty. Even further, Bill Pelke, Ruth Pelke’s grandson, has become a leading death penalty abolitionist. As Bill Pelke explains, “It was about a year and a half after my grandmother’s death, about three-and-a-half months after Paula Cooper had been sentenced to death, where I became convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that my grandmother would have been appalled by the fact that this girl was on death row and there was so much hate and anger towards her. I was convinced she would have had love for Paula Cooper and her family. I felt she wanted some of my family to have that same sort of love and compassion. … I learned the most important lesson of my life that night, and it was about the healing power of forgiveness, because when my heart was touched with compassion, the forgiveness became automatic. And when it happened, it brought a tremendous healing.”

When the State of Indiana decided to forego vengeance against a child, to treat the child as one of us, as a sister or a daughter or a simply another human being, a tremendous healing began. The State can do that; it can opt for healing. Tell Rick Perry and Texas right away. Then tell everybody else.


(Photo Credit: ABC News)