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The Death Penalty, Missouri and the Continued Devaluing of Black Life

Death penalty states like Missouri have been treating their predominantly black death row prisoners like test subjects while protests over the worth of black life continue in Ferguson.

(Image: Lance Page / Truthout; Adapted: World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, dog ma)

The murder of a black person is often disregarded by the media and much of the public as a normal, ignorable occurrence. But occasionally, the spectacle of a murdered black person captures the nation’s attention. It’s a tradition of sorts. The morbid pageantry of killing a black person, consuming black pain and stifling black cries of innocence has a long running history here in the United States. It’s cemented in the lynching postcards whites used to send each other as souvenirs, and has trickled down through racist lineage to how we consume black deaths today.

This pageantry of black death is performed through many means, including “vigilante justice” and extrajudicial police murders – and also the death penalty, which is grounded in racism, past and present. A recent example: The two famously condemned black death row prisoners exonerated due to DNA evidence, after 31 years of imprisonment. This moment begs a reflection on all the ways in which the machinery of death operates in relation to black people (even those who are exonerated, after losing decades of their lives). Inside and outside of prisons, black people are disproportionately killed – and officially authorized to be killed – in the United States. It’s crucial to devote our concern to all untimely black deaths – including those that happen behind bars.

Since late last year, leading up to the uprisings in Ferguson, the state of Missouri has quietly and controversially used midazolam to kill nine condemned death row prisoners. Missouri’s director of the Department of Corrections spoke on behalf of the state to lawyers at a deposition in January saying they wouldn’t use the drug. They did – and they got away with it. Death penalty states have been rushing to get their hands on anything they can use to put prisoners to death. Several pharmaceutical companies backed away from letting their products be used for lethal injections, causing the widespread usage of “chemical cocktails.” Now, some death penalty states, more concerned with being on schedule than with not torturing prisoners with drawn out exploratory executions, have been using what they can find. Some of these states, like Georgia, have even passed legislation – which the Supreme Court has upheld – to keep their torturous methods secret. The prospect of “humane killing” is oxymoronic to say the least, but torture is never warranted.

The mishandled execution that grabbed the country’s attention was that of Clayton Lockett last April, in Oklahoma. (A mishandling that has come to be known as the “botched execution.”) Lockett was to be the first of two men scheduled for a double execution – the first in the state since 1937. A group of witnesses gathered to watch as he was tortured to death by Oklahoma’s “new lethal injection method”: 43 minutes of groaning, writhing and fumbling before he finally had a heart attack and died. The second execution scheduled that night didn’t happen. After Lockett’s execution, an independent autopsy revealed how his death was tantamount to torture, and led to a brief, unofficial de facto moratorium on the death penalty.

Seven weeks later, on June 17, many around the country waited to see what would happen to Marcus Wellons in Georgia. Wellons’ lawyers rushed to stop his demise and urged that the moratorium continue. They argued via a petition for postponement that the drug secrecy was a violation of his First and Eighth Amendment rights – among other trespasses against his person. In his petition, Wellons did not plead to live; he simply asked to know how he was going to be killed. His lawyers could not stop his execution, despite their pleas to the Supreme Court. His death would be one of three in a spurt of these lethal experimentations. After Wellons, John Winfield was scheduled to die in Missouri and John Ruthell would be executed by Florida the next evening. Three deaths occurred in less than 24 hours.

This succession of events has prompted a lawsuit from current death row prisoners, who feel they have the right to know how they will die. Of course, the Supreme Court has allowed the executions to go on undeterred.

Meanwhile, Ohio has taken the liberty of upping the dosage used to kill. Tennessee is reverting to the electric chair, also prompting a lawsuit. This alternative torturous method has not been used in years and lawyers argue no other country in the world uses it.

At each step in the criminal punishment system, the path is paved for black torture and fatality. During surveillance, arrest and conviction, black survival is at the mercy of the state. In the pits of solitary confinement or in the general prison population, black death is omnipresent. The death penalty represents one more step in that chain.

Research shows “unconscious” bias among physicians who treat black people; one can only imagine what might lie in store for a black person who is being intentionally killed by a medical professional.

Although “innocence” should not be a precursor for being treated like a human being, it must be noted that judgments of “innocence” and “guilt” are often based not on an individual’s actions, but on race. Research has revealed that blacks are viewed as less innocent or inherently guilty based on skin color from childhood, and blacks are disproportionately sentenced and executed.

Consider the case of 50-year-old Henry McCollum, the man who, with his younger half brother, recently walked free from prison after three decades for a crime they did not commit. Emerging from prison, McCollum didn’t even know how to use a seatbelt. Justice Antonin Scalia once argued that McCollum’s life was an example of the necessity for the death penalty, saying that a “quiet death” by lethal injection was “enviable” compared to the crime that McCollum had supposedly committed.

Of course, a “quiet death” is far from the death that befell Clayton Lockett when a paramedic was unable to find suitable veins in his arms, legs, neck or feet, and the line was inserted into his groin. Such cruel and unusual punishment should be inflicted on no one – innocent or guilty. However, considering the prison system’s groundings in anti-black racism, it’s not shocking that this new trend of torturing prisoners to death hasn’t caused enormous outrage. The warrantless attack on the black community post-Reconstruction was the foundation of our massive prison system, and designated blacks as a permanent criminal class. The US brand of racism has always rendered the black body quite killable, threatening and worthy of torture. The relationship of this perceived “killability” to black bodies is unique – and sometimes, white fear and paranoia take black lives before they are finished being lived.

In this age of “botched” executions, unprovoked police violence and normalized torture, the black community is facing a threat that renews our inconsolable history of being test subjects. Black existence is a river of post-traumatic stress that we swim upstream daily. It’s a gut feeling of knowing that something is coming – a feeling that many of us inherit from birth. It’s a fear of what’s coming based on knowing what’s already here. It’s a fear shared by a group of people who know exactly what this country is capable of.

History should make it abundantly clear that the subsistence of black people is intertwined with the existence of capitalism. The oppression, stress and death of the black body built this nation through enslavement, and persistently keeps it moving. Black people entertain, labor and stylize the most powerful empire in the world, thereby influencing culture globally. Black people have always demanded respect of our humanity, but traditionally, the lives of black people have been valued for their labor or subservience. Even though we are all killable, certain types of black people are deemed more fit to live, as determined through the lens of respectability. “Thug” and “criminal” are readymade labels for the justification of murdered blacks like Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson.

The angry awareness of racism in the judicial system, prisons and policing is what has provided lifeblood to the protests in Ferguson. What is being protested there is not a completely separate issue from the death penalty. The black community has always been under attack by numerous forces representing the state, from police to courtrooms to prisons to execution chambers. Though they operate differently, they are interconnected in their racist groundings.

And so the cry that “black life matters” must include imprisoned black life. Innocent or guilty, no person deserves to be tortured to death. Innocent or guilty, no one should be extrajudicially killed by a police officer. Innocent or guilty, no black person should have their fate decided by a system that constantly fails to deliver black people justice.

Black people have always been present en masse to defend the lives of those unjustly taken from black communities. Every time, propaganda is released in an attempt to justify their murders, to mark them as “guilty.” Think of Renisha McBride’s intoxication, Trayvon Martin’s hoodie, Michael Brown stealing from a store. No matter what is released, their lives are still worth defending: Their past (“guilty” or “innocent”) doesn’t justify their death. That recognition is one of the most beautiful things about the black community: that sense of acceptance and placing humanity first.

“Criminality” doesn’t justify death – and why is a system guilty of being unjust fit to decide who dies?

Black lives matter. All black lives matter. Lives inside and outside of prisons matter. When we fight for black people, let’s make sure we fight for every kind of black person that exists in our society. We cannot negate any black person based on ability, gender, sexuality or imprisonment. During these painful times, the black community has been reaching outside of traditional white definitions of justice. For many, this is a time to begin looking inward at what is already exemplary: the tradition of fighting for black lives.

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