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Arts and Culture

A Call to Action

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Posted on May 22, 2013
Ryan Rogers

Actor James Cromwell.

By James Cromwell

Actor James Cromwell delivered this speech after receiving the Justice in the Arts Award from Death Penalty Focus at its dinner May 16 in Beverly Hills.

We are ostensibly a nation predicated on the idea of the rule of law. But what exactly is the rule of law? It is understood to be a system in which the following universal principles are upheld:

That the government and its officials and agents as well as individuals and private entities are accountable under the law.

That the laws are clear, publicized, stable and just; that they are applied evenly, and protect fundamental rights, including the security of persons and property.

That the process, by which laws are enacted, administered and enforced, is accessible, fair and efficient.

That justice is delivered in a timely fashion by competent, ethical and independent representatives and neutrals, who are of sufficient number, have adequate resources and reflect the makeup of the communities they serve.

That makes me think of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s recent comment, “That if large financial institutions can break the law, accumulate billions in profits and, if they get caught, settle by paying out of those profits, they do not have much incentive to follow the law.”

It also makes me think of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a 16-year-old, born in Denver and living in Yemen with his grandparents, who was killed with a drone strike because his father was not, according to [Obama campaign adviser] Robert Gibbs, a responsible enough parent.

I am reminded as well of Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, Assata Shakur, Aaron Swartz, Lynne Stewart, Mumia Abu-Jamal, John Walker Lindh, Trayvon Martin, the prisoners at Guantanamo, The Cuban 5, the 100 AP reporters, and John Kiriakou, the ex-CIA officer tried by the Obama Justice Department under the Espionage Act of 1917 and who went to prison because he blew the whistle on torture.

It also reminds me of NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his confession to having enjoyed smoking marijuana, while overseeing more than 350,000 arrests for marijuana possession since he was elected in 2002.

When I was in New York City in the early 1970s, someone had scrawled the following on a subway advertisement for The Bank of New York: “The Law, in all its majesty, equally forbids both the rich and the poor from sleeping under bridges, begging in the streets, and stealing bread.” Anatole France.

I was working for the Black Panthers at the time, trying to get the Panther 13 out of prison before COINTELPRO could have them killed. The Panthers use to say: “We are all in prison. Some of us are in maximum security, some in minimum security, but it’s all still a prison.”

According to former media baron Conrad Black, who spent some time in a prison in Florida for fraud: “Our country is, from bottom to top, a carceral state.” That’s carceral, meaning of or belonging to prison. You know the old joke: A conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged; a liberal is a conservative who’s been indicted; and a passionate prison reformer is a conservative who’s in one.

Michelle Alexander wrote in her dazzling and devastating book “The New Jim Crow”:

“According to the old adage, ‘the more things change, the more they remain the same.’ In each generation, new tactics have been used for achieving the same goals—goals shared by the Founding Fathers. Denying African Americans citizenship was deemed essential to the formation of the original union. Hundreds of years later, America is still not an egalitarian democracy. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Mass incarceration in the United States has, in fact, emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control which functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.”

She goes on to say: “Sociologists have frequently observed that governments use punishment primarily as a tool of social control, and thus the extent or severity of punishment is often unrelated to the actual crime patterns. Mass incarceration of people of color is designed to warehouse a population deemed disposable—unnecessary to the function of the new global economy.”

To my mind, the death penalty is the crown jewel of the American system of injustice. It is analogous to the crown jewel of our foreign policy, “targeted assassination.” God knows how many innocent people we have legally put to death here in America; but we have a pretty good idea how many are killed in drone strikes: 50 civilians for every one “suspected” terrorist. And that doesn’t include those killed in “signature strikes,” where targets are hit merely for displaying “suspicious behavior.”


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