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.”
Or as Henry Kissinger so eloquently put it, “The illegal we do immediately; the unconstitutional takes a little longer.”
George Orwell wrote, “He who controls the present controls the past. And he who controls the past, controls the future.” The Bush administration had, for a while, the Office of Strategic Influence to market America’s war on terrorism outside the United States. When the NY Times reported that the OSI would plant false press releases in foreign media outlets to manipulate public opinion, and that this disinformation could eventually find its way into American news reports, [Donald] Rumsfeld supposedly shut it down. I say “supposedly” because according to Salon.com when Judith Miller “hyped bullshit stories” about Saddam’s WMDs in Iraq on the front page of the Times, or regurgitated “the nonsense fed to her by that “lying exile grifter, Ahmad Chalabi,” all of which was designed to push us into a war with Iraq, she was not sanctioned but rather “given freer rein than other reporters because she consistently delivered frequent front page scoops for the paper by cultivating top-ranking sources.”
In John le Carré’s novel “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” one of his MI6 colleagues says to George Smiley, “Do you know what is killing Western democracy, George? Greed. And constipation; moral, political, aesthetic. I hate America deeply. The economic repression of the masses institutionalized. Even Lenin couldn’t foresee the extent of that.”
The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, as it is better known, along with the connivance of the Koch brothers, corporate America, and their running dogs in Congress and state legislatures across the country, have brought us the “Stand Your Ground” laws, the Castle Doctrine, and have even proposed legislation that would bar cities from regulating machine guns. They are primarily responsible for the dramatic increase in the amount of people in prison, through their self-interested support of tougher sentencing guidelines and even more draconian drug and immigration laws. They are behind voter ID laws and other laws intended to suppress the vote. They have helped pass laws that privatize prisons, privatize the parole process, and exploit the use of prison labor, basically slave labor, and mostly in the service of the military-industrial complex. All this, in conjunction with the deplorable Citizens United ruling, effectively means that we no longer have “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people” [that] so many have sacrificed their lives to preserve, but rather a kleptocracy of one-tenth of the 1 percent, at the expense of the other 99 percent.
Dennis Kucinich, the man I sincerely wish was the president, once told me, “The federal government has become an engine for the redistribution of the wealth of America upwards.”
The Obama administration has either passed or made use of all the following: the National Defense Resources Preparedness Executive Order; the Electronic Communication Privacy Act; the Authorization for the Use of Military Force; the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act; the National Defense Authorization Act; the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act; and a four year extension of the worst provisions of the Patriot Act. These laws all infringe, in one way or another, on our civil liberties, our First Amendment right to free speech, the press and assembly, by threatening people who act on those rights with legal sanctions and the possibility of being deemed a “terrorist.” Along with more than 34 similar laws, this administration has effectively obliterated the balance of power and legitimized in its stead a military dictatorship. To control the dissemination of the truth in the name of protecting its “secrets,” NSA has built a $2 billion electronic intelligence compound in Bluffdale, Utah, whose purpose is to intercept, decode, analyze, integrate and store the contents of all private emails, texts, cellphone calls, Google searches and other personal data, as well as the information retrieved from the “eye in the sky” and “drones at home” programs. In this brave new world of Total Information Awareness, we will have truly lost our freedom—not to some foreign nation that “hates our freedom,” but to our own devices.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience has shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
As Rabbi Hillel, Robert F. Kennedy, Mikhail Gorbachev and a host of others have said, “If not now, when? If not us, who?”
Correction: This transcript previously contained an erroneous quotation attributed to Project Censorship regarding the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012. Thank you to Truthdig commenter The9thofAv for recognizing the error. We regret the mistake.
Actor James Cromwell.