Revolution#136, July 20, 2008
Obama, the Courts, and Black People:
A Tale of Two Decisions
April 25, 2008—NY judge acquitted the cops who fired 50 shots at Sean Bell, killing him just hours beforehis scheduled wedding and severely wounding two of his friends. When asked about this verdict, Barack Obama replied: “I said at the time, without benefit of all the facts before me, that it looked like a case of excessive force. The judge has made his ruling, and we are a nation of laws, so we respect the verdict that came down.” Going further he said “resorting to violence to express displeasure over a verdict is something that is completely unacceptable and counterproductive.”
June 25, 2008—In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that imposing the death penalty on people convicted of raping children violated the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. On this occasion Obama didn’t counsel acceptance or respect for the verdict. Instead he said, “I disagree with the decision. I have said repeatedly that I think that the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances for most egregious of crimes. I think that the rape of a small child, six or eight years old is a heinous crime, and if a state makes a decision that under narrow, limited, well-defined circumstances, the death penalty is at least potentially applicable. That does not violate our constitution.” He continued, “Had the Supreme Court said, ‘We want to constrain ability of states to do this to make sure that it’s done in a careful and appropriate way,’ that would’ve been one thing, but it basically had a blanket prohibition and I disagree with that decision.”
What accounts for Obama’s differing responses to these court verdicts? Did the U.S. stop being “a nation of laws” between April and June? Isn’t 50 shots fired at unarmed men who were doing nothing wrong “a heinous crime”? This isn’t a matter of hypocrisy. There is a logic that brings his responses to these two court verdicts together, a logic that helps illuminate what he is all about and what his candidacy represents.
The Sean Bell Decision
The judge’s ruling in the Sean Bell case continues the way the law, and the courts, in this country have upheld and enforced the subjugation of Black people from when the first Africans were dragged to these shores in slavery’s chains. The U.S. Constitution considered Black people to be nothing more than property. In 1857, the Supreme Court ruled that Black people had no rights that white people had to respect. In 1872, after the official ending of slavery, the Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional for the federal government to punish a white mob that had murdered over 100 Black people. For more than a century the courts and the U.S. Congress refused to do anything to stop the lynching of Black people. Today the courts virtually never punish cops who brutalize and even murder Black people.
This official and unofficial violence has played and continues to play the role of enforcing the subjugation of Black people. The patrols that kept the slaves from fleeing the plantations or rising up in revolt were the first forms of law enforcement in this country. After the Civil War led to the abolition of slavery, the KKK and lynch mobs enforced Black people being kept on the same plantations, share cropping, in conditions that were near slavery. Today Black people are segregated in urban ghettos, limited largely to substandard health care and education. They face astronomical unemployment rates, with many youth caught between choices of thug life or flipping burgers in some fast food joint. And these conditions are enforced by the guns and billy clubs of brutal, murdering cops.
The Stolen Lives Project of the October 22nd Coalition to Stop Police Brutality has documented that cops and other law enforcement agents killed more than 2,000 people in the U.S. in the 1990s. Most of these people were unarmed and doing nothing wrong when they were killed. Yet the system almost never punishes these killer cops. In effect, police murder comes down to another form of state sponsored execution, only without the victims being charged with a crime or convicted and sentenced in court. This is something that people are right to be outraged about. Yet Obama tells Black people they must respect a court verdict that comes down to putting a target on the backs of the youth!
The Death Penalty Decision
But what about the death penalty decision?
The death penalty also has a long history of being used to enforce the subjugation of Black people as well as being used against opponents of the system. The slave codes developed to spell out the punishment of slaves before the U.S. won its independence from Great Britain included use of the death penalty. This was reserved for those slaves who committed “crimes” the slave owners feared the most. Striking or killing their masters or encouraging other slaves to escape to freedom or to rise up against slavery were all punishable by death. Often all the slaves on a plantation were forced to watch these executions.
Today the death penalty continues to be used disproportionately against Black people. Information compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) this year shows that while Black people comprise 13.4% of the U.S. population, 34% of prisoners executed since 1976 have been Black, and 41% of those currently on death row are Black. The DPIC also found that in 79% of the cases where a prisoner was executed, the victim in the case was white.
For most of the 27 years he has been unjustly imprisoned, African-American political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal has had a death sentence hanging over his head. In March of this year, a Federal appeals court upheld a lower court ruling setting aside Mumia’s death sentence, but there is still a danger of that ruling being appealed and the death sentence reinstated.
The June decision to restrict the application of the death penalty by a divided Supreme Court reflects differences in the U.S. ruling class over whether and how to continue using the death penalty. There is intense opposition to state sponsored executions around the world. A number of countries have abolished the death penalty altogether. Some countries have refused to extradite people accused of crimes in the U.S. because they might face the death penalty. There have been more than 200 cases where people who had been on death row facing execution were found to be innocent. These have sparked greater opposition to the death penalty in the U.S.. Obama has to know about this since 18 of these cases were from his home state of Illinois. Yet he weighed in around this Supreme Court decision to oppose restrictions in its use.
In both of these cases, Obama came down on the side of endorsing the ability of the system to enforce the continued oppression of Black people in this country. Obama’s response to both of these court verdicts is part of his audition for the role of leader of the U.S. global empire. He is showing he has the right stuff to carry out this role. Showing he can combine generating a sense of hope among sections of people disaffected from the system with ruthless enforcement of the crimes needed to maintain and extend the empire. This is the change you’re allowed to believe in—just a new face on the same old system, one that some sections of the ruling class hope can more effectively advance its interests at a time when they face great challenges globally and when there is much potential for things to get out of their control in this country. This all points to why the U.S. rulers are considering putting him in the White House. But why should anyone concerned about the way this system has brutally oppressed and exploited Black people and so many others think this represents change they should want or believe in?
“The politics of the ‘possible’ is the politics of monstrosity. To adhere to, or acquiesce in, the politics of the ‘possible’ is to support, and actually to facilitate, monstrosity.”
Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP,USA
If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.