It is a great honor to have been chosen by ethecon Foundation as the recipient of the 2011 Blue Planet Award. I thank you for acknowledging the work I have attempted to do over the last four decades, work I never have undertaken alone, but rather always as only one member of larger collectives – activist organizations, research clusters, social movements. My name became publicly known some forty-two years ago when I was fired from my position in the Philosophy Department at the University of California, Los Angeles because of my membership in the Communist Party. People throughout the U.S., Europe, and other parts of the world supported my right to teach and my right to make independent decisions about my political beliefs and affiliations.
Later that year I was arrested on fraudulent charges of murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy, but millions of people throughout the world, including here in Germany, especially in the GDR, but also in the Federal Republic, spoke out on my behalf and I was found not guilty.
What I have accomplished since then was always in part a tribute to the role that international solidarities played in that movement to free me. Over forty years later, I am involved in movements to generate international solidarities to free Mumia Abu Jamal, the Cuban Five, Leonard Peltier and many others.
In accepting the Blue Planet Award, I want to acknowledge the important work ethecon has done to encourage the preservation of our world and the expansion of social justice in face of global capitalist sacrifices of our waters, our soil, plant life and animal life, including human life, on the all-devouring altar of profit.
This prize is a dual one – one for work well done to safeguard the planet and its inhabitants; the other for work that has led to the deterioration and destruction of the planet – the black planet award. This year, as we have been informed, it goes to executives of the energy consortium TEPCO in Japan, the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Had not those in control of the nuclear plant taken so many shortcuts in the interest of maximizing their profit, the earthquake and the tsunami would not have caused such grave damage to the ocean, to animals, to people, and to the environment as a whole.
I want to devote the remainder of my remarks this afternoon to a movement in which I have been involved for the vast majority of my life – today we refer to that movement as 21st century abolitionism. Just as the 19th century abolitionist movement took on the institution of slavery in Europe and the Americas, and the 20th century abolitionist movement attempted to eradicate the vestiges of slavery by calling for civil rights in the United States, the 21st century abolitionist movement calls for an end to capital punishment and the replacement of mass imprisonment with alternatives that will promote justice and equality. In a tangible historical sense, anti-death penalty and anti-prison abolitionism constitute a continuation of anti-slavery abolitionism and are central to our contemporary struggles for racial, gender and economic equality.
The most dramatic moment in the recent campaign against capital punishment in the United States was provided by the Troy Davis case. More people in more cities and states and countries were brought into the campaign to stop the execution of Troy Davis than perhaps since the Rosenbergs’ execution in 1953. I want to acknowledge the important role ethecon played in mobilizing people here in Germany to challenge the execution of Troy Davis.
However despite repeated declarations of his innocence by numerous witnesses, and despite appeals from diverse circles – from the NAACP and Archbishop Tutu to FBI chief under Reagan William Sessions and the former warden of the Georgia prison where Troy Davis lived on death row – Troy Davis was killed by the state on September 21 of this year. The slogan that resonated around the world was “I am Troy Davis.” Each and every one of us is Troy Davis as long as capital punishment is inflicted on human beings, whether they are innocent (as was Troy Davis) or not.
The institutionalized racism of the death penalty is linked to the structural racism of imprisonment. Capital punishment is corporeal death; imprisonment is civil death. People of color are disproportionately enmeshed in both modes of punishment. As was repeatedly pointed out during the last efforts to save Troy Davis’s life, it is not only the case that there are proportionately more black people on the country’s death rows, but one is more likely to be sentenced to death if the crime involves a white person than if it involves a person of color. Black lives, Latino lives, and Native American lives are still considered to have a lower value that white lives.
But one does not resolve this inequity by calling for the sentencing of more white people to death or to prison. Or by sentencing more people to death or prison who injure or kill people of color. On the same day Troy Davis was executed Lawrence Brewer, a white man, was executed for the murder of a black man, James Byrd Jr, who was dragged to death in Jasper, Texas in one of the most appalling lynchings of the recent period.
When George W. Bush was campaigning for the presidency in the year 2000, he boasted that Texas was moving toward racial equality because a white man (Lawrence Brewer) had been sentenced to death for lynching a black man (James Byrd).
We can not only ask whether James Byrd’s family and friends feel less pain as a result of the execution of their loved one’s murder, but we can also ask whether George W. Bush was correct -- whether the execution of Lawrence Brewer had any impact whatever on the struggle to eliminate racism. I would answer both questions in the negative. No doubt James Byrd’s son would agree, since he vigorously campaigned to spare his father’s murderer, even though Brewer refused to express remorse. Ross Byrd, James Byrd’s son, who remains involved in the organization Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, is one of the most courageous figures in the movement against capital punishment.
The apparatus of capital punishment is at the center of the Prison Industrial Complex. Prison abolition today involves the dismantling of the entire complex. Although the demand to abolish prisons as the dominant mode of punishment is almost as old as the institution of the prison itself, prison abolition has become more critical in the 21st century because it is the only conceivable way to arrest the momentum of prison expansion.
A look at efforts to address the problem of the prison since its introduction at the turn of the 19th century leads to the conclusion that such attempts at reform have only resulted in an ever-expanding net of imprisonment. In the United States there are more than 10 times as many people in prison as there were less than a half-century ago, when people began to speak very seriously about alternatives to incarceration. One in every 100 adults is behind bars and one in every 31 people is under the control of a correctional agency. This is a serious crisis. In the U.S. there are almost two and a half million people actually behind bars today. Virtually every prison reform has resulted in more prisons and a larger prison population.
We do not simply focus on getting rid of prisons – the process of abolition is far more complicated. We know that the abolition of slavery did not work because it left so many of the political and economic structures of racism intact. We also know that the acquisition of the vote did not radically transform society, for a whole number of substantive issues were left unaddressed.
We have now entered the second decade of the 21st century and we recognize that abolition must involve much more than a myopic focus on one institution. We ask questions about the underlying reasons for a system of incarceration that is designed to hold people who cannot be accommodated by the educational system, the health care system, the economic system – if there were jobs available, if there were free health care and free education, the majority of people currently in prison would be leading productive lives in the “free” world.
We recognize that this vast human dumping ground is in large part a consequence of the commodification of every aspect of our lives. It is a consequence of the ascendancy of global capitalism virtually everywhere on the planet. The Occupy Movement is challenging this ascendancy by calling upon the 99 percent to rise up against the 1 percent.
Imprisonment itself has become profitable. U.S. style prisons are a part of the global capitalist market and have invaded the planet – from Columbia to South Africa to Israel. At a time when institutions associated with the welfare state are rapidly disappearing, the prison emerges in its stead. Human services that by themselves do not generate profit such as free education, free healthcare, low-cost housing, and guaranteed incomes are being replaced by profit- generating prisons. Instead of addressing the problems of poor communities, communities of color, poor women, immigrant communities, transgender communities, lock them up in prisons that are being constructed and operated for profit. This is true of both private and public prisons. Moreover, these institutions of incarceration constitute a growing threat to the environment.
Prisons are like garbage dumps – they are places designed to hold people who are viewed as human refuse, human detritus, where they are out of sight, out of mind.
Critical Resistance has pointed out that “public officials often portray prisons as ‘clean industries’ and promise hundreds of decent jobs to economically desperate towns.” But, in reality, “they suck up scarce local resources such as water, they require towns to pay for roads, sewers, an utilities, they generate tens of thousands of miles of commuting pollution, often in the most polluted parts of the state; they take irreplaceable land out of any productive use, wasting valuable public resources for nothing but holding people in cages.”
“They give almost nothing back to their host communities.” CR further points out that they transport thousands of people from their communities, destroying families and further pauperizing communities that are already damaged by poverty.
The document, “Prisons: New Forms of Environmental Racism” concludes by saying that “Prisons are environmental and social disasters for the communities from which prisoners come and for the towns in which prisons are built”.
We need a world without the death penalty; we need a world without prisons; we need a world in which human problems are taken seriously, a world whose human inhabitants care about the oceans, the soil, the plants and the other animals with whom we share the planet. We need a world populated by people who are dedicated to eradicating violence, not perpetuating it through the persistence of the prison.
We need housing and jobs and education and health care. We need communities, we need peace, we need love. We need hope, justice, creativity, equality and freedom.