What California’s Death Penalty Moratorium Means For The Marginalized
Davey D discusses Governor Gavin Newsom’s executive order and California’s prison industrial complex—from Tookie Williams to Prop 66
EDDIE CONWAY: Welcome to this episode of Rattling the Bars. I’m Eddie Conway.
On March 13, Governor Gavin Newsom signed an order putting a moratorium on California’s death penalty, which suspends any further executions as long as he’s the governor. We are with Davey D, a journalist and professor at San Francisco State University, to talk about the implications of this moratorium. Davey D, welcome to The Real News.
DAVEY D: Thanks for having me. How are you doing?
EDDIE CONWAY: I’m good. I’m good. With 337 people on death row in California, what’s the implications of this moratorium?
DAVEY D: Well, I think for one thing, for many of us who have covered some of the more egregious and questionable cases around death row inmates, and what may or may not happen to them, this is a good move and a good reprieve. You mentioned it’s like 360 some odd folks on death row.
EDDIE CONWAY: 737.
DAVEY D: 737, right. Even if it’s one, one innocent person who’s killed, says to me that there shouldn’t be a penalty at all. That at the very least, put people away for life and allow folks to fight for their case if it comes under question. That should just be a no-brainer at this point in time. We just have way too many cases that we’ve seen recently and throughout the years of folks who have been put to death prematurely. And it was all done in the name of, you know, “justice.”
But you know, to me, justice wasn’t really served. I don’t think people feel any better, society hasn’t moved or advanced in any sort of way. And you have two people who lost their lives, the victims of an initial crime and somebody who was put to death row who was actually innocent.
EDDIE CONWAY: It’s like 20 other states and D.C. have already abolished the death penalty. Is California late in considering this? Well, in fact, have California considered abolishing the death penalty before?
DAVEY D: There have been fights around this before. And the last iteration of this fight went to the voters, who actually said, yeah, we’re going to keep that death penalty in place. And then Governor Newsom came in. He put the executive order in.
I think people need to really understand about California it’s kind of a reactionary place, even though it’s always blue and it’s perceived as liberal. You know, it’s out of California that we have the three strikes law. It’s out of California that we had the anti-immigrant laws. It’s out of California that we had English-only laws. And it’s out of California that you saw a lot of the rhetoric about being tough on crime emerge. And this tough on crime rhetoric really was a political football to make folks who were, one, maybe trying to get on the national stage seem like they will “be tough on crime,” and to pander to, you know, rich and elite type voters who tend to have a lot of money and often go to the polls and which support that type of legislation.
You know, the people who suffer tended to be disproportionately black and brown folks up and down the state. Many folks found themselves being railroaded. Many folks found themselves locked up in jail. Many people found themselves on death row. All for political expediency. And I’m glad that Newsom, who in my opinion is, you know, he has his own issues. But he’s been right on. He was right on this one. Maybe he did it to pander to folks, maybe he read the political tea leaves. But I think it’s something that we should all take and run with, and make it a real permanent thing.
EDDIE CONWAY: I can remember the case of Tookie Williams, and how Schwarzenegger executed him.
DAVEY D: We covered that case, and we went out to San Quentin. You know, we saw Tookie a lot. I used to go to San Quentin, you know, for some of the programs that they had. And it was a shame, because Tookie had turned his life around. You know, you’ve got to remember, this was, you know, pretty much a teenager, a 15 or 16-year-old guy, who became the “leader” of the Crips, and you know, and went to jail and did his time. What was ironic with that is that him and Arnold Schwarzenegger were once friends. They used to work out with each other, and many people thought that Schwarzenegger would at least give him a reprieve, considering that Tookie had been writing books and had turned his life around.
The sticking point is that they wanted to Tookie to debrief, which means they wanted him to start fingering people and other people up the river, and he didn’t do that. And as a result, you know, you had Schwarzenegger, at the recommendation of some of the folks in San Quentin, put him to death, which I thought was kind of a messed up and very, you know, outlandish act. Especially when you consider the large amounts of people that came out to San Quentin and were rallying to keep Tookie alive. They felt like his presence would be an inspiration, that him being alive, that he could actually talk to people and move people in another direction. But again, it was about political expediency. It was about somebody being able to say that they were “tough on crime” and not get labeled with some sort of adjective that would imply that they were weak.
EDDIE CONWAY: Well, in this particular case, Newsom’s moratorium will will only be in effect until he’s–as long as he’s the governor. The next governor can come in and change that or not respect it. What needs to happen for California to ban executions altogether?
DAVEY D: Well, here’s my take on it. A lot of times when it comes to elections we have a lot of folks who are very vocal about not voting. There’s a lot of folks who will say things like the system is corrupt, and we shouldn’t support the corrupt system. The lesser of two evils is evil, so we shouldn’t vote, essentially.
I want to go back to, I want to say, 2004. I hope my years are correct. Forgive me if they’re not. But there was a proposition, Proposition 66. And it came because grassroots folks saw the the inadequacy of black and brown folks being sent to jail on a third strike for nonviolent crime. So you know, we had passed a three strikes law in the ’90s, and we saw the prison population balloon with all sorts of folks who did simple things like, you know, stole a pocketbook, stole a cup of coffee, didn’t pay for a toll, you know, have a third strike putting him in jail for 25 years to life, with the judges not being able to use discretion. So you might have somebody who had two strikes when they were a teenager, and then they get a third strike 20 years later. They were now finding themselves going to jail for 25 years to life under this California law.
So Prop 66 came up, and it looked like it was going to be a no-brainer that it was going to win. You had at that time a lot of rhetoric with people saying “I don’t believe in voting, and I’m not going to support the system,” and blah blah blah. Well, Arnold Schwarzenegger saw an opening in that. He was the governor at the time. And he he put a lot of, you know, his political capital into that race at the eleventh hour, and Prop 66 was defeated by maybe about 5,000 votes. And I always point to that, because all those people who were locked up for nonviolent offenses are still in jail. And what are we talking about? 2004. That’s 15 years later. Nobody’s busted them out. There was no mass movement on the streets that resulted in somebody changing their position and saying “Gee, let’s get them free.” That was a no-brainer. We could have changed the laws permanently just with the stroke of, you know, pulling the lever, and we could have represented many people who were locked up and can’t vote at all.
So I say all that to say that in this particular situation, we need to use whatever tools we have at our disposal. If we can pressure a governor to put an executive order into place, then do it. But I think we should definitely take an opportunity to put another ballot measure up and make sure, you know, the death penalty is off the table once and for all, and really start investing in rehabilitation and preventative type of situations so people don’t go down the path of killing at all. That’s really getting at the root. But as long as we have this very profitable school to prison pipeline, as long as we have strong police and prison guard unions that that really have an interest in keeping the death penalties and punitive measures alive, we’re going to have a problem. And we’re going to be depending on the whim of a governor, in this case Gavin Newsom. I see him as being responsible for a lot of–helping, being a part of a lot of the gentrification that we see going on up in the Bay Area. So he’s not somebody that I would say is my favorite. But gosh, if he’s going to say no to the death penalty, sure, we’ll take it. But that puts you in a conundrum. You know, you gotta roll with him because of this death penalty thing while he’s doing all this massive development which is going to put people out of the state and out of the cities that they come from.
So you know, why not just have it so that we can actually control the full narrative from top to bottom without these compromises or interesting scenarios that I just described?
EDDIE CONWAY: Are there any groups on the ground now organizing, working toward maybe putting forth a referendum at some point in the near future, that does the work around prisons?
DAVEY D: Well, I mean, the people that I would check in with are Legal Services for Prisoners With Children, headed by Dorsey Nunn. The organization All of Us or None. This group called Courage. You know, the other folks up here in Northern County that I know. Homies Unidos might be another group. And definitely a lot of–what I was saying is that over the past 5 to 10 years you’ve seen a lot of formerly incarcerated folks become highly politicized and very strategic in the steps that they’re taking, and I think we should support their efforts. I think they’re very clear. They have good strategy. And you know, these are folks that have been, like yourself, you know, behind those walls at one time, and clearly understand what’s needed. They have the solutions to these problems. And so I think the work that they’re doing–and I would anticipate that they would be doing more work to kind of solidify this. I know that folks have been supportive of Newsom’s moratorium. Just knowing the way that these folks work, they’re not going to sit down and just, you know, let that be the end of the day. They’re going to probably try to do some things and, you know, make sure it’s a permanent type of situation. So I would get a hold of them and see how you can help in the efforts that they’re going to undertake, and that they’re already undertaking.
EDDIE CONWAY: OK. Professor, thank you for joining me. And we’ll visit this again in the near future.
DAVEY D: Thanks for having me, Eddie. Peace to you.
EDDIE CONWAY: All right. Peace to you too. And thanks for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars.