In the wake of the Capitol riot, we need to evict our current mindset on the death penalty, Ettinger says.
ROANOKE-It’s time to evict the cop in your head. I grew up in a family that practiced spanking as a punishment for misbehavior. While there are many people who say that they were spanked and ended up fine, I believe that it significantly damaged my relationship to harm and wrongdoing and to my imagination when it comes to processes of justice. If I was violently punished for causing harm in my childhood, why shouldn’t I expect this for others?
I’ve been struggling to contain my emotions as I watch the news roll in about the white supremacist traitors who attempted a coup last week getting picked off by the FBI one by one. My reactions have ranged from glee to relief. There were children at the Capitol that day in the daycare center. There were panic buttons stripped from the office of a Black representative, and conservative members of Congress tweeted out the location of the secured room in which representatives were sheltering. The national guard response was delayed, deliberately. It could have been much, much more deadly and devastating that day than it was. Consequences for the actions of these insurgents is good. We cannot have a repeat of the J6 putsch.
No One Should Be Locked Up
But the thing is, just because I suffered does not mean it was right or that other people should similarly suffer. Just because the justice system has been used to unfairly and unjustly incarcerate people for decades does not mean that it is a good thing for these people also to be processed by the same system. No one should be hit as a kid; no one should be locked up. We as a society would rage if animals were treated the way we treat humans who have caused harm in our existing justice system–why should humans be caged up in an environment designed to cultivate dehumanization and fear? What does that heal or restore when hurt is done and things and lives are lost?
Prison abolitionists like Angela Davis have done excellent work outlining the arguments against the carceral justice system, and I’ll recommend their work rather than badly summarizing their arguments here. There are many excellent reasons to re-evaluate the impulse to incarcerate as a solution to societal harm, and this year we have the opportunity to bring Virginia a couple steps further away from the slaver origins of its justice system.
Evict Your Mindset Over the Death Penalty
Rep. Lee Carter has introduced a bill for the 2021 General Assembly’s consideration that would end the death penalty in Virginia. HB 1779 is backed by Gov. Northam, and, if passed, would make Virginia one of 22 states which no longer practice capital punishment. Virginia’s last execution was William Morva in 2017 under Gov. McAuliffe–an execution opposed by the daughter of one of Morva’s victims and questionable based on evidence concerning his mental state.
The last few weeks of the Trump presidency saw federal executions carried out with little regard for the public outrage. The practice was previously paused after a short run of executions 2001-2003, and before that stopped since 1963. The Trump administration executed 13 people since 2020, making up 3.7% of all U.S. federal executions since 1790. That’s an absurdly high rate of executions under a single-term president. Public opinion about the death penalty is largely negative. Meanwhile, the rates of capital punishment in Virginia reflect the racial inequity in the justice system. From the Washington Post this summer:
While black people make up 13 percent of the population, they account for 42 percent of the 2,620 men and women on death row. Seventy-six percent of those executed since 1976 had white victims even though 50 percent of murder victims are white.
A Time for Reform
Such rates are unconscionable, but are also extremely representative of the systemic racism in our carceral practices.
Reform of the justice system in our state requires, at minimum, ending of the death penalty. It’s a national embarrassment that we are still executing people in 2021. We punish people for killing pets with more vigor than we do common rapists. And after that’s done, we need to have a long and serious conversation about why we rejoice when someone is dehumanized and incarcerated. There are other ways to heal. If the default response to harm done is to isolate and abuse those who harm others, we will never end the cycles of violence that generate abusive and dangerous people.