For three years, I worked for an organization in Nebraska that was dedicated to abolishing the death penalty. It was thrilling when we won. After a hard fought battle and years of disappointment, our legislature did away with capital punishment.
The thrill was short-lived, however. Prompted by our governor, a petition was circulated to put the issue on the ballot. Now, a new fight is being waged to retain the repeal this November.
The death penalty has been opposed by our three most recent popes, and its abolition is supported by Catholic social teaching. Nevertheless, many people cling to execution, in part because they misunderstand the injustice that is part of its very fiber.
Recent violence demands we reflect on the nature of justice in our society. The phrase “black lives matter” doesn’t conflict at all with the basic premise that all lives matter, and certainly police lives matter.
But the Black Lives Matter movement points to the injustice often suffered by people of color in our justice system. When I hear black television personalities relate how routinely they’re stopped by police or hear black mothers worry that their sons will get home safely at night without police harassment, I realize that the African-American experience is not understood by many non-blacks.
In black communities, the American Civil Liberties Union hands out brochures explaining how to respond if stopped by the police. It’s a primer on how to maintain your rights, but also on how to save your life. I’ve never seen similar materials necessary in white neighborhoods.
The death penalty stands at the apex of a system that is often prejudiced in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
The Death Penalty Information Center, an independent research group, provides startling facts that point to the injustice bequeathed to us by slavery and Jim Crow. Just two examples of many: In Louisiana, where a black man was recently shot by police, the chance of getting the death penalty is 97 percent higher if the victim is white instead of black. In that case, we must ask, Do the black victims not matter?
And in Washington state, jurors are three times more likely to recommend death for a black defendant than for a white defendant in similar cases. Three times. Whose lives matter?
Like millions in the U.S., I wept for Trayvon Martin. I’m not black, but I have a kid who walked through our neighborhood in a hoodie, and no one with a son could fail to be touched by what Trayvon encountered as he walked home with his Skittles.
I cringe at the videotapes of black men being gunned down, particularly the video of the man allegedly shot in the back as he ran from an officer in South Carolina last year.
At the same time, I marvel at the courage of the police who ran toward the shots in Dallas in order to protect the protesters’ rights to free speech and freedom of assembly. I weep with the widows and orphans whose brave and good husbands and fathers did not come home.
Supporting a strong police force and opposing injustice against any of our citizens are not two contradictory wishes. They go hand in hand. They are two sides of the same coin.
The tragedy of Dallas was compounded by the fact that the police department in that city has been a national example of good policing, making an effort to overcome problems of racial disparity.
Justice for any of us is justice for all. Let’s respect each other, and let’s start at the top: Get rid of the death penalty and its lethal legacy of discrimination.
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