Wednesday, May 20, 2009

“We could live offa the fatta the lan'.” Lennie in Chapter 3 of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men


On Martin Luther King’s birthday yesterday two significant events occurred. There was a rally to demand a new trial for Troy Davis who is on Georgia’s Death Row. And Missouri carried out its first execution in 4 years. Texas was busy executing its 15th prisoner this year.

On Saturday I met up with the book club of
CEDP: The Campaign To End the Death Penalty. Afterwards I stayed to help stuff envelopes with the latest edition of The New Abolitionist for the prison letter-writing group. The book club has just finished reading Christian Parenti’s Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis. We’ll be on to the new book by Mumia Abu-Jamal: Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. the U.S.A.

I am a relative newcomer to this group. The other members of the book club are hardcore, extremely devoted people who are working tirelessly to end the death penalty in this country, and not just the heinous executions but also the living hell of life without parole (LWOP).

For my entire adult life I have been against the death penalty. More times than I care to recount I have been stunned, not only at the obvious supporters but even more so when liberal thinking, supposedly left wing friends and acquaintances shocked me with their support of it when the subject has come up. And it always comes down to the ‘If you only had a child’ or ‘If you had ever been raped’ or ‘If a loved one had ever been murdered’ that gives them the so-called right to tell me I am wrong for my beliefs.

What finally directed me to CEDP was the execution of
Stanley “Tookie Williams, a case I had begun to follow when the groundswell of support rose in my consciousness. And in every presidential election I have been bitterly disappointed by candidates whose liberal appeal disguised a pro-death penalty stance. Barack Obama is one of those as is his Vice-President Joe Biden. Hillary Clinton, too. Her husband scooted back to Arkansas in ’92, leaving the campaign trail to execute a brain-damaged young Black man named Ricky Ray Rector, presumably in a hurry to return to less unpleasant pastimes. The list goes on.

One of the few lighted lamps in a shadowed controversy is Dennis Kucinich, a man not given to coddling the American public and instead speaking of his beliefs without compromise. He is on record as being against the death penalty.

Our president seems to have backpedaled on a few issues that got him elected. Exposing and disciplining the torturers doesn’t seem to be worthy of discussion and Mr. Hopey thinks we should all just move on.

So does the folksy American storyteller, Garrison Keillor. I used to listen, almost religiously, t
o Prairie Home Companion in the late 70s and early 80s. Until that storyteller deftly incorporated a chunk of Mark Twain into his narrative and then promptly forgot to credit the author. Years later I peeked in again, nudged by Robert Altman’s last wonderful film about the radio show broadcast from the mythological Lake Wobegone. It was a question of a so-called “Liberal Democrat” keeping a bunch of less liberal listeners in thrall. I could never really tell where Mr. K. was going. His regular column online at Salon was even more confounding. Was it satire? If it was, then why was he making me angry? And why was Mr. Cranky sounding more and more like Mr. Republican?

are these men and women?

So, pretty much disgusted with nearly every politician, the government in general and deeply closeted-to-the-right Democrats, I knew I needed to make an effort; that eye-brow raising and shoutiness when confronted by the self-righteous supporters of the death penalty would no longer suffice.

In Harlem on Saturday, I headed for the
Hue-Man bookstore on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. I passed the statue of Harriet Tubman at the intersection of Frederick Douglass Boulevard, St. Nicholas Avenue and 122nd Street. Tubman was a runaway slave who was a courageous conductor of the Underground Railroad, spiriting slaves through the night to freedom in the North. She also championed the vote for women. The sculpture is a powerful image though why it faces south is a mystery.

Thinking about slavery and its horrible history I wondered about latter day ramifications of the economic collapse in this country. Perhaps too many of us, like Lennie in
Of Mice and Men had proceeded under the very wrong assumption that to “…live offa the fatta the lan'” was the way to happiness, making us slaves to the banks and the real corporate rulers of society.

The book club meeting was a lively interchange of ideas on what Christian Parenti had to say about prisons in the United States. The situation is so bad that it can’t come close to being described as ‘dismal.’ One aspect of the book dealt with the militarization of the prison system. I had recently read a rather disturbing article accompanied by a horrifying photograph of fresh-faced youths with automatic weapons in the New York Times: Scouts were being trained to fight terrorists.
Boys and girls Scouts! Oh, and the headline had in addition "…and more." Red-blooded American boys and girls who rose in the scout ranks to Explorers were being trained in the skills necessary to confront terrorism, illegal immigration and the ruckus at borders created by those huddled masses, wretched refuse and homeless who yearned for freedom. And instead of a lamp, an automatic weapon would be lifted to show the way out.

Now I remember my childhood friend Billy McDaniel. He lived with his family in Hicksville, Long Island where we traipsed out to see him inducted into the highly regarded rank of Explorer Scout. In a solemn ceremony reminiscent of Native American tradition we watched awe-struck as he and the other inductees were carried across a lake on canoes. On shore the ‘leader’ finalized the ceremony with a sharp punch to the chest of each scout. A collective wincing on the part of mothers in attendance was nearly missed under the puffed chests of proud fathers.

But now the Explorer Scout can look into the eyes of an old lady waiting at a busy intersection and judge whether or not the blue-haired, cane-weilding dame is a terrorist or not before scooting her to the other side or shooting her. Tying knots is probably a thing of the past unless it’s to secure a suspect to a water board.

The book club meeting ended and I stayed behind with a few others in the prison letter-writing group. Removing staples, the least fun part of stuffing the
The New Abolitionist into envelopes, is necessary because all metal is prohibited from prisoners’ mail. Letters from those who are incarcerated were passed around to be read. I noticed a reference to mice in one letter and asked the woman to whom it was directed if she had, indeed, solved her mouse problem. Oh, no, she said, it was terrible! She had glue traps plastered like wallpaper to catch the buggers. As The Mister and I—and our big black cat Sidney Vicious—are a non-violent bunch we used the humane traps when visited by the furry creatures and then relocated them to the bucolic setting in Central Park. I offered the suggestion that I had happily discovered that peppermint oil is an excellent deterrent and has seemed to rid us of these uninvited guests. The response from the others was unanimous: best to kill them all.

On the way home I passed The Crenshaw Cristian Center on 96th and Central Park West. A billboard-sized sign declared: “For we walk by faith, not sight,” from II Corinthians 5:7. I guess it’s all about what we choose to see.

Today in the U.K. at the Guardian online:


zbelnu said...

This is the thing to do, for me it is obvious, if I would live there I would work to abolish death penalty like you do.
I adored From Mice and Men (and The Grapes of Wrath!!!!), but I did read it translated in Sp, so could you translate this sentence for me? The way Lenny talked...
I hope you will have success in the abolition, there can be no democracy no Human Rights with death penalty

Druidhead said...

Yes, you would think killing people would be obviously wrong, especially among the vast majority of religious citizens in this country. It pains me that my country is ranked with the worst offenders.

Lenny's dialect: We could live off of the fat of the land…(To live well, like kings.)