Teaching, Killing and Endorsed Racism
The death penalty was abolished in Maine in 1887, two years after the botched execution of Daniel Wilkinson, an escaped inmate convicted of burglary and murder. Like the two men on death row before him, the noose around Wilkinson’s neck was improperly tied and he died slowly of strangulation, prompting activists to call for a change in the inhumane practice.
Here we are, 129 years later, and the governor of Maine, Paul LePage, who has graced headline after headline with various racist, sexist and xenophobic comments, has suggested not only that we bring back the guillotine, but also personally endorsed citizen vigilantes to deal with drug use and trafficking in the state whose tagline is “The Way Life Should Be.”
Here I am, in my ninth year of reading To Kill a Mockingbird with ninth graders. Teaching in a predominantly white community in a predominantly white state, the history surrounding a book like Harper Lee’s classic, where an innocent black man dies for a crime he obviously did not commit, remains almost as important as teaching the impact of perpetuated and systemic racism that exists today. I have heard many comments over the years of students using past tense when describing racism or using language that separates the north from the south, as if there is no complicity or that racism is something that exists elsewhere. So we discuss. We talk about the concept of social justice and white privilege. We read speeches and historical texts and watch news clips and look at current events. And we see headlines about Trump saying he could shoot people on Fifth Avenue and not lose any votes (white privilege?). And we see headlines about LePage saying drug dealers come to Maine and impregnate “white girls.” We talk about this, too, and I do my best to moderate. I do not call our governor a racist and xenophobic pawn. I do not call Trump the first words that come to mind. I bring forward information. I ask my students to question.
The civil rights activist and lawyer Bryan Stevenson works tirelessly to help those on death row in Alabama, which has the highest death-sentencing rate in the nation. He has written extensively on the topic of the death penalty, and he outlines his perhaps most striking way of framing the issue in his 2012 TED Talk “We Need to Talk About an Injustice.” He says, “In many ways, we’ve been taught to think that the real question is, do people deserve to die for the crimes they’ve committed? And that’s a very sensible question. But there’s another way of thinking about where we are in our identity. The other way of thinking about it is not, do people deserve to die for the crimes they commit, but do we deserve to kill?”
I have thought about this question over and over since first hearing his words four years ago. Do we deserve to kill? Which ultimately leads to: How could we possibly deserve to kill?
Stevenson continues, “Death penalty in America is defined by error. For every nine people who have been executed, we’ve actually identified one innocent person who’s been exonerated and released from death row. A kind of astonishing error rate — one out of nine people innocent. […] In aviation, we would never let people fly on airplanes if for every nine planes that took off one would crash. But somehow we can insulate ourselves from this problem.”
So when the governor of Maine said in a radio interview on Tuesday, “What I think we ought to do is bring the guillotine back. We should have public executions.” We could discuss the fact that the United States has never used the guillotine or that France abolished the death penalty in 1977. Or we could talk about the rancor and ignorance behind the statement. Or we could write it off as another one of LePage’s numerous gaffes. Or we could talk about candidates like Ted Cruz call for carpet-bombing ISIS in the same breath they decry the savage terroristic beheadings and executions of Americans at the hand of ISIS and attempt to see the delineation. Or, we could move forward to Wednesday when LePage said, “Everybody in Maine, we have constitutional carry, load up and get rid of the drug dealers.”
Without even scratching the surface of the ramifications of this insane, racist and unhinged idea for vigilante justice, we see that, like the first snowfall of the winter, LePage continues to equate whiteness as something pure to be sullied by outsiders. He perpetuates the stereotype that Maine has no time for people “from away” and, indeed, that these outsiders, who LePage refers to as “D-Money, Smoothie and Shifty” (and then claims his comments had nothing to do with race) are the root of all Maine’s problems, including the heroin epidemic.
Heroin use and trafficking is indeed a stark and consequential problem in Maine. But for the governor to publicly blame this epidemic on the likes of “D-Money” and then call for “Everybody in Maine” (one of the whitest states in the nation) to start killing drug dealers is not simply a gaffe to be written off or overlooked. This is the very troubling ignorance that perpetuates centuries worth of oppression, discrimination and targeting of people of color. Cue To Kill a Mockingbird.
LePage is not alone, of course, in his brand of so-called justice. And yet. Can we continue to call for vigilante justice while our own police, who have the power and ability to kill, remain largely and disturbingly unaccountable for their use of force? Can we continue to watch death after death of fellow citizens, predominantly in communities of color without calling for justice?
This question not only extends to the 31 states where the death penalty is still legal, but also, and perhaps more ubiquitously to the use of deadly force by police. The Use of Force Project, a spinoff of Campaign Zero, which promotes 10 policy solutions for ending killings by police, recently released images of the police use of force polices in several cities that complied with their Freedom of Information Act requests, including heavily redacted documents. There is no national database on police killings. As with the statistics from death row, where more than 50% of those awaiting execution nationally are people of color, the majority of victims of excessive use of police force or shootings by police are people of color.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a teacher, about how I can talk about social justice and discuss the inhumanity of the likes of Trump and LePage without being written off as a latte-drinking-onion-peel-crying-NPR-listening liberal. I went back to the work of Hannah Arendt, who I studied in my final year of college as I began my career in teaching. She writes,
“Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin, which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and the young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their choice of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.”
I’m not going to save the world from ruin, but I do love the world enough to want better from our elected officials, our laws and our police. Our children deserve it. We all do.