LETTER TO A FRIEND WHO UNCONDITIONALLY SUPPORTS SAFE CA INITIATIVE, WHO THINKS THAT WE ALL SHOULD, AND WHO IS TROUBLED BY OUR QUESTIONS
I hear you about the central importance of getting rid of the death penalty. Also hear you about the fact that life without possibility of parole is already the alternative to death penalty in California and that the initiative doesn't change that. And hear you, too, that the point is just to focus on voting for this initiative and not let "the perfect be the enemy of the good."
Most people I know certainly agree with you on the first point (getting rid of the death penalty) and understand about lwop. It's on the third point that we have some questions.
First of all: Why is it a problem to raise concerns among apparent allies?
Second: As work toward the vote develops, it's clear that people behind the initiative simply assumed people like me (people who care so deeply about prison issues) would support the initiative no matter what. Such an assumption is not wise or politically expedient. So far every piece but one that I've read written by someone on Death Row, and every report I've heard about attitudes on the Row, shows dramatic opposition to the initiative. Largely this is due to the analysis of those in line to be executed regarding the legal consequences to them should the initiative pass. But also - apparently - no one behind SAFE CA ever contacted them (which I can't even fathom). Similarly, everyone I talk with who's been part of the on-the-ground anti-death penalty movement feels enormously disrespected and discounted by not being included or informed, but instead being asked to just accept an approach very different from one they've worked toward for years. Everything I've heard about how the SAFE CA folks have gone about things is an example of how NOT to build a movement.
Third: The above raises questions about whether SAFE CA folks even want to be part of building a movement. What are their motivations? A common theme I hear from people on the Row is a whole lot of distrust of the people behind the initiative. Because of not being contacted, as I say above, and also because there is no love from these men toward Jeanne Woodford, whom they see as the enemy. This sentiment is expressed clearly by Kevin Cooper and by Correll Thomas. These men see Woodford as someone who advocates for prisons and not the people locked up in them.
As I first read some of this writing, I felt the men's reaction was perhaps too strong, too personal, too antagonistic. But now I'm hearing things like this: This past week, at a Sonoma County ACLU event, Woodford apparently said that people on death row have it too easy - single cells and visits seven days/week (they do have single cells, but not seven days/week of visiting) - and that they should be put on Level IV mainlines where prison life is so much harder. Or look at what the ACLU has on its own website. Recognizing that lwop has the legal power it does in California is one thing; lauding it as a sentence is quite another. After such a post and position, there's no way the ACLU could come back next year and join the effort to get rid of lwop.
These concerns may seem to you like letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, but they don't seem that way to me. I understand that the death penalty is the most important issue to you. As a citizen who knows that the death penalty makes me a murderer, I get that point. However for many of us the "most important issue" is larger than even the death penalty. Speaking in shorthand, that "most important issue" is something like what the phrase "school to prison pipeline" conveys. Yes, of course, one can't put "let's abolish our whole thinking about prison and the economic and social factors that surround it" on the ballot. But there's a way to put forward a single issue - abolishing the death penalty - that opens doors to the next effort and there's a way that closes down and even works against further efforts. From all I'm seeing, from what's reported to me by many others, the SAFE CA folks are doing the latter. As you surely know, many in the faith community and left political community - people and organizations who strongly supported the initiative at the beginning - are raising questions now, feeling concern. We may all still vote for the initiative, and I can't imagine anyone will vote against it, but so many people are furious and frustrated and we didn't need to be. This could have all been done differently giving us both a good chance to end the death penalty and to continue the long-term fight for equity and justice.