When Bush And Gore Meet Shaka And Mumia
Governor Bush’s recent decision to grant a reprieve to Ricky Noel McGinn definitely appeared to be political maneuvering at its best. With Illinois Republican Governor George Ryan leading the way, a groundswell of bipartisan support for a moratorium on death row executions has dramatically formed. Gov. Bush, effectively taking every opportunity to appeal to moderate voters, has seized the moment and jumped on the death penalty bandwagon in his latest attempt to neutralize an issue that seemed poised to compromise his very effective “compassionate conservative” campaign strategy. On the surface, the Bush reprieve seemed to accomplish that goal of neutralization and has closed the “sensitivity gap” between he and Al Gore, as it usually is a given, especially among Blacks, that Democrats are more sympathetic to those wrongly accused and convicted than are Republicans. Gore, for his part, has felt comfortable to allow Bush to dangle in the air on the death penalty issue hoping for a blunder on the part of the Texas Governor. But before November both men may wish the issue had never come up.
Over the last decade, the issue of crime and punishment has been manipulated by political candidates of both parties in order to gain the support of right-of-center moderate voters (people who are moderate but lean toward the Republican Party) as well as left-of-center moderate voters (people who are moderate but lean toward the Democratic Party). Bill Clinton and Rudy Guiliani are examples of politicians who have effectively used the crime issue to win the support of so-called “swing” voters who vote for candidates of either party. Guiliani has been the master of this strategy, winning Democrats to his column who feel that his stance on crime justifies their voting for a Republican. Bill Clinton, from the Democratic side, has been able to win Republican voters with his stance on crime. Remember that in 1992 it was then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton who interrupted his campaign for president in order to return home and view the execution of a mentally disturbed Black man, Ricky Ray Rector. Clinton obviously did so in order to appeal to moderates in both parties who thought Democrats were soft on crime.
The result of Clinton and Guiliani’s posturing has been that both parties, at times, have very similar positions on crime and punishment and have been able to capitalize on the relatively dormant condition of the Black Electorate on criminal justice issues.
But the sleeping giant has awakened in the past year, in particular over the issues of police brutality and racial profiling - two issues that have revealed some of the drawbacks of the “tough-on-crime” approach advocated by both parties. The effects have most dramatically been felt within the Democratic Party over the last year where President Clinton, Al Gore and Bill Bradley were forced to concede that tough policing has gone over the line, in many cases, where Blacks have been concerned. And most dramatically, as a result of the racial profiling issue, most vocally raised by Rev. Al Sharpton - Clinton, Gore, Bradley and Mrs. Clinton have had to publicly admit that Blacks have been wrongly accused of crimes that they did not commit.
This admission that Blacks are profiled and at times presumed guilty before proven innocent connects directly to the recent uproar over the death penalty. In both the racial profiling issue and the death penalty debate the question of the quality of evidence and the integrity of the American criminal justice system is raised. And it is here where Blacks and Whites depart. Whites, especially moderate voters, tend to have a generally favorable view of the criminal justice system, while Blacks generally have an unfavorable view of the American criminal justice system. As a result, Blacks have little trouble believing that several individuals on Death Row are not guilty of the crimes that they have been convicted of. Many believe that White prosecutors are more likely to ask for the death penalty where blacks are concerned and Blacks do tend to believe that they are more likely to be convicted of violent offenses than are Whites. In addition, Blacks also believe that they are less likely to receive adequate legal counsel than are Whites, mainly because of the lack of resources to pay for a quality attorney
All of this could play out in Presidential politics in a year that the Republican candidate, George W. Bush, seems poised to campaign for the support of Black voters, having already courted several inner-city Black Pastors and spoken before all-Black audiences on several occasions. And in a year that the Democratic candidate, though popular among Blacks, appears to take the Black vote for granted at times (most recently in the case of Elian Gonzalez where Gore went out on the limb for a 6-year old Cuban boy but has been silent on the plight of Black Haitians who suffer under similar or worse circumstances and in great numbers).
For the first time in over a decade, the nominees of both the Republican and Democratic Parties may have to factor in the reaction of the Black Electorate to their positions on criminal justice issues. Even if Bush eventually concedes the Black vote to Gore he will have to be mindful that he is not depicted as a far-right Republican who does not value Black lives. This is what was successfully done to Rudy Guiliani (with his own help we might add).
Enter Shaka Sankofa, formerly known as Gary Graham, a death row inmate who is scheduled to be executed on June 22. The evidence regarding Sankofa’s case is questionable as are the circumstances surrounding his trial. Many, like columnist Elombe Brath, are wondering aloud why Bush has granted a reprieve to a White, McGinn, and not a Black, Sankofa, when legitimate questions surround the cases of both men. If the Sankofa case continues to gain publicity, Bush may find himself in the valley of decision. He will have to decide whether he will continue his new openness to go slow on the death penalty and possibly alienate his conservative base and many moderate voters or whether he will risk giving Blacks and Democrats the evidence they need to depict Bush as insensitive.
But the Democrats are not off the hook. The continual saga of Mumia Abu Jamal hangs over their heads like a storm cloud. Abu Jamal was convicted of the murder of a Philadelphia police officer on very questionable evidence as well as a trial that many believe denied Abu Jamal due process. The case of Abu Jamal is much more well known within the Black community than Sankofa’s case and has united Black leaders ranging from the Congressional Black Caucus, Rev. Jesse Jackson and Minister Farrakhan in questioning the quality of the case against and trial of Abu Jamal. But because he was convicted in the murder of a police officer, many White politicians who wish to appeal to moderate voters find it difficult to support Mumia’s case.
This may put Al Gore in the valley of decision because if he lines up with Blacks behind Mumia he risks alienating moderate voters who he desperately needs in order to defeat Gov. Bush. He also runs the risk of providing Republicans with the ammunition they need to depict Gore as soft on crime and as catering to Blacks. In his vocal support of efforts to stop racial profiling, Gore may look like a hypocrite if he does not support a stay of execution for Mumia.
Lastly, Bush also must be wary of the Mumia case, even in considering who his running mate may be. Talk of Bush’s possible selection of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge as his vice-presidential nominee never addresses the fact that Ridge has repeatedly signed Abu Jamal’s death warrant and because of that has become very unpopular among groups of Blacks and progressive Whites in Pennsylvania and across the country. A Bush –Ridge ticket could easily be painted by Black leaders as extreme on issues of crime. This will not be hard to do after Democrats combine Bush’s permission of 131 executions in his state with Ridge’s handling of the Abu Jamal Case.
So the era of death penalty politics has taken on a new life. And it is uncertain what it will mean to four men - Bush, Gore, Sankofa and Abu Jamal, or what it will mean for an entire people – the Black Electorate. But an election could be determined by the faith of Black voters in this country’s criminal justice system.
Thursday, June 8, 2000