What’s with the death penalty obsession, California?

It was the summer of 1993. We had a new president, I had just switched schools, and ‘Whoomp! (There It Is)’ was on the radio. On some warm evening, all the doors of the house open and the cats hiding in the potato bin because it was the coolest place in the house, my father flicked on NPR while making dinner, like he always did, and I sat at the table chopping vegetables while the announcer’s voice rose and fell.

The announcer was talking about a man named David Mason, and a curious choice — though California had just introduced lethal injection, he insisted that he wanted to die in the gas chamber and waive all appeals. I remember turning to my dad and asking: ‘Is he sick?’

A few month’s earlier, my godfather’s dog had taken ill with some horrible wasting illness that made her get thinner and thinner until the day the vet came by the house with his little black bag. I sat with her head in my lap and murmured nonsense into her ears until the injection took hold and she grew limp and still in a way that I knew wasn’t sleep, no matter what any adult said. After years of living on farms and slaughtering animals for food, it was my first exposure to the idea that when our pets got horribly sick and miserable, they didn’t have to die alone.

So I thought maybe the man was sick, because they were talking about an injection.

‘Why wouldn’t he want to be put to sleep?’ I asked. ‘Didn’t they use gas chambers to kill Jewish people in the Holocaust?’

My father and I had a long and complicated conversation that spanned several days as he tried to explain that sometimes the state put people to death for doing very bad things — no, they weren’t sick, he said. And they used to use the gas chamber but they were phasing it out, he explained, because it was inhumane. ‘Because it’s like killing Jewish people?’ I asked. ‘No,’ he said, ‘because sometimes people suffer.’ I was still stuck on a fundamental question, though, which is why the state was killing people at all, because isn’t killing people wrong? Didn’t we go to war with people because they killed people? Why was it okay in some places and not others?

I didn’t understand the death penalty then and I don’t understand it now. I mean I understand the legal mechanics, the framework of legislation and case law that supports its continued use. But I don’t understand it on a visceral level. It seems to me a very counterproductive and inhumane and strange way of dealing with crime, and it seems that many people agree with me.

I live in California, after all. I hear some calling us ‘the bluest state’ and the ‘bulwark against Trump.’ People talk about ‘San Francisco values’ with a sneer when they really mean that there’s a city in California where a lot of people in power think that the way we treat some people is unfair, and they’ve decided to do something about it. This is a state that houses the birthplace of the disability rights movement, that has become synonymous with LGBQT pride, the home of Hollywood and Karl the Fog and redwood trees.

But there is something people do not know about California, and it is this: The state has a weird conservative streak. Large swaths of the state are red, and even in the blue regions, conservative politics can be surprisingly dominant. That’s why the state voted to dehumanise LGBQ people by attempting to ban same gender marriage in 2008. It’s why 10 percent of San Francisco voted for Donald Trump. It’s why the state has passed a number of quite conservative ballot measures.

And it’s why California has the largest death row population in the country, with hundreds of people, mostly men, waiting for the state to kill them. Some of them don’t wait, and they kill themselves — the death row suicide rate is roughly five times that of the normal male population. Some die of natural causes. The state invests tremendous amounts of money in holding them. Executions are rare in California, and I remember every one. I remember staying up late on 24 August, 1993 to hear the radio report on Mason’s execution. I remember too the nightmares I had that night, imagining a man alone on a chair in a concrete room, gas slowly seeping under the door. In my imagination it was a lurid green.

Perplexingly, ‘the bluest state’ hasn’t banned the death penalty. A number of ballot measures have tried and failed, but in 2016, I thought that perhaps the state would finally get it together enough to pass the repeal. Instead, a competing measure, a death penalty fast track, got more votes. It will be litigated, will sluggishly drag out in the courts. What struck me was not just that Californians voted to uphold the death penalty, but that they wanted to make it faster, to deprive people of due process in order to hurry them through the justice system. Proponents argued that spending decades on death row was inhumane.

California sometimes deeply perplexes me. While many think of it as a safe blue state, as a bastion of liberal politics, it really isn’t. California conservatives are organised and aggressive, almost more so because of the state’s liberal reputation. Many parts of the state are not at all safe for those of us who are different. I hope that the state’s die-hard cling to the death penalty sends a warning that people understand, that nowhere is safe anymore, if it ever was.

Image: death row prison, Bill Dickinson, Flickr