Black Women & The Death Penalty

Earlier this year I was apart of a dialogue on the death penalty for Religion & Politics  The Table Dialogue where various faith leaders write responses on a pressing social issue from the perspective of their faith tradition.

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Never Murder.  –Exodus 20:13 (God’s Word Translation)

As an African American woman who identifies with the Hebraic roots of the Christian faith and who has found a theological home in womanist theology, my religious tradition informs my views of the death penalty in general and as it affects Black women in particular. As a follower of Yahshua (Jesus), the Ten Commandments are still very relevant to my life and shape my ethics. I do not separate the message of the Gospel from the cultural context that Yahshua was born into. In light of this I still observe the Sabbath and when I read in Exodus 20:13 that “we should not murder,” that applies to my brothers and sisters who are incarcerated as well. As a practical womanist theologian who works against mass incarceration’s impact on Black women and girls through the PICO National Network’s Live Free Campaign, which works to end mass incarceration and police brutality, I am grieved by how the intersections of racism, sexism and classism collide to send my sisters to death row. Do we see these women?

As a woman I am inspired by the account of the Egyptian enslaved woman Hagar, who after being unjustly cast out of the home of Abraham and Sarah with her son, encounters the “God who sees her” (Genesis 16:13). Like Hagar, African American women in the criminal justice system are usually unseen and unheard, especially those who are on death row. According to academics Harry and Sheila P. Greenlee, “The percentage of women of every race receiving death sentences is less than their percentage in the female population, except for African American and Native American women. The percentage of African American and Native American females receiving death sentences is more than double their percentage of the U.S. female population. Interestingly, this finding is not true for the other women of color.” It should also be noted that Native American women face disparities in the criminal justice system as well, and this reflects the ongoing injustice faced by the general Native American population since the inception of the United States, which prospered due to the stolen land of Native Americans and stolen bodies of Africa. Theologically I believe that sin is not only individual but also social and is embedded into the very fabric of American society. The United States’ original sin is racism, and the death penalty is just another reflection of this sin. Theologically we mustsee the millions of Black women and girls who are abused by the criminal justice system, whose lives end not only in murder on death row but also while in police custody. In July 2015 five Black women died in police custody and their names are:

Sandra Bland

Kindra Chapman

Joyce Curnell

Ralkina Jones

Raynette Turner

I would challenge advocates against the death penalty to expand their work to include advocacy concerning those who die in police custody, because in my opinion this goes hand-in-hand with the death penalty: One is formal, another is informal, but both are murder by our criminal justice system.

As a faith-based organizer I know that what must be done about the death penalty in general, and its impact on Black women in particular, is that we need to get organized. But this organization should be led by African Americans because we are the ones most affected by the injustice of mass incarceration. Ending the death penalty has to be a part of a holistic campaign to reform our broken, profit-driven mass incarceration system. African American women must organize against the death penalty in all its forms—whether it’s a sister sitting on death row for ten years or Sandra Bland who died in police custody. We have to organize with prophetic public actions, standing not for but withwomen on death row, because the most powerful movements are led by those closest to the pain.

We also must organize by withholding our money and our votes. According to the Nielsen Company study entitled “African American Consumers: Still Vital, Still Growing in 2015,” African American buying power is 1.1 trillion. According to the “Buying Power of Black America” report by Target Market News, “the purchases made by Black women are the single biggest influence on the growth of African American spending.” With this buying power we can begin to boycott those companies that utilize prison labor and those companies that invest in private prisons. According to my colleague Margarida Jorge, national director of the Women’s Equality Center, African American women are the most consistent voters for the Democratic Party. With this voting power, we should demand of all political parties, but especially the Democratic Party, that our support be tied to candidates willing to stand against the death penalty. According to research from Wesley Granberg-Michaelson in his book From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church, the average Christian in the world today is a woman of African ancestry. Black women not only have buck and ballot power; we have the power to influence the Christian church to take on the issue of ending the death penalty. For non-Black women allies the death penalty affects all of us and your voice as an ally is extremely important in supporting a movement to end this sinful practice in our criminal justice system. We all must get organized to build a groundswell that says the death penalty is unacceptable in our society. We all must see those who are on death row because they are our brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, friends, and neighbors. It is only when we see the tragedy of a criminal justice system that murders rather than reforms that we will create a society that honors the lives of all.

Onleilove Alston, M.Div., MSW, is a native New Yorker and Executive Director of Faith in NY, an affiliate of the PICO National Network, where she leads A Women’s Theology of Liberation, training women of faith to organize through a gender lens rooted in their faith. She tweets@Wholeness4ALL

Also In
The Discussion

Capital Crime Calls for Capital Punishment

By J. Daryl Charles

The United States Should Abolish the Death Penalty, as Pope Francis Implores

By Joseph A. Fiorenza

For Mormons, a Contested Legacy on Capital Punishment

By Patrick Q. Mason

– See more at: http://religionandpolitics.org/2016/01/19/lets-reform-our-broken-criminal-justice-system/#sthash.tjxLcEFr.dpuf

Marching to Zion: My Pilgrimage to Israel  #BlackLivesMatterEverywhere! 

On August 6th I left NYC to travel to Israel for a conference and Holy Land pilgrimage led by a powerful sister named Mahalayah Goodman she wanted Black people from throughout the diaspora to come together to build spiritually during these hard times.

I have always wanted to visit Israel but I also know that the current political situation there is deeply unjust but while many progressive people focus on Palestinians hardly no attention is given to the racism Blacks who live in Israel face from the hands of Israelies and Palestinians. I knew before I went to Israel that I wanted to see how my people lived there, currently there are indigenous Black Palestinians who are unmixed, African immigrants and Black Hebrews who have lived in Israel for over 40 years.

I chose to go to a conference and pilgrimage planned and led by a Black woman living in Israel and our tour guide was a Bedouin man whose family lived in the Judean mountains since they immigrated to Israel in the 1800’s (since Israel has been conquered by various groups since ancient times many of the indigenous people are mixed and many people live there who may not necessarily be from there even if they aren’t White Israeli). We stayed in Tel Arad one of the most diverse towns in Israel and everywhere we went we saw Black folks: Sudanese, Hausa, Ugandan Jews and of course Ethiopians. Israel is a lot more diverse than people know since technically it’s in Africa, I would suggest viewing the documentary The Northeast African Deception for more information about what Blacks who are indigenous to Israel go through.

On our last day we visited Palestine which is home to the Cities of Jericho and Bethlehem and we learned first hand from Yonise our tour guide what Palestinians and non Whites go through. When we got to Jericho a Black Palestinian boy welcomed us with a big smile and shook our hand, I prayed for his protection and that the injustice he will face from both sides won’t steal his joy.

My group consisted of Brothers and Sisters from various parts of the U.S., London and Israel and we became a spiritual family. We prayed together and honored Mike Brown on the 1-year anniversary of his death during the conference where I closed with presentation on what the Black Woman and her children are facing across the globe we also honored the 5 Black women who died in police custody in July 2015.  Throughout the conference and the week  we discussed strategy and organizing for our people on every level spiritual and politically.

I was also able to get some much needed rest so this was like an extended Sabbath 😉.

We had a powerful time of prayer at the wall of the only temple remains from the period of Solomon in Tel Arad and these remains were discovered by a Black man. As we prayed we wailed for our people. At the river Jordan I remembered my enslaved ancestors who sung of being baptized in the Jordan and  was joined by brothers from the Akan tribe of Ghana who spoke of what would happen to those who enslaved us and talked about the slavery that happened right in Ghana!

Overall this was a life changing trip and I am inspired to uncover the hidden Black presence in Israel!

Check out my photo slide show from my trip:

https://flickr.com/photos/46579940@N04/sets/72157655008230573

A Cover Girl in Israel Work Sis!  

 An Indian Family gets Baptized in the Jordan River