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VIEWS AND VOICES
Politicians of both parties closed their eyes to racism
Legal lynching in Maryland

December 16, 2005 | Page 10

OUR MOVEMENT suffered a tragic loss the night of Monday, December 5, when the state of Maryland proceeded with the legalized lynching of Wesley Eugene Baker.

Baker was the first African American to be executed in the state since the release of a comprehensive University of Maryland (UMD) study confirming an overarching racial and geographic bias in the state's death penalty. Speaking a day after he denied Baker's appeal for clemency, Bush-clone Gov. Robert Ehrlich told the press he thought most of the UMD study was worthless.

We mourn the loss of Wesley, and our sympathies go to his family, who have already endured far too much of the worst this city inflicts on its poor and Black residents.

We will also remember Wesley's dying wish, conveyed to his attorney, Gary Christopher, as the state began to take his life: that "something good would come of this," and that the struggle Wesley was a part of would lead the institution of the death penalty to "wither away."

We are also, however, confronted with the fact that the state and its representatives will not willingly allow any such thing. They will continue to kill, even as they pretend to be troubled by the system they perpetuate.

Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele's "opposes" the death penalty, allegedly on religious grounds. As Ehrlich's African American lieutenant, Steele's position is also meant to be a Republican nod to Black voters in the state.

When it became clear that Wesley's execution was looming, Steele said he would look into the issue of race and the death penalty and deliver a memo on the subject to Ehrlich--next year. The Wednesday before Wesley's execution, Steele jumpstarted his cash campaign for a U.S. Senate seat with a fundraiser downtown, featuring war criminal George Bush.

I wonder whether Steele considered sticking around after the party, wiping the blood from his hands, and cabbing the 15 or so blocks up to the super-maximum security prison to meet Wesley, the man his administration would have killed days later. I doubt it, and the reason lies not in Steele's hypocrisy, nor the Republican Party's uniform evil.

The fact is that Maryland's Democratic Party leadership either supports this system of legal lynching, or is so cynical as to remain silent in order to court the racist vote. I don't know which is worse.

Six of the eight men on Maryland's death row are Black, and all save one were convicted of killing whites. Blacks are 80 percent of murder victims in the state, while prosecutors in the mostly white suburb of Baltimore County have made careers out of putting Black men on death row.

Current Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Chief Executive Doug Duncan--the Democrats who will vie for the right to challenge Ehrlich in the race for governor next year--were deadly silent as a public debate raged in the state as to whether the death penalty was profoundly unjust. It brings to mind the words of Stanley Tookie Williams: "[T]he death penalty has become a pawn that politicians use all the time. You have politicians who didn't used to be supporters of the death penalty, but once they get into the political arena, they alter their position."

As Wesley Baker's mother prepared to lose yet another son--this time not to an unforeseen bullet on a Baltimore street, but to the visible, creeping approach of the state's death chamber--Mayor O'Malley, with an "opposition" to the death penalty even more secret than that of Michael Steele, uttered not a word. He did have time to participate in a Christmas parade in a gentrifying part of town.

A couple of weeks ago, I happened to run into O'Malley's allegedly more liberal challenger, Doug Duncan, at a Baltimore farmers market. Duncan and his entourage were passing out Doug Duncan lapel pins and bumper stickers. I was with the Baltimore Coalition Against the Death Penalty, passing out flyers for a town-hall meeting against Wesley's execution.

I asked Duncan where he stood on the death penalty. He said he supported the moratorium on executions under former Gov. Parris Glendening, but "having lived through the sniper attacks" in Montgomery County, he now favored the death penalty in certain cases.

Putting aside a discussion of what demons could have driven Gulf War veteran John Muhammad, dubbed "the Sniper," to drive around the D.C. metro area with a 17-year-old accomplice, assassinating civilians, I pointed out to Duncan that nobody on death row in Maryland was a sniper.

They are, in fact, mostly Black, mostly poor, and mostly convicted of killing whites, which is why Glendening instituted the moratorium Duncan says he supported and why Glendening commissioned the UMD study which has since confirmed what he claimed to fear.

So would Duncan support a moratorium now. His response was coldly calculated: "I can't say for certain, I haven't seen all the data." His entourage then indicated it was time to hand out some more Doug Duncan lapel pins and bumper stickers.

This fight is not over, and it is a fight we can win. We have some courageous leaders in our struggle, the first and foremost of whom reside on death row or are family and friends of those who do. We also have some allies in local politics and in the mainstream media, who have given these stories a broader exposure and credibility.

Most importantly, we have each other. African Americans in the 1950s and '60s led a mass movement to overcome a brutally hostile Democratic Party machine and turn the political tide against an entrenched system of legalized racism. Wesley has called on us to do the same, and we will.
Ben Dalbey, Baltimore, Md.

The ordeal of Delores Williams isn't over. She must now pay thousands of dollars to have Wesley cremated. Delores, who would often take an hour off of her low-wage job to attend rallies to save her son outside death row, desperately needs our assistance. Checks can be made payable to Delores Williams and mailed to: Gary Christopher, Federal Public Defender's Office, 100 S. Charles St., Tower 2--Suite 1100, Baltimore, MD 21201.

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