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The Execution of Brandon Bernard and How The Carceral State Courts Death

The Execution of Brandon Bernard and How The Carceral State Courts Death

Brandon Bernard’s execution was premeditated murder by the carceral state, a killing machine that touches every part of our lives. It has to be eradicated.

TW: Black death, executions, prison industrial complex, mentions of violence and police brutality 

On December 10, 2020, Brandon Bernard was executed after being sentenced to death in 1999 by an all-white jury, when he was just 18-years-old. At 40, he was the youngest person on death row to be executed by the federal government in almost 70 years. In 2016, Obama was lobbied to commute Brandon’s sentence. He refused. National attention was brought again to his case as several of the jurors and the prosecutor involved in the case had changed their minds about Brandon’s fate and hoped to have his sentence commuted; high profile celebrities like Kim Kardashian West also got involved in the attempts to have Trump call off the execution. Their efforts and those of organizers and Brandon’s lawyers were in vain when the Supreme Court voted 6-3 not to stay the execution. So, it’s fuck every president and SCOTUS as well. 

The government should not have the power to legally murder people, regardless of what crime they did or did not commit. It is utterly barbaric that the death penalty still exists, and even more horrifying that the Trump administration is using its final months to ensure as many people as possible get executed (breaking a 130 year tradition of stopping executions during the transitional period). To me, there is no argument that makes sense for maintaining the death penalty, even if you’re some carceral state fangirl. It should disturb the sensibilities of Democrats and represent too much governmental power to Republicans. And yet, here we are, still allowing a bunch of politicians to literally kill people. 

This is not even getting into the particular cruelties of the ways in which they put people to death—alone, without their families, as onlookers watch. Sometimes, the lethal injection doesn’t work as intended, making it so that the last moment’s of this person’s life are spent in agony. If the intention is to prove that murder is bad, wouldn’t it be unnecessarily cruel to murder another person to prove that point? 

It actually makes me sick to my stomach. What hurts my heart is that those who organize against the death penalty can’t even grieve this loss or take care of themselves because there are so many executions planned back to back before the end of the year. They’re literally racing against the clock to stop premeditated murders by the state, where the state has all of the power and resources and we have few. 

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The death penalty is far from the only way the carceral state kills incarcerated people, though. Life without parole is often presented as a more humane alternative to the death penalty—but is life in a cage actually living? Is the prolonged torture and isolation until someone dies not just slow, tax-sponsored death? It is unjustifiable to think that this is a normal reaction to any transgression. People are not meant to be caged, and putting them away for their entire lives (especially those who enter the prison system at such a young age, like Brandon Bernard) doesn’t change the harm that happened nor prevent it from happening again. All it does is hurt more people. Just as the death penalty should be abolished, so too should life imprisonment. 

In normal times, medical care in prison is inadequate. Incarcerated people are not given proper access to healthcare, nor are they able to nurture their mental health while being locked in a cage. During a pandemic, keeping people incarcerated is akin to a death sentence. There are hundreds of thousands vulnerable people in prison: elderly people, immunocompromised folks, and disabled people. To keep them incarcerated when their freedom could be granted by the pen of a governor is murder. And we are watching people die in prison due to COVID-19 because of the government’s refusal to treat incarcerated people as human. 

I don’t care what crime these people allegedly committed. I really don’t give a fuck. It shouldn’t matter. Leaving people to die in cages is preventable and anyone who is allowing it to continue has blood on their hands. This is not to mention the cruelty of so-called prevention methods: keeping people in cells alone for 23 hours a day while also not providing them with free soap or “contraband” hand sanitizer

And still, these are not the only ways in which the carceral state kills people. It does so every day as police roam the streets waiting to arrest, beat, or kill disabled people, sex workers, poor folks, and/or children. It does so after incarcerated people are released from prison. After being convicted of a felony, many people cannot find a job—or they can’t keep to a job’s regular hours because of parole requirements. Without steady income, many must rely on criminalized activities to ensure their survival, which can lead to further incarceration. Even if they aren’t incarcerated again, many cannot qualify for housing or food aid

If this isn’t the state murdering formerly incarcerated people (and those who depend on them), then it is at the very least the state robbing them of any opportunity for a healthy and decent life. To me, it is murder, though. You cannot refuse someone safe and accessible housing, healthcare, and sustenance and consider that reasonable—especially after they already served time in a prison. 

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This is why no part of the prison industrial complex can be left intact. There is no part of it that allows marginalized people—especially those who are Black, sex-working, and/or disabled—to live. It is a killing machine that touches every part of our lives and it has to be eradicated before it can kill any more people. I mean that. Every cop must be fired, every jail and prison must be closed. Nothing can remain of the death machine that killed Brandon Bernard and countless more. 

Rest in power, Brandon Bernard. Rest in power to every person who has been murdered by the state. We must burn it all down for them. 

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Reina Sultan is a Lebanese-American Muslim freelance journalist and one of the co-creators of 8 to Abolition. She is a PIC abolitionist and anarcha-feminist working to dismantle systems of white supremacist cisheteronormative patriarchy. Her work can also be found in VICE, Bitch, ZORA, Greatist, Teen Vogue, and more. Follow @SultanReina on Twitter for hot takes and cat photos.

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