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Texas Is About to Execute a Man Because He Was in a Gang

Robert Garza is scheduled to die for belonging to the same gang as a killer.

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Like the “stand your ground” laws that have garnered much press of late in relation to the George Zimmerman trial, the Law of Parties is not neutral with regard to race, class and other power differentials because of how it treats members of so-called gangs.

A gang, like a corporation, is a group of people organized in a particular way. Unlike a gang, however, corporations have recognition as legal persons, and members and shareholders in a corporation are largely protected from criminal liability when the corporation engages in illegal activity. The members of a gang, however — often younger and generally darker-skinned than corporate CEOs — tend to be held criminally liable for each other’s actions under legislation such as the Law of Parties. Although one might object that gangs have an explicitly violent aim while corporations do not, that is much too simple. It is well known, for example, that some gangs in U.S. history have played roles in social justice movements; “CRIPS,” for example, stands for Citizens Revolution in Progress. The Latin Kings gang in New York has been reconfiguring itself into a nonviolent organization against police brutality and for basic liberties, as detailed in the documentary Black and Gold. Although Robert Garza’s own gang, the Tri-City Bombers, has been involved in multiple murders and can hardly be considered an nonviolent advocacy organization, the difference in treatment between the Bombers and, say,  Union Carbide is puzzling.

There are a myriad of reasons that people oppose the death penalty across the board, from holistic commitments to nonviolence to concerns about racial and economic disparities and the false convictions of innocent people. But Robert Garza’s case is not simply a case about the death penalty. It forces us to ask whether we are willing, as a society, to inflict execution upon people whom we acknowledge did not intentionally or directly participate in the killing of anyone.

The British common law tradition, out of which our legal system largely emerged, linked murder to “malice aforethought” — premeditated evil, with full intent to kill. The Law of Parties, in a rush to place harsher sentences on people involved in gang-type criminal activities, cuts away at this tradition and privileges punishment over basic justice. Blaming gang members for the entire collective’s actions does not necessarily stop the gang; loyalty and the sacrifice of a few might strengthen them all.

Garza’s case represents a missed opportunity that we still have time to rectify. We should be improving community support and education so young people have some place besides gangs to turn to. Rather than trying to put more people in prison and on death row, we can strive to run out of prisoners instead. Achieving this goal will only happen if we critically re-evaluate our current conceptions of justice. Garza’s life could represent a starting point for dialogue about these difficult topics. Silencing Garza by executing him not only stops his story from becoming a powerful message of hope — it makes our own silence deafening.

 

 
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