eyes on the U.S.

Time To Break Death Penalty's Twisted Grip On America

The recently botched execution in Oklahoma is the just the latest sign that this 'quaint and cruel' form of American justice is not worthy of a democracy.

The lethal injection room at San Quentin prison in California
The lethal injection room at San Quentin prison in California
Richard Herzinger


BERLIN — The most recent case of a botched U.S. execution — when a condemned man in Oklahoma finally died of a heart attack after 40 minutes of agony — should be a sign for American society that enough is enough.

The death penalty is unworthy of a civilized nation and must simply be abolished.

After a number of other mishaps in applying capital punishment, this atrocious incident demonstrates yet again that the notion of a “humane” execution is a perverted myth. The introduction of lethal injections gives executions the appearance of non-violence by suggesting that it’s a kind of medical procedure being carried out with scientific precision and somehow not the killing of a human being.

The supposedly painless procedure ostensibly turns death into a kind of sterile, clinical abstraction that covers up what is really going on.

Nobody can know exactly the extent of suffering — even when things go according to plan — of a person who is knocked out and paralyzed before the lethal poison is administered. But it is crazy logic to want to spare a condemned criminal pain when the whole principle of capital punishment is based on the idea that murderers should face a similar grim fate as their victims.

But since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1972 that punishment could not be “cruel and unusual,” the American justice system has had to develop execution methods that minimize the pain of the condemned even as the executioners proceed to kill them.

It is not just the act of execution, with all the risks of things going horribly wrong, that is questionable. What’s terrifying is the number of innocent people condemned to death. A recently published study concludes that 4% of capital cases involve innocent people.

The more the American justice system tries to avoid past mistakes — for example, by accommodating a number of appeals and postponement possibilities — the more absurd the entire endeavor. It is not unusual for criminals to sit for years, and in some cases decades, on death row until finally seeing death as a welcome release.

The notion that further perfected scientific methods of proof will eventually prevent the innocent from being wrongly condemned is Utopian. And even if only the guilty were condemned, capital punishment still could not be justified because what it does is put the state and general public on a similar moral plane as murderers: both snuff out human life.

In a higher moral and philosophical sense, it is also questionable whether death is a worse fate than life-long incarceration and a criminal having to face guilt on a constant basis.

Admittedly, eliminating the death penalty would require an enormous paradigm change in many cases. That’s especially true in horrific cases — and for political murders like the Nazi killings of millions in the last century. Yet it’s also true that if Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler had been sentenced by a court to pay with their lives for what they did, it would never be enough to avenge our outrage.

Quaint and cruel

Some people argue that the death penalty should be reserved for especially extreme cases. But limiting it like that makes no sense, particularly as there are no objective legal criteria for what would constitute extreme. Where the death penalty is concerned, there is a parallel with pregnancy. Just as you can’t be a little bit pregnant, you can’t be a little bit for or a little bit against capital punishment. There is only to condemn it or accept it.

The United States is the only Western democracy that still clings to this quaint and cruel notion of justice. And even if the percentage of those supporting capital punishment has decreased in recent years, it continues to be supported by a large majority of the American population — by so many people, in fact, that no leading politician dares to question it.

Some defenders of the U.S. point out that Americans have other, historically influenced notions of justice than Europeans do, and that therefore Europeans should cease the patronizing criticism.

But that argument is based in cultural relativism and is comparable to saying that human rights abuses in China should be viewed in the context of the particularities of Chinese civilization and we should therefore “understand” them. The truth of the matter is that universal values — the very values that the U.S. stands for in the world — are indivisible.

Those who feel sympathy for American democracy and charisma should therefore speak out, loudly, making no bones about the fact that the death penalty is a huge blot on the country. In that sense, the measures the EU has taken to forbid European companies from delivering drugs used in lethal injections are entirely justified.

It’s worth adding that any global demand for the U.S. to abolish the death penalty forthwith is not realistic. Under American law, the decision must be made by the individual states, not the federal government in Washington. And the political realities look very different from state to state.

In 18 of 50 states and in the District of Columbia, the death penalty has already been abolished or suspended. Since 2009, it has also been eliminated in three more states, though sentences handed down before the change are still due to be carried out. In the states that still have the death penalty, the number of those executed varies widely. Overall, though, a tendency to question the death penalty is making itself felt in American society.

It is thankfully not inscribed indelibly in the American mentality.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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