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Toys, the Death Penalty and the Gay Movement


Leslie Cagan

In

case you missed it, the Week in Review section of the 7/23/00 Sunday New York

Times ran a most incredible piece. Instead of summarizing from it, let me just

quote a few choice sentences:

"Never

Say Die, Just Execute.

Death

Row Marv….is the latest toy from McFarlane Toys… Marv, who apparently needs

no last name, is railroaded to the electric chair, condemned to die for what he

regards as a justifiable revenge killing. The battery-operated toy, which is

sold in specialty shops and music stores for about $20 and marketed for ages 13

and up, is not for the faint of heart: ‘Watch Marv convulse as the switch is

thrown,’ say the words on the box, ‘then hear him say, ‘That the best you can

do?” His eyes ‘glow red as he fries.’ The toy’s typical buyer is the

15-to-45-year-old male.

‘Our

first production was completely sold out in pre-order sales, before we even

shipped,’ said Beau Smith, director of marketing at McFarlane Toys…"

On

July 27th, a press conference organized by New York City Councilmember Bill

Perkins had to be postponed because there were conflicting press conferences at

City Hall. Perkins has introduced a resolution that, if passed, will have the

New York City Council supporting a moratorium on death penalty executions. It

turns out that one of the conflicts was a press conference announcing support

from some of the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community for Hillary Clinton

in her bid for election to the Senate. What about her support for the death

penalty? Why isn’t the death penalty a gay issue?

At

the same time, the cries for hate crimes legislation are as loud as ever. I’m

sure I am in the minority in the lgbt community – although I also know I am not

alone on this – when I say that it is troubling to see how much effort goes into

hate crimes legislation, especially when compared to what goes into working to

stop such crimes from happening in the first place.

While

I understand some of the logic of hate crimes legislation (both locally and at

the state level) it seems that the gay movement puts disproportionate resources

and energies into fighting for bills to punish people after the fact, as opposed

to getting to the core of the problem and working to stop hate crimes before

they happen. For instance, what about working to put into place programs in

public school that address and confront hate and violence?

I’m

concerned that the emphasis on hate crimes legislation seems to rely on laws to

remedy extremely deep problems in this culture. Laws can certainly help, but

just a quick look at civil rights legislation and how that has altered – or not

– race relations, or challenged racism, should shed some light here.

My

criticism of hate crimes legislation is heightened by the ever-increasing use of

police, prisons and other coercive arms of the state. I hope the lgbt movement –

literally born in a fight against the police – does not end up being one more

reinforcement of abusive policing.

On

top of all this, a recent email alert from the Executive Director of the

National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (the national lgbt organization positioned

as the progressive wing of this movement) explained that the only way to pass

the Congressional hate crimes bill is as part of what they called "the

must-pass annual defense act." I assumed they were referring to the

military appropriations act!

Once

again, here is an example of seeing something that impacts on us all (the

military budget) as a "non-gay" issue and therefore not something our

leadership should be addressing. And it is exactly in such moments that we see

the limits of identity politics. (Please do not get me wrong, I am not one of

those who suggest that identity politics have undermined class unity and

distracted us from the "real" issues.)

A

serious effort throughout this country is needed to confront the reality of hate

crimes…be they against lgbt people, people of color, women, the disabled or

others. But to address this issue in isolation is to feed the law-and-order

frenzy across the nation, evidenced in everything from lgbt Gore supporters

claiming that Bush is soft on crime because he does not rigorously support hate

crimes legislation (yes, it gets this convoluted and weird) to the successful

marketing of "Death Row Marv", the toy execution.

There

is a madness in this land. If we are to successfully cure this problem the

leaders of our social change movements must be pushed by their constituents to

see the big picture and do the right thing. In this instance, it is time for the

lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender movement to stop its love affair with hate

crimes legislation and get serious about confronting the causes of such crimes

in the first place. And one critical step is that we must stand with others

calling for an end to the death penalty.

Leslie

Cagan, a decades-long social change organizer, is off to Philadelphia for the

demonstrations around the Republican Convention. Her reports from Philly will

be shared with ZNet as quickly as is possible.