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Michael Zoosman

US Govt Desecrates MLK by Seeking Death for Racist/Antisemitic Buffalo Shooter

Image: The Rev. Dr.. Martin Luther King, Jr.  with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel at Arlington National Cemetery, Feb. 6, 1968.  Source: https://www.atlantajewishtimes.com/what-mlk-means-to-us/ 

The US government has again desecrated the memory of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the latest example of the Biden administration having broken its promise to work to end the death penalty, it announced its intention to seek a federal death sentence against Peyton Gendron, the 19 year old who horrifically murdered 10 African-Americans and injured three at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York in 2022. The federal government blindly took this action just ahead of the long weekend set aside to honor MLK, the late African-American civil rights icon and ardent death penalty abolitionist, inadvertently defiling his sacred memory. 

It is well-known that Dr. King was a fierce opponent of capital punishment. And yet, given how individuals across the political spectrum attempt to co-opt King’s words in support of their respective causes, a brief review of MLK’s abolitionist statements are warranted.

In a November 1957 article in Ebony, King famously was asked “Do you think God approves the death penalty for crimes like rape and murder?” He responded, “I do not think that God approves the death penalty for any crime, rape and murder included…. Capital punishment is against the better judgment of modern criminology, and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God.” 

Later, in his sermon Loving Your Enemies,” Dr. King preached a philosophy that had no room for capital retribution when he exhorted that “[r]eturning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.” 

And, of course, Dr. King famously said: “Make your way to death row and speak with the tragic victims of criminality. As they prepare to make their pathetic walk to the electric chair, their hopeless cry is that society will not forgive. Capital punishment is society’s final assertion that it will not forgive.” 

Many murder victim family members stand with the late Dr. King in their opposition to the death penalty. This includes many relatives of the Black victims of the Buffalo shooter, who have called the ruling a “gut blow.” It also comprises Rev. Sharon Risher, whose mother and cousins were three of the nine African-American victims of the June 17,  2015 Charleston, SC massacre at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church. In that case, the federal government also sought death for the 21-year-old perpetrator, Dylann Roof. Rev. Risher, who also is the Chairperson of the Board of Directors of Death Penalty Action, wrote recently that “by not taking a possible death sentence off the table, I believe that [US] Attorney General [Merrick] Garland has denied a turning point for the families that would have allowed them to move toward healing sooner.”

There are ample reasons why the Jewish community must stand with its African-American allies in solidarity and support of this most basic human rights issue – the right of life itself. As a general principle, the thousands of members of the group “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty”  agree that in the wake of the events of the 20th century, 21st century Judaism is obligated to reject the death penalty, and should do so without exception. This includes vehement opposition to the Biden administration’s previous betrayal of its promise to work to end capital punishment. That about-face occurred when US Attorney General Garland decided to continue to seek the death penalty against the Pittsburgh Tree of Life shooter Robert Bowers, who the federal government condemned to die this past year. 

Furthermore, antisemitism tragically is a theme that unites both the Tree of Life and the Buffalo shootings. Peyton Gendron, akin to Robert Bowers, wished “Jews to hell” in the 180- page manifesto that he released before his racist slaughter began at the Tops supermarket. Specifically, he also wrote that Jews “must be called out and killed, [and] if they are lucky they will be exiled. We can not show any sympathy towards them again.” 

Despite Gendron’s statements and monstrous actions, the members of “L’chaim!” (Hebrew for “To Life!”) maintain that the Jewish community should work to end the cycle of violence by not sinking to his level and seeking his death, which would only martyr him in the minds of fellow White supremacists. American Jewish leaders must summon the iconic memory of  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and other Jews famously marching with Dr. King for civil rights in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Inspired by that seminal moment, they now must walk again in lock-step with their African-American allies in order to vanquish this proverbial man-made “Angel of Death.” 

Image: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with other civil rights leaders from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, on March 21, 1965. From far left: John Lewis, an unidentified nun, Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Bunche, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.

It is indeed in Alabama, of all places, that the next American execution is scheduled to take place as of this writing. For this January 25th ritual killing, the Yellowhammer State will try for the first time to gas a human being to death at the Holman “Correctional” Facility in Atmore. This gassing will occur at a time when the United States has witnessed a 400% increase in antisemitic incidents across the nation. It is not surprising that well-over 14,000 individuals have signed the petition to stop this gassing from taking place. As with Arizona’s use of Zyklon B gas, of Auschwitz infamy, and other gas chambers across the United States – not to mention the direct historical Nazi legacy that is lethal injection – this Alabama abomination should raise the ire of all Jewish people across the world. It should inspire all Jewish hearts and minds to join forces with African-Americans, who know better than anyone the undeniable racist roots and application of the American death penalty today. Unsurprisingly, Alabama is one of only two states that chooses to share MLK’s commemorative occasion with a tribute to Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s birthday, dubbing the date Lee-King Day. 

The last execution by the US government was scheduled to occur on January 15th, 2021, which would have been Dr. King’s 92nd birthday. That was the date the federal government chose to kill an African-American man named Dustin John Higgs. His state-sponsored murder was torturously delayed, however, while the executioners awaited final word from the United States Supreme Court. As a result, they did not end up carrying it out until the early hours of the morning on January 16th – three years to the day that I wrote these very words. I am keenly aware of this synchronicity. As a former Jewish prison chaplain and co-founder of “L’chaim!,” I was a regular pen pal with Dustin, who did not pull the trigger nor order the murders for which he was sentenced to death. Dustin bonded with me over our shared minority status as a Muslim and a Jew. In our copious correspondence, he called me by my Hebrew name of Menachem, and I addressed him by his Arabic name of  Sharif. I like to believe that MLK and Rabbi Heschel would have approved of this connection that Sharif and I made across cultural, racial, legal and religious lines. In the end, Dustin/Sharif became the final execution victim of Donald Trump’s federal killing spree, which left twelve men and one woman dead.

Image: Dustin John Higgs, 2021, by Toyin Ojih Odutola for Harper’s Magazine © The artist. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York City. 

Trump recently celebrated a landslide victory over his closest opponents in the Iowa caucus as he continues his increasingly viable path back into the Oval office in 2024. The prospect of his return sounds a death-knell for those remaining on federal death row, and quite possibly for American democracy itself. The Biden Administration’s decision to seek death for the Buffalo Shooter plays directly into the hands of the popular bloodlust that fuels Trump’s campaign. To prevent this from happening, Americans should urge President Biden to stop pursuing death, and instead to keep his word to work to end capital punishment by using every tool at his disposal to commute all federal death sentences, and to demolish the federal death house at Terre Haute, Indiana. Congress as well should strive to pass the bill to abolish the federal death penalty

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Dr. King – the death penalty abolitionist  – fittingly paraphrased this famous quote from the Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, another abolitionist, whose Cosa Nostra when he said it in 1853 was to end slavery. As with that so-called “peculiar institution” and its still unfolding legacy in the ongoing battle for civil rights and racial equality, MLK knew that for the United States to be on the right side of history, it must also join the more than 70% of world nations that now have abolished the death penalty. Let there be no doubt, just as MLK marched with Rabbi Heschel in Alabama, so too would he join the ranks of the thousands of Jews Against the Death Penalty in their enduring chant, proclaiming  “L’chaim…to Life!” 

NOTE: This article was first published in the Jurist on Jan. 18, 2023.

L’chaim! – To Life!

Cantor Michael J. Zoosman, MSM

Board Certified Chaplain –  Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains

Co-Founder: “L’chaim: Jews Against the Death Penalty” 

Advisory Committee Member, Death Penalty Action

About the Author
Cantor Michael Zoosman is a Board Certified Chaplain with the Canadian Association for Spiritual Care (CASC) and received his cantorial ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 2008. He sits as an Advisory Committee Member at Death Penalty Action and is the co-founder of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty.” Michael is a former Jewish prison chaplain and psychiatric hospital chaplain. Currently, he is a multi-faith hospital chaplain at a federal research hospital, the National Institutes of Health - Clinical Center. His comments here represent his own opinions.
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