A Firefighting Crew No. 3, California Prison System, near Yosemite penalty abolitionist: we are, all of us, including murderers, much more than the worst thing we have ever done in our lives. Take Anthony Ross, for instance, former Los Angeles gang member and high school dropout. Before gang allegiance took over his life, he dreamt of becoming a cartoonist. Instead he wound up on San Quentin’s death row, where he now reads and writes voraciously. In his story, “Walker’s Requiem,” his protagonist, Nathan Cole Walker, also condemned, reads Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man on his date with death. The man guarding him, Ford, with whom he often plays chess, asks if he is afraid of dying. I thought about it for a moment, but I already knew my answer. “Naw, I ain’t afraid of dying. Dying is something I’ve been doing all my life. But when you know when and how it’s gonna happen, all it takes is that one step over the edge inside your head then bam! That’s why most men are able to walk to their execution. They’re already dead inside their heads.” /don’t know the particulars of Anthony Ross’ life: what led him away from cartoons and toward weapons, what rendered his talent and his potential invisible for so long. But is he no more than the worst thing he ever did in his life? There are many com pelling reasons to oppose the death penalty, but I’m left, after read Alan Pogue ing these books, with a sense of loss at the sheer wastefulness of ment, the U.S. is fighting the international tide of change, and some day the death penalty will be consigned to history’s dustbin. In the meantime, we offer up a few people almost always poor, disproportionately non-white as public sacrifices. Ross’ protagonist, Nathan Cole Walker, awakens from a nightmare about his funeral, which is not a funeral at all, but a public feast. He is the main course. His homeboys and his family partake, and a “dark-robed figure” presides. Here in Texas, our Governor and would-be president may be the Master of Ceremonies at these community sacrifices, all at suppertime. But each of us has a place at the table. Dostoevsky wrote that we can understand a society only by looking at its prisons. I nominate these two books for inclusion in one of those millennial time capsules. Will a future people, upon reading them, thank their lucky stars that a new path has been forged? Or will these two books simply be seen as steps on an unbroken path to the Dark Ages of the American Gulag? Austin writer Mary S. Mathis is a member of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and the recently organized Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. NOVEMBER 26, 1999 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 25
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