Only our disobedience will tear down the death penalty
Nazeri bin Lajim faces execution next Friday. He is Nazira’s brother. He is also ours. How many of our brothers will we watch them kill?
The death penalty, like all other forms of oppression, does not persist because the majority support it. It persists because the many who don't, remain obedient.
Despite relentless propaganda and fearmongering by the state, despite the moral panic around drugs funded by the CNB, despite there being no mainstream platforms to air abolitionist views or have heartfelt discussions about the death penalty, despite Opposition parties' silence, despite many efforts to intimidate and harass abolitionist activists, it is clear to me that a critical mass of people in Singapore are opposed to the death penalty, or are at the least, troubled by it.
I know this because cab drivers talk to me about how Nagen's execution was wrong. People stop me on the street and in restaurants and tell me they're moved by the Transformative Justice Collective’s work. Students write to me saying they want to interview me about the death penalty. Strangers message me and say they cannot sleep because an execution is about to happen. For the first time at a local graduation, a student held up an abolitionist sign. The people who show up at anti-death penalty protests include our mothers and grandmothers. Wakes for those who've been executed draw hundreds of heartbroken people. There is more and more art and music being made in protest to the death penalty.
To abolish the death penalty, we do not need the majority to oppose it, we just need a critical mass. We now have that critical mass. But this critical mass is largely still obedient.
What does it mean to become disobedient?
There are a fair number of lawyers in Singapore who are opposed to the death penalty. If they stood together, in protest, if they spoke up in one voice, it would move us closer to abolition.
There are plenty of students in Singapore who are opposed to the death penalty. If they organised their peers and walked out of class together each time an execution is announced, it would move us closer to abolition.
Numerous journalists are quietly sympathetic to abolition. If they refused to put their name to government propaganda, if they wrote news about the death penalty guided by their conscience, it would move us closer to abolition.
Plenty of shopkeepers and small business owners are opposed to the death penalty. If they closed shop in protest whenever an execution takes place, it would move us closer to abolition.
As I've witnessed firsthand, there are even police and prison officers who are opposed to the death penalty. If they went on strike, or refused to assist with executions, it would move us closer to abolition.
Hundreds of healthcare workers signed statements against the death penalty, in the lead up to Nagen's execution. If all of them pressured the Singapore Medical Association to take a stand against any doctor participating in executions, it would move us closer to abolition.
Hundreds of mothers and caregivers are opposed to the death penalty. If they kept their children home from school in protest, it would move us closer to abolition.
To abolish the death penalty, we don't just need more and more people to care. We need those who care to be willing to take action that will cost oppressive institutions. And when we take action, we will face persecution – we need resilience in the face of such persecution. Resilience means that once we make gains, we expect the backlash to intensify, we expect oppressors to double down or become more violent, to institute more rules, to punish us for disobeying. And when they do, we don’t fall back – we hold the line. We hold the line, and move forward. Authoritarian rule thrives on our obedience. Those who seek to oppress only have power as long as we obey. They will oppress us to the extent we tolerate. If we are to shed oppression, we must grow intolerant, disobedient.
People often ask me what else I am going to do, what else the Transformative Justice Collective is going to do to stop the executions, to abolish the death penalty. This is the wrong question. The question is – if you care about abolition, what are you going to do to build the movement? Organisers can spark and focus energies, but we will only succeed in this struggle when everyone who cares takes collective action wherever we are. The protest needs to leave Hong Lim Park. The protest needs to spill over from social media. Enough people already care. If everyone who cared took action, that is enough to win.
When we refuse to look away as the killing spree picks up pace, when we stay alive to the horror of each execution, it will become impossible not to act. The horror must not paralyse us, it must move us to do what is necessary.
These lines from James Baldwin's letter to Angela Davis in November 1970, when she was imprisoned, are clarifying:
"If we know, and do nothing, we are worse than the murderers hired in our name.
If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own—which it is—and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night."
Nazeri bin Lajim faces execution next Friday (read his story here). He is Nazira’s brother (read her heart-wrenching clemency appeal here). He is also ours. By all indications, the state is on a killing spree, and intends to execute many more people this year. (Death row prisoners tell their families they are fearful that executions are being sped up because death row is getting “too full”, and they need to make room for the many others who are facing capital charges or have been sentenced to death this year.)
How many of our brothers will we watch them kill? How many funerals will we attend this year? How much more moral injury will we bear? How much more blood sacrifice before we rise up?
Image: Nazeri bin Lajim, with his partner at the time.
It is terrifying and costly to disobey systems that mercilessly attacks dissent. But if we look closely, I think we will find that it is more terrifying, more costly, to obey them.
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