Back from touring space, billionaire Richard Branson made a lot of news last month concerning his new “Business Leaders Against the Death Penalty” campaign — announced with a declaration signed by more than 150 business leaders “calling for the end of the death penalty around the world and criticizing capital punishment for perpetuating inequality.” Signatories include fashion mogul Francois-Henri Pinault, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s, Arianna Huffington, and the leaders of Unilever and Bayer.
Cheekily, Nathan Place of The Independent mused: “The Virgin Galactic founder makes a compelling case for ending capital punishment. Was it his voyage to space, witnessing the fragile earth below him, that gave him such a profound perspective on the value of human life?”
Celia Ouelette, the chief executive of the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ), a nonprofit helping to coordinate the campaign Branson co-founded, assured Al Jazeera’s Radmilla Suleymanova in an interview that Branson “genuinely has his heart in this.” Ouelette said: “It’s interesting because somebody like Richard Branson, you know he’s sort of this famously hippie-like CEO, but actually, I think he has that over-lap with a lot of the more conservative libertarian-leading business leaders.” Incisively, Suleymanova asked whether Branson and the other campaign signatories are “really putting (their) money where (their) mouth is?”
Ouelette replied: “It’s tricky because the states that are using executions the most and sentencing people to death are the ones that have the longest history with lynchings and marginalizing communities of (color). So you can’t penalize individual communities; you must focus on government leaders that can create change. It can’t just be pressure on a business to pull out of investment or choose to move somewhere else.”
Echoing Ouelette’s response to a similar question posed in an interview with Forbes Senior Editor Jena McGregor, Branson added: “I actually don’t think governors react very well to having a gun put to their head. They react better to arguments.”
Bunkum and balderdash, I say!
In April, in these pages, I argued the opposite in “Let’s kill Alabama’s death penalty with capitalism.” Specifically, I suggested that: “after Major League Baseball announced its decision to pull this year’s All-Star Game out of Atlanta in response to Georgia’s reprehensibly racist voting laws, I couldn’t help thinking what an enormously effective tactic it would be if corporations — foreign and domestic — would simply adopt and apply similar, persuasive, economic pressure on death-penalty perpetuating states like Texas, Georgia, and Alabama.”
Boycotts can be a critical tool in getting death penalty states to change course, because, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed out in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”
If Branson and his billionaire buddies just refused to invest or do business in death penalty states like Alabama, I’d wager Alabamians of all stripes, particularly those responsible to the electorate — and charged with improving Alabama’s economy for rich and poor alike — would take notice, and not just take notice maybe, but actually push for anti-death penalty legislation to be enacted.
In fact, if Branson said that, until Alabama does away with capital punishment, his luxury “adults-only” cruise ship “The Scarlet Lady” will never dock at Alabama ports, that he’ll not again produce documentaries in Alabama (as Virgin did in 2015 with actor Johnny Depp), and that, while “Huntsville’s role in the future of citizen space travel” might seem rosy, it won’t be as result of any investment from Virgin Galactic, that would not only open a lot of eyes — in Alabama and elsewhere — it would have the potential to cause a wholesale reconsideration of state-sponsored killing.
If billionaires like Branson care about abolishing the death penalty — and not just making vapid, feckless statements about it — shouldn’t they act by completely boycotting death penalty states altogether, pulling out all of their interests, until those states’ immoral behavior changes?
In its April newsletter, the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice featured my column “Let’s kill Alabama’s death penalty with capitalism,” saying: “Stephen Cooper illustrated in The Montgomery Advertiser how businesses can be critical in their fight to end the death penalty, and how to leverage capitalism’s pursuit of the dollar to provoke social change.”
That’s true. Obviously Branson, his fellow billionaires, and President Biden too for that matter (on behalf of one of the biggest businesses of all, the federal government), should put their money where their mouth is: Stop investing money in states that perpetuate capital punishment — until those states stop killing people.
Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveCooperEsq
This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Billionaires like Branson should stop investing in Alabama until death penalty is gone