Richmond icon steps into history at Oxford debate

Barbara Becnel

"I was imperious," said Becnel, pictured in her Richmond offices, of her performance at Oxford University (photo by Robert Rogers)

Barbara Becnel was an imposing figure.

She towered well north of six feet tall atop her four-inch heels, with a booming voice and imperious stage presence to match. Becnel was clothed in sleek, solid black. She was on her game, and the audience in one of the Western world’s premiere universities was in for the treat.

It was June, and Becnel was at Oxford University in England to participate in a debate on capital punishment, to be conducted according to the prestigious university’s centuries-old customs. The historic import of the occasion was palpable to the Richmond leader. Becnel, a longtime anti-death penalty advocate, would argue against the government holding execution power.

In doing so, she became the first African American woman to ever debate at the Oxford Union, the self-proclaimed world’s “most famous debating society.”

“I thought I might as well just be intimidating,” she said, smiling broadly while reminiscing in her Richmond office after returning from her trip. “My hair was big. With hair, heels and genetics, I probably stood 6’5”.”

Becnel recalled that as she strode through Oxford’s storied debating halls she was keenly aware that she walked the same path of another icon. In 1964, Malcolm X delivered a world-famous address at the Oxford Union.

“I felt a great deal of pride, of genuine pride,” Becnel said.

A national figure in her anti-death penalty crusade, executive director of one of the East Bay’s most prominent social service nonprofits and among Richmond’s most respected community leaders, Becnel said the debate was one of the highlights of her career.

The debate format pitted two, two-person teams against each other. Those arguing “in proposition” of the death penalty were Peter Hitchens, a controversial, conservative commentator famous in Britain and author of books on crime and capital punishment, and John McAdams, a political science professor at Marquette University in Wisconsin.

The “opposition” team was set to be composed of Becnel and Lord Ken MacDonald, former director of public prosecutions for England and Whales, but a conflict prevented MacDonald from attending. He was replaced by anti-death penalty activist Julian Knowles.

Although her opponents were formidable, Becnel said she and Knowles were in total command. Their anti-death penalty argument hinged on the moral ambiguity of the state prohibiting the killing of human beings, yet creating an entire apparatus to execute those who have been convicted of killing. At the same time, both Becnel and Knowles criticized what they regard as racial disparities in the implementation of the death penalty, as well as the inherent risk of executing innocent people.

On the other side, Hitchens and McAdams pointed to studies suggesting that capital punishment may offer some deterrence to violent criminals, and noted that claims of innocent people being executed are extremely rare. Hitchens, in particular, claimed that British society is caving in the face of violent crime, and advocated instituting hanging in Britain as a forceful stand against the onslaught.

Becnel, who said she found the cavalier tone of some of the debate particularly repugnant, said she was moved to respond forcefully.

“I closed with a 10 minute presentation,” Becnel recalled. “Now, you’re supposed to allow a ‘point of information’ by the other side disputing a factual claim at least once, but I wasn’t having it,” Becnel laughed, raking her arm and extended index finger over her desk in a gesture she said she used in the staid Oxford Union. “I said ‘Ooohhh Nooo, and sit down’ to little Peter Hitchens, and the audience laughed.”

Becnel and her partner won the debate, decided as is custom by the vote of the viewing audience. The tally came in 97-54 in favor of Becnel and Knowles’ anti-death penalty argument

“I was hit with this feeling that I had sort of stepped into history, if that makes any sense,” Becnel said. “It was an amazing experience.”

Of course, not everyone thought Becnel and Knowles should have prevailed. McAdams, who recapped the debate on his personal blog, felt that the audience was generally opposed to the death penalty from the outset.

“With virtually no exceptions, the side [the audience] agreed with at the end was the side they came in agreeing with,” he wrote, although he was quick to add that, regardless of his disagreement with the outcome, the debate was thrilling.

“It was a great experience, in the world’s classic debate venue,” McAdams wrote.

Becnel agreed, and said the ferocity of the discourse and the high quality helped heighten the suspense. “I wasn’t at all certain that we would win the debate,” Becnel said.

barbara becnel at her desk

Becnel, pictured here scouring the web from her desk at North Richmond Neighborhood House (photo by Robert Rogers)

Becnel recounted her experiences at Oxford during a lengthy interview in her 23rd Street offices at the Neighborhood House of North Richmond, where she has held the top post since 1998. The Neighborhood House is one of the East Bay’s oldest and most storied African American-run nonprofit social services providers.

North Richmond icon and Civil Rights leader Fred Jackson has called Becnel “a force for good and a pillar of strength in Richmond.” She’s 61 now, but looks at least 10 years younger. Long-limbed with a fierce shock of dark hair, Becnel still exudes the frenetic energy of the fiery activist who earned national prominence with her advocacy for Stanley Tookie Williams, a convicted killer-turned-Nobel Prize nominee.

Becnel’s interest in prison policy was forged in the early 1990s when she befriended Williams as she set out to write a book about the Crips, the notorious Los Angeles-area gang Williams co-founded. Over the ensuing years, Becnel, a former journalist, co-authored a slew of books with Williams and became his most outspoken supporter. When Williams was executed in 2005, Becnel maintained that Williams was innocent and vowed to continue to fight against the death penalty, even mounting an unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2006.

Becnel mainly expresses her opposition to the death penalty on moral, racial and emotional grounds. She stresses a basic belief that the corrections system disproportionately targets minorities, particularly African Americans, and she flatly calls California’s death penalty “state-sponsored murder.”

Witnessing Williams’ execution had a profound effect on Becnel that she said gave her a more visceral understanding of the issue than her debate competitors. “I was in a death chamber, and watched my friend not only be executed but tortured to death,” Becnel said, leaning forward in her swiveling desk chair. “It was the most horrific experience of my life.”

Since then, Becnel has settled into her role as a civic leader in Richmond, while continuing to speak out against the death penalty. Earlier this year, she was the keynote speaker at a workshop in Richmond meant to mold the next generation of anti-death penalty activists. This month, she has also been involved in negotiating on behalf of prisoners during their hunger strike at several California prisons.

When she arrived at her office July 6 to be interviewed by Richmond Confidential, Becnel swept in with noticeable verve. The hunger strike, which had started quietly days before, was underway, and she announced that she’d been in discussions with corrections department officials.

“A New York Times reporter is working on this now, and the hunger strike has spread across more than a dozen prisons,” Becnel said. “A mediation team spent the 4th of July talking with [corrections] authorities.”

(By the third week of July, the hunger strike would spread from Pelican Bay to several other California prisons, as inmates protested long stays in isolation cells.)

As she monitored news of the prison strike on her computer and prepared to make some calls, Becnel said she has no plans to slow down, whether in her activism or her day job, adding that she plans to continue to run Neighborhood House of North Richmond for at least “a few more years.”

Beyond that, Becnel dreams of establishing and overseeing a program she calls the “Motherland Mentoring Project,” which would shuttle children between Senegal, in West Africa, and Richmond and North Richmond. “The idea is to establish institutes in both places for social justice, where youths can exchange ideas and cultures and learn to see themselves as global citizens,” Becnel said.

With that, she turned her attention back to the prison hunger strike, rifling through the chaos of her desk, looking for a phone number.

“Things are moving fast,” Becnel said. The protests, she said, “could make some real progress.”

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