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ISR Issue 57, January–February 2008



NEWS & REPORTS

Pushing back against the death penalty

The Campaign to End the Death Penalty’s (CEDP) national director MARLENE MARTIN explains the Campaign’s activities and goals.

WHEN DID the CEDP form?

THE CAMPAIGN to End the Death Penalty formed back in 1995, spurred into being by the movement that sprung up to free Mumia Abu-Jamal. Though at the time executions were still increasing every year, we felt that the tide of public opinion was beginning to turn against the death penalty, creating conditions for a renewed effort to end it. We slowly grew into an organization with chapters in a number of cities across the United States.
Our mission statement says we aim to educate and agitate against the death penalty, and I think that sums up well what the Campaign attempts to do. I might add expose it, too.
There are a lot of facts, statistics, and reports out there that show why the death penalty is wrong, and we need to know these facts. But knowing the facts isn’t enough. Politicians won’t be moved to change unfair and biased laws by the facts alone, so it’s critical that our movement be prepared to agitate as well. Because if we don’t agitate—and pressure the politicians—they will happily ignore all the statistics and go on their merry way.
So figuring out ways to build struggles that put pressure on politicians to answer to us—that’s critical to advancing the fight for abolition.

WHAT KIND of work does the Campaign do?

THE ESSENCE of the Campaign is really what it does on the local chapter level. But even here the question arises—what kind of “local” work should the Campaign do? Should it lobby politicians? Should it gather data and make reports?

The priority for the Campaign has always been to build a grass-roots fightback—both around individual cases of death row prisoners, as well as state and national legislative efforts against the death penalty. Some groups think we need to work on behalf of death row prisoners. We take a different approach.

We look back to the Scottsboro struggle in the 1930s, in which nine Black youths were railroaded on false accusations of rape, and eight of them were sentenced to death. At the outset was the question: What is the best way to fight and who should be at the center of the fight? The NAACP said the fight should be carried out in the courtroom, with the best lawyers that could be gotten to represent the youths. But radicals at the time said that the Southern courts themselves were rigged, and so while having good lawyers was important, the key thing was building a public fight that would expose the racist injustice for what it was.

The same thing is at work with the fight around the Jena Six. For eight months, no one heard anything about this case. It just sat there. No doubt if the case weren’t built as a public struggle, the six would have all gotten long prison sentences.

So, what drives the work of the chapters is not seeing ourselves as working on “behalf” of family members and prisoners, but figuring out ways to involve their voices, efforts, and struggles. We have let that focus drive the work of the group. If you have that focus, it steers you in a certain direction—just like having a lobbying orientation steers you in another.

But with this orientation comes enormous challenges. How do we involve death row prisoners, who are locked up twenty-three hours a day in a cell? Well, we’ve come up with some creative ideas, and so have they. We organize “Live from Death Row” forums around call-ins from death row prisoners that get their voices out to a larger audience.

In Illinois, a group of death row prisoners who were convicted based on coerced confessions (they were tortured by Chicago police) organized themselves into a group they called the “Death Row 10.” By cutting and pasting from newspapers, they put together the first flyer calling for a demonstration, and they mailed it out to their family members and loved ones. Eighty people turned out to the demonstration calling for justice for police torture victims.

We’ve also featured the voices of those on death row in our quarterly publication, The New Abolitionist. We mail this publication to many on death row as well as circulate it in the movement.

The Washington, D.C., chapter recently held a study group around Angela Davis’s book Are Prisons Obsolete?, which involved Maryland death row prisoners. The chapter members organized the discussion, and the prisoners called in and took part over speakerphone. Of course, we also visit and correspond with prisoners.

So these are some of the ways we attempt to involve prisoners into the life of the group. As for family members and loved ones, they are centrally involved in the life of much of our chapter work. And their voices and stories of struggle are shared in our public forums, tour stops, national conventions, and newsletter.

Struggle consists of resisting on many levels. Sometimes in big ways, like protests and demonstrations, but also sometimes in other ways—like when people are moved to action because they’ve had their eyes opened to injustice.

The play The Exonerated, which tells the story of a number of former death row prisoners who were proven innocent and freed, has touched millions of people around the country and no doubt is responsible for changing many people’s views on the death penalty. The idea for this play originated when the two yet-to-be playwrights sat in the audience of a “Live from Death Row” at Columbia University in New York. So struggle can start in one place, but fan out in many directions.

WHAT ARE some of your successes and failures?

WE RECENTLY spearheaded a fight that won clemency for a Texas death row prisoner Kenneth Foster Jr. who was to be executed in August 2007. This was a glorious victory, not only because we stopped an execution, but because we stopped an execution in the belly of the beast—Texas, the execution capital of the country.

Of the more than 1,000 prisoners executed since reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, Texas by itself accounts for well over a third. And since reinstatement, Texas governors have granted only one previous clemency in a death row case where they weren’t spurred to do so by a court decision. So this victory was very significant on many fronts.

Kenneth Foster’s family and Kenneth himself were at the center of this fight, including Kenneth’s daughter Nydesha. This eleven-year-old spoke at demonstrations and rallies, pleading for the state not to execute her dad.

Kenneth was convicted and sentenced to death even though he never killed anyone. He was convicted under Texas’s law of parties, which makes one culpable just by being present when a murder takes place. Once we learned of an execution date, the Campaign, along with Kenneth’s family, lawyers, and other activists, set in motion a public campaign that both showed the inherent injustice of the case—someone was about to be executed for driving a car—as well as the human side of the issue. Kenneth himself did interviews, and his daughter and other family members spoke out at public events.

But it should be underlined that the Campaign had developed a relationship with Kenneth over many years. He was a pen pal to some chapter members, and he also was a leader for change within the confines of death row, forming a group called the DRIVE Movement to protest the horrendous conditions on Texas’s death row.

When the fight got underway activists came up with a lot of creative ways to make noise and make news. A letter-signing campaign turned into a demonstration where everyone spread out, each holding a letter in their outstretched arm to touch another letter, and the chain wrapped around the governor’s mansion. Activists petitioned the church where Governor Rick Perry attended services. The media jumped in, with almost every newspaper in Texas editorializing in favor of clemency for Kenneth.

But it still came down to the nail-biting last minutes. Just hours before his scheduled execution, we finally got word that his sentence was commuted to life with parole. That was the best phone call I ever got—I screamed so loud I think my neighbors might have gotten worried.

What Kenneth says is true: “We showed that the impossible can happen. And if it ever happens once, it can happen again.”

It was so wonderful to have Kenneth’s dad attend our convention in Chicago this fall and have him read a speech from Kenneth. It was a proud moment for all of us. And inside this feeling is a lesson—that if you fight, you can win. That isn’t a guarantee that we’ll win, but you have a chance.

And also, in the process of fighting, you build up an arsenal of experience that is useful in the next struggle. People themselves learn how most effectively to talk through and plan strategy, how to deal with the media, speak to an audience, attract people to join the fight. So there is much that we learned. The Texas crew learned from the fights that came before in the history of the Campaign—like the struggles in Maryland, in Illinois, and California. And they added on their own host of experiences that now can be shared.
But you also asked about failures. We have had our share, and these are extremely difficult. Frances Newton, Justin Fuller, and Shaka Sankofa were executed in Texas. And, of course, Stanley Tookie Williams, who was executed in California in 2005, despite a brilliant multiracial fight that drew in thousands of people nationally, but especially in California.

These are brutal and very painful setbacks. But in these fights, we strengthen ourselves and our commitment to struggle on. And something else happens—the ugly reality of the death penalty comes to the fore when they carry through with these executions, despite our cries for justice, despite the racial disparities, despite the fact that it does nothing to deter crime, despite the fact that it is cruel and torturous, despite the fact that the innocent are killed.

In order to weather these defeats, you need a bigger picture of society; that the death penalty is just the tip of the iceberg of an unjust criminal system, which itself is a product of a socially and economically unjust society. And you need to keep in mind the long-term goal. Sister Helen Prejean, who spoke at our most recent convention, put it this way:

Our souls are quickened and we come to life when we start working on big soul-sized agendas. I think people die young because they’re so trivialized they just die. One trivial thing after another—did you make the payments on our house over there, did you do this, did you do that? We’re made not for just the trivial things, we’re made to fight for something big. And justice is big, and hoping to change society is big.

The more the realities of the death penalty are out in the public eye—and not hidden away, with executions happening in the dead of night behind a shroud of secrecy, and in the guise of a medical procedure—the more we can advance the cause of abolition.

So, while we lost Stan, the struggle to save him was one of the impetuses around our current de facto moratorium on executions. The use of the lethal injection procedure to torture him to death was one among the many cases that cast doubt on the procedure, which the Supreme Court is now going to rule on.

Politicians love nothing better than to pose as tough on crime—that wins them votes. But we can build a movement that calls that toughness into question, and ask why that toughness shouldn’t be redirected toward ways to prevent crime. Why don’t the politicians focus on ways to get rid of poverty, give youth opportunities, provide mental health care, lower unemployment? If these issues were tackled, crime would decrease dramatically.

Desperate people do desperate things. So how can we prevent people from being so desperate? Eugene Debs wrote a book—much of it based on his experience of being incarcerated himself for speaking out against the First World War—called Walls and Bars, and over and over again, he makes the point that to eradicate poverty is to eradicate crime.

So I think all the money that we’ve thrown away on the Iraq War, all those trillions of dollars—if we had put that money into social services, our schools, our health system, I think you would see levels of crime significantly decrease.

HOW CAN people get involved with the Campaign?

WE HOPE more people will get involved with us. We invite people to join an existing chapter, but if you don’t live near a CEDP chapter, you can start one up. We can help talk people through that process, and have a “starter kit” that we can mail out to all interested people.

We also urge folks to join our listserv. We put out news and information about the issue of the death penalty and monthly updates on chapter activities. To join, you can send me an e-mail at marlene@nodeathpenalty.org.

And you can buy a subscription to our newsletter, The New Abolitionist, for $12, or $24 to pay for a sub for yourself and someone on death row. We also happily accept donations (we are a non-profit 501c3 that struggles mightily with trying to raise funds).

You can locate us on the Web at www.nodeathpenalty.org. Our office number is 773-955-4841. Our address is: CEDP, P.O. Box 25730, Chicago, IL 60625.

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