The Fight Today: What's Needed to Win?

By: Marlene Martin

Opponents of the death penalty today face an important question: What is the best way to organize our forces to win abolition of the death penalty?

In the past 20 years, the abolitionist movement has seen a deterioration in death penalty legislation and law. We've seen the defunding of resource centers that provided legal help for many on death row. We've seen the appeals process severely curtailed. And we've seen the pace of executions pick up to levels comparable to the 1930s.

Ultimately, the question of the death penalty is a political one and needs to be confronted politically. The politicians constantly feed us lies about why we need the death penalty - and they use crime hysteria to get the public to go along with it. Our approach should be to boldly challenge these politicians.

Many abolitionists disagree. They think it's important to lobby politicians behind the scenes, work through the courts and hold quiet vigils at executions. Some even insist that an outward movement that puts public pressure on the politicians and the courts sets back the fight for abolition.

For example, during the recent battle to keep the death penalty out of Massachusetts, many lobbyists became convinced that demonstrations and protests hurt the cause. They argued that we would alienate the politicians instead of convince them. When four wrongfully convicted former death-row inmates came to Boston to help in the fight, lobbyists convinced them not to speak at a demonstration for fear this would anger the politicians.

Meanwhile, many abolitionists organizing for a big demonstration in Chicago wanted to fill the stage with politicians. They insisted that recently released death-row prisoner Anthony Porter didn't belong on the platform. Why? Because he "wasn't a very good speaker." Other organizers for a moratorium shunned the idea of demonstrations altogether, saying they didn't accomplish anything.

This simply isn't true. A look at history shows that any major reform in this country came about because ordinary people organized and fought for it.

To end segregation in the Jim Crow South, it took a civil rights movement of hundreds of thousands of people standing up against racism and openly defying the police and the laws they were determined to change. It was ordinary people who organized the integration of the buses in Montgomery, Ala., after Rosa Parks so courageously refused to give up her seat. Who would say that these people didn't play the instrumental role in the civil rights movement? Who would dare deny Rosa Parks a platform to speak and instead opt for a politician?

We may not be at the same level of struggle as the civil rights movement. But there are glimpses of it today. Consider the outpouring of anger in New York City after the shooting of Amadou Diallo, who was killed by police as he stood in the vestibule of his apartment building. Thousands of people organized demonstrations and civil disobedience day after day. This mobilization has continued to grow - and it has sent the politicians scurrying for a solution.

If we are going to win abolition of the death penalty, we need to start building the kind of movement that stands up on its own two feet and demands it - not asks for it behind the scenes from mealymouthed politicians. That's the only way to win.