Highlights Of The Struggle

Reports From Campaign Chapters Around The Country

From left to right are Robin Hobley-Milan, Gricelda Ceja, Ronald Jones, Bill Ryan, Costella Cannon and Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr

CHICAGO -- By David Gardner

On January 31, about 600 people packed into the United Church of Hyde Park for an indoor rally to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Illinois moratorium on executions.

Campaign member Greta Holmes, who emceed the event, called on the crowd to get up on their feet. "This is what a grassroots movement looks like," she said pointing at the standing audience. Holmes then introduced a panel of speakers who made the case for all-out abolition.

The dynamic voice of Costella Cannon, mother of Death Row 10 member Frank Bounds, led the rally with the chant: "What do we want? Abolition!" Ronald Jones, who spent 12 years on Illinois’ death row before he was proved innocent, told the story of how he was finally cleared by DNA evidence. "But not everybody on death row has DNA," Jones said. "The only way to save innocent lives is to abolish the death penalty."

Fighting back tears, Gricelda Ceja spoke of the pain and the personal challenges that her family has faced since her son Raul was sentenced to death. "I will keep fighting," she said as the audience stood and erupted in applause.

Larry Marshall, director of Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions denounced the death penalty for its racist and unjust practices, and Campaign organizer Alice Kim talked about the potential to build a movement against the death penalty. "The Illinois moratorium represents the hope and the way forward for the 3,700 death row inmates in this country," said Kim.

The final speaker, Rev. Jesse Jackson, captured the attention of the audience as he spoke about the need "to kill the idea of killing as a remedy for our problems." He said our movement had to be built "from the bottom up."

Other speakers included Rev. Larry Turpin, pastor of the United Church; Furmin Sessions, executive director of the Southside Chicago NAACP; Bill Ryan, president of the Illinois Moratorium Project; and Robin Hobley-Milan, sister of Death Row 10 member Madison Hobley.

ATLANTA -- By Apollina Vasquez

A wrench was thrown into the gears of the death machine in Georgia, stopping the planned execution of 61-year-old Ronald Keith Spivey.

The state was set to execute Spivey -- who has been on Georgia’s death row since 1977 -- on March 6. But with just hours to go, the state Supreme Court stayed the execution to decide whether the electric chair constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and is therefore unconstitutional.

The state government has passed a law that would change the method of execution to lethal injection, but this only applies to death row prisoners convicted after May 1, 2000. Those convicted before that date face execution in the electric chair.

The state Supreme Court’s stay followed pressure by anti-death penalty activists and a clemency letter campaign. A press conference, held outside the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, was covered by local media outlets as well as CNN. The event drew a crowd of about 30 to 40 people. Speakers included members of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty as well as representatives of Amnesty International and Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Participants then marched up to the Office of Pardons and Paroles, where letters requesting clemency were delivered.

Thanks to this and other recent stays on executions, we have a de facto moratorium in Georgia at the present time. There has not been an execution in Georgia in three years -- and we are seeing more activists than ever who are willing to make themselves heard.

If we keep up the fight, we can abolish the death penalty in Georgia. Moratorium now, abolition next!

AUSTIN, TEXAS -- By Jordan Buckley

Judge Edith Jones, of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, was met with quite a surprise when she paid a visit to the University of Texas Law School earlier this year.

During her lecture at the school, six Campaign members entered the auditorium, carrying blankets, pillows and posters -- and proceeded to use them to pretend to go to sleep.

The Campaigners were calling attention to Jones’ concurring opinion in the case of Calvin Burdine, in which she denied a retrial to Burdine, whose court-appointed lawyer slept through much of his trial. "We cannot determine whether Cannon [Burdine’s attorney] slept during a critical stage of Burdine’s trial," Jones reported.

This blatant disregard for justice prompted Campaigners to protest by napping through her speech. But their signs -- which read "Justice Asleep Is Justice Denied" and "New Trial for Burdine" remained clear for all to see.

Following the demonstration, Campaign members distributed information sheets regarding the death penalty and gave interviews to numerous newspapers and journalists. The Campaigners tried to question Jones on her position, but she nervously retreated, evidently shaken by the event.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- By John Coursey

Three hundred activists attended the National Conference to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal in Washington, D.C., on March 31-April 1. A large number of different organizations was represented as well as individuals from across the country and as far away as Europe.

Conference attendees engaged in inspired discussions about strategy and tactics. The workshops focused on how to broaden the number of activists involved in the struggle for Mumia. On Pennsylvania death row for the alleged killing of a police officer in 1981, Mumia is America’s best known political prisoner.

Conference workshops included how to organize in Black and Latino communities, students and youth, labor, the gay community and anti-death penalty organizations.

Mumia could have a new day in court soon to determine if he should receive a new trial. A larger movement on his behalf is needed if Mumia is to overcome the pressure of those who want to see him executed, such as the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police and various Pennsylvania politicians.

Overall, the conference was a demonstration of the broad support for strengthening and building on the struggle for justice for Mumia.

For example, Darby Tillis, an exonerated death row inmate from Illinois, told the conference about the connection between justice for Mumia and the fight against the death penalty.

"I was on death row for more than nine years, wrongly convicted of murder," said Tillis. "Killing an innocent man is a heinous act, but there are other reasons to be against executions. The death penalty treats all its victims as if they were caged animals. We cannot support any form of punishment that fails to treat humans like humans. Building the movement to free Mumia can bring us one step closer to abolishing a system that is dead wrong."

CRITICAL RESISTANCE EAST -- By Debron Kokobu and Lucy Herschel

More than 2,800 people gathered on the weekend of March 9-11 at Columbia University for the Critical Resistance East conference to discuss alternatives to the rapidly growing prison system.

The conference kicked off Friday night with an inspiring commemoration of the Attica prison uprising of 1971, featuring Attica survivors and other prison activists. Robert King Wilkerson, a recently freed member of the Angola 3 -- political prisoners behind bars in Louisiana’s infamous Angola prison -- summed up the feeling in the room when he said, "I might be free of Angola, but Angola isn’t free of me."

The next two days of the conference had a steady line-up of teach-ins, strategy sessions and workshops dealing with such issues as local prison activism, AIDS in prisons, the war on drugs, death penalty-related issues and more.

The Campaign to End the Death Penalty organized two workshops. A "Live from Death Row" panel featured Death Row 10 members Stanley Howard and Leonard Kidd calling in live from Illinois’ death row. An overflowing room sat silently as Howard and Kidd related their stories of police torture and answered questions about living and organizing on death row. "The moratorium [in Illinois] gave new energy and hope to all our family members and supporters fighting on the outside," Howard said. A second Campaign workshop drew together lawyers, students and other activists to discuss strategies for building the movement.

On Saturday night, more than 1,000 people gathered at the nearby Riverside Church to hear veteran activist Angela Davis and others speak about "Women, Prisons, and Globalization."

The conference wrapped up on Sunday with a rally at the South Bronx’s Horizon Juvenile Detention Center. Hundreds of people made their way on New York City’s subway system, passing out flyers that called for the repeal of the state’s draconian Rockefeller drug laws.

The sight of a shiny, new detention center among the crumbling buildings and broken glass was sickening. But the experience of the weekend showed that there is a growing movement for jobs and schools, not jails and the death penalty. Critical Resistance East showed that we really can fight for a "world without walls."