Why I am a monthly sustainer

Interview with Dave Zirin

Credit: Joe Mabel
Dave Zirin (right) speaks with Dr. John Carlos in Seattle
By: Randi Hensley

The Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP) stays afloat financially through our monthly sustainer program. To join this important program, contact Lily Hughes at lily@nodeathpenalty.org or visit us here for more information about how to join the program . You can donate as little as $5 a month, or more if you are able.

To all of our sustainers, we thank each and every one of you for helping the CEDP do what it does every day.

Dave Zirin is an author, activist and sports columnist. He is the Nation magazine’s first sportswriter. He has written six books, including Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love and A People’s History of Sports in the United States. His most recent book, The John Carlos Story, was written in collaboration with Olympian Dr. John Carlos, who raised the Black Power salute during the 1968 Games.

Dave has written and spoken countless times about the intersection between sports and politics. At the Campaign’s convention in 2009, Dave interviewed the late “people’s historian,” Howard Zinn, which was a truly unforgettable evening.

In this issue Randi Jones Hensley speaks to Dave Zirin about why he is a monthly sustainer.

In the wake of the outrage over Trayvon Martin’s murder, what do you think are the next steps for justice?

Step one is collectively learning the lesson that struggle works. Without us in the streets for those 45 days, Zimmerman wouldn’t have been charged. We don’t have justice yet; we’re just at the beginning stage. Without struggle, Trayvon just becomes another African American kid who dies without us even knowing his name. 

So the first lesson is that struggle works. Second lesson: The basics of the story should never be forgotten. Zimmerman pursued an unarmed African American kid, and he was killed. How would the media be reporting this story if that was reversed? What would Fox News be saying if it was a Black guy trailing a white kid, and the white kid ended up dead? Our side has to speak without fear.

Lastly, we need to connect this with other cases, whether it’s people on death row or people killed by police. Trayvon’s case shows that this not an apathetic country when it comes to racist murders. 

At a recent panel that the CEDP cosponsored, called “Trayvon ­Martin and the Fight Against the New Jim Crow,” your friend, Dr. John Carlos, sent along an inspiring solidarity statement about the fight in 1968 and its links to today. What lessons can we learn from previous struggles about how to fight injustice today?

The main lesson, which harkens back to John Carlos’ own story, is that we need an independent movement modeled on the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. It has to be independent, not a struggle that throws its weight behind the two political parties.

John Carlos risked his life for this movement. When the ’70s came, he found himself really alone because so much energy was transferred from grassroots organizing to electing Democrats who didn’t deal with the issues he was bringing up that are connected to real freedom and equality. The struggle was about future generations being born and able to live according to their own personal potential, not by the dictates of institutional racism. These institutions have to be fought directly. They don’t change on their own.

Death sentences are declining and now Connecticut has become the 17th state without the death penalty. Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow has brought up so many issues beyond the death penalty that are huge problems in the prison ­system. What role do you think grassroots organizing can play in both abolishing the death penalty, but also taking on the racism of the entire prison system? 

I’ve been a member of the CEDP since the day it started. I joined as a college student in the mid-1990s. I’ve always understood that the CEDP is an organization that believes in justice for those behind bars. We’ve attacked the death penalty as being the bloodiest edge of an entire system that is messed up. 

The death penalty movement is also a movement that challenges the New Jim Crow. As Michelle Alexander makes clear in her brilliant book, challenging the New Jim Crow is about challenging the prison system and its priorities. As smoothly as a hand slides into a glove, the CEDP can be an organization that stands against the new Jim Crow and takes fighting the New Jim Crow as part of our struggle moving forward.

Why did you become a sustainer?

I became a monthly sustainer because when I thought about what kind of organizations I wanted to sustain and see grow, the CEDP was at the top of that list.

Movements are not built out of thin air. They’re built because of real organizations that can mobilize people who want to get into the streets and make change. I’m so impressed with the work of the CEDP over the years: The New Abolitionist, the fight against the New Jim Crow, the connections that have been made with people behind bars. My only complaint about the Campaign is that it’s not big enough.

We need more people, a bigger infrastructure and more funds. Money is the lifeblood of an organization in a concrete way—you have to have money for copies. If I could contribute my money in any small way, it’s something I’m happy to do.