Organizing The Struggle From The Grass Roots

Reports From Workshops And Sessions At The Convention

Bill Vaught

At our first national convention, we wanted to bring together the experiences of local chapters to help give our work a national focus. Together, we discussed important questions raised in the movement today and set some goals for ourselves in the year to come.

Nuts and Bolts of Chapter Organizing
by Nate Goldbaum

A key question for all of us in the Campaign is how to build stronger chapters. One important aspect of this is developing leadership. Every chapter needs to think of ways to strengthen the core of activists around them and expand those layers of leadership outward.

First of all, we need to take the steps to attract more people to the Campaign. That means making chapters visible by making sure meetings happen on a consistent schedule, so people will always know where and when they are. We want the Campaign to be consistently out there--with members putting up flyers, petitioning, handing out fact sheets, e-mailing and phoning people interested in the issue, and holding splashy events.

Remember that people getting involved in the Campaign won’t be ready-made activists. All chapter meetings have to be inviting even to the newest person. There should be a formal presentation and discussion about some aspect of the death penalty issue, and a discussion about what the chapter is involved in organizing. We should welcome and encourage the newest people to participate in these discussions and take an active part in helping to shape the direction of the chapter from the time we meet them.

It helps at the beginning to do things like flyering and petitioning with a mix of newer and older members. But we should have the expectation that even the newest person can quickly develop into a leader.

And we need to strengthen our connection to death row prisoners and those closest to them. Former prisoners and family members make our struggle real. For example, Death Row 10 member Ronald Kitchen’s mother organized a Live From Death Row at her church--our chapter’s first strong connection to a church in the African American community. That’s multiracial, grassroots leadership in action.

Who’s on Death Row?
by Matt Korn

Campaign members were introduced to the enormity of the problems with our criminal justice system at a session called "Who’s on Death Row?"

The first speaker, attorney Jed Stone, answered the question by saying simply, "Human beings are on death row." Stone reminded Campaign members to think of death row inmates as individuals, and explained some of the characteristics of bad defense attorneys. Stone said that bad lawyers are to blame in many capital convictions, and he also said that racist prosecutors are a major factor in the number of minorities on death row.

Bill Vaught, the brother of John Wheat, then told the story of his brother, who was executed last June. He said his brother was a very kind and loving man who had been exposed to dangerous chemicals in one of his workplaces, which most likely caused brain damage. It was this, he believes, that led to his brother killing members of his own family. Shujaa Graham, an exonerated California death row prisoner, gave a moving speech about his experience through the web of the criminal justice system. He talked about his involvement in the prison movement of the 1970s. Sentenced to death for killing a guard, he was convicted because of his involvement in the movement to win better treatment and greater rights for inmates. Fighting back tears, Graham told us about his nightmare on San Quentin’s death row--but also about how it had strengthened his resolve against the injustices in our world. "As long as one prisoner remains on death row," Shujaa said, "I’m on death row."

The last panelist was Gricelda Ceja, who talked about her ongoing fight to save her son Raul from execution. The crime Raul supposedly committed involved a stolen car, but the lot attendant who described the thief said the perpetrator had a shaved head and clean-shaven face--Raul had long hair, a mustache and a beard. His fingerprints weren’t found in the car, and it was later discovered that the attorney who supposedly heard Raul’s confession wasn’t even in the police building at the time the confession was given. Despite all of these flaws, Raul remains on death row.

This session of the convention underlined the need to keep up the fight. The death penalty’s effect on its victims and their families and friends is clear--and its problems have been bared for all to see.

Lessons from the Civil Rights Movement
by Cameron Sturdevant

Using stories from the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Lawrence Hayes and Jesse Sharkey laid out how civil rights activists used day-to-day struggles to build a mass movement.

"The Panthers always had a petition or survey every time they went out into the community," said Hayes, a former member of the Black Panther Party. "That way, they always had a reason to be talking to people, to find out what was needed." Hayes said that being in contact with the community was key to Panther organizing efforts.

As Hayes said, "We have to look back and see that for there to be the Montgomery [Alabama] bus boycott and the March on Washington, we have to look at the tradition of Black activism, of community organizing, with a long-term goal of developing leadership in ordinary men and women."

Sharkey brought this point home by talking about examples of the extraordinary efforts of Black and white activists in the South who advanced the movement even when they weren’t in the limelight of leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr.

The discussion was wide-ranging, with Campaign members raising issues from nonviolence to building a multiracial movement to end the death penalty. What was clear is that the lessons of the civil rights movement can be used today to help us build a movement to stop the death penalty.

Profiling a Case
by Mike Stark

One key area of Campaign work has been with death row prisoners themselves. But taking up political work on a case can be unlike any other work that the Campaign does.

Leading off the workshop on "Profiling a Case" was Ginny Simmons and John Coursey, who discussed the Campaign’s work in Washington, D.C., and Maryland on the case of Maryland death row inmate Kenneth Collins. They discussed both the facts around Kenny’s case as well as the challenges of working closely with his legal team.

Next, Crystal Bybee and Rebecca Downer gave a presentation on the Oakland chapter’s work on the case of Kevin Cooper. Their presentation gave an overview of Kevin’s case and spoke about the fight around DNA testing.

The discussion opened up a wide-ranging conversation, from how to develop relationships with people on death row to handling disagreements with attorneys. Much of the discussion centered on how activist strategies can be used to win victories in specific cases.

While the topic was too large to be covered completely in a short time, the workshop started an important discussion among chapters in this very important area of work. One theme echoed continuously: If chapters aren’t currently working on specific cases, they need to start.

Is the Courtroom a Place of Justice?
by Douglas Lee

"To get justice, there’s a need to create an atmosphere for justice," said panelist Jed Stone, an attorney who has tried death row cases and practiced law for more than 27 years. Based on his experiences, Stone said that he has learned that justice isn’t achieved from inside the courtroom alone, but also by those outside the courtroom who apply pressure to make sure that justice is done. Because of the injustices of the criminal justice system, "justice is difficult and elusive, but it is not impossible," said Stone.

"Activists have a responsibility to create this atmosphere," said Alice Kim, a national organizer for the Campaign, who also spoke on the panel. That’s why Campaigners in Chicago organize rallies and press conferences on the steps of the courthouse when death row inmates have significant court dates. This past summer, the Campaign helped to organize a march that stopped in front of Cook County State’s Attorney Dick Devine’s house.

David Bates, the final panelist, shared his personal experience with the injustices of the courtroom. Bates was tortured by former Chicago police commander Jon Burge and forced into giving a false confession. On the basis of this "confession," Bates was convicted and spent more than 11 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. "You need to hold the system accountable," said Bates. "To get fairness for the defendant, activism must be a continual process."