Taking The Struggle Forward

Campaign Holds Its First National Convention

By: Marlene Martin and Alice Kim

The Campaign to End the Death Penalty’s first national convention, held in Chicago November 3-4, was a huge success. More than 100 people registered, and nearly 200 turned out to the super rally Saturday evening.

Not too long ago, support for the death penalty was a central part of the politicians’ law-and-order agenda. But we’ve seen a growing questioning of capital punishment--thanks to the pressure of activists who have exposed the injustices of America’s death machine.

Even now, after the September 11 attacks, which some politicians have used as justification for a crackdown on civil liberties, the grave flaws are plain. Even death penalty supporters, like Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, have publicly confessed to having second thoughts.

But we still have a fight ahead of us. Though several have come close, no state has declared a moratorium to follow the example set by Illinois Gov. George Ryan, when he halted executions in January 2000. And with Ryan leaving office next year, the Illinois moratorium faces a challenge --some politicians are already talking about bringing back the death penalty.

The key to defending what our movement has won and taking the struggle forward will be activism. That’s why, from beginning to end, the Campaign’s convention highlighted the importance of building a grassroots movement, modeled on the civil rights movement in the South, in which people demanded the end of Jim Crow segregation. Activists learned through the course of that struggle not to depend on politicians. They understood that they had to build a movement that would pressure the powers that be into enacting change--whether they wanted to or not.

It’s in this spirit that the Campaign was formed in 1996 and continues to organize.

We’ve come along way since 1996, and that was apparent in the turnout at the convention. Chapters from Austin, Oakland, Atlanta, New York City, Washington, D.C., and Chicago were represented, along with members and supporters coming from Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Iowa and California.

Throughout the weekend, former death row inmates and family members were in the spotlight. We got to see firsthand that they aren’t simply victims of an unjust system, but fighters and leaders in our struggle.

We’ve dedicated this issue of the New Abolitionist to highlighting some of the events at the convention. You will find in these pages stories about the different sessions held, the evening super rally that featured six former death row inmates, an interview with former death row prisoner Shujaa Graham, and comments about the weekend from participants.

Nobody walked away from our convention without being incredibly moved. But more that that, people were moved to action. We took an important step forward as an organization over this weekend. Let’s keep at it and move onward--moratorium now, abolition next!