Impressions of my first convention

Credit: Eric Ruder
Some of the 900 who came out to hear Howard Zinn talk to Dave Zirin about “The power of the people.”
By: Carter Pagel

“People fighting against injustice starts small, but it grows because the truth is on our side.”  Those words came from Howard Zinn as he spoke to
Dave Zirin at the Campaign to End the Death Penalty’s (CEDP) ninth annual convention, and for me, they encapsulated the theme of the entire weekend.  What I witnessed at my first CEDP convention was amazing -- whether it was Jack Bryson tearing up over the realization that he has found true brothers and sisters in his fight against injustice, or Marvin Reeves stepping back to take in a standing ovation from 900 people applauding his courage, people were profoundly affected and changed by  this weekend; we all were.

After a welcome and the seating of delegates Saturday morning, things really kicked off with one of the most powerful and inspiring voices in our movement today. In her striking red jacket, Martina Correia elegantly stepped to the speaker’s podium and talked to the audience about her brother’s continuing struggle, urging us all to keep fighting for Troy Davis.

She gave us hope by explaining that things are going in the right direction for Troy, but was careful to drive home the fact that victory is by no means a “slam dunk.”

“We need to keep the stories out there, keep the courtrooms packed, keep the advocacy going,” she said.  Martina then further motivated the crowd by telling of her own plans to travel to Europe and ask the EU to place economic sanctions on countries with the death penalty -- i.e., the United States. It was an announcement of a truly revolutionary and cunning move and one that drew a smile from many in the audience, including myself.

Following Martina was CEDP member Patrick Dyer, who furthered her call to action. “It matters what we do,” he said, “We have not won yet, but we have won to this point because we’ve fought.”  Then, in his distinct and charming Southern drawl, Patrick explained why he believes Troy’s struggle is so important.  “All over the world, people have lined up for justice for Troy Davis, but this is bigger than Troy. This case will be the pivotal case in the final outcome of the fight against the criminal justice system and the death penalty.”

It was a prophecy of history in the making, and sitting there in that  auditorium, there wasn’t a single person who doubted what was being said.  You could feel the enthusiasm growing. There was a sense that we could do this; we could, as Patrick quoted Troy Davis, “dismantle the injustice system city by city, state by state and country by country.”

Later in the afternoon, Jeannine Scott picked up right where Patrick and Martina left off. Speaking with an intensity that could only be mustered by someone who’s been through what she has, Jeanine told of the 10-year
struggle to free her wrongfully convicted husband, Michael Scott, explaining the important role that activism played in getting all the charges dropped in Michael’s case. “This wouldn’t have happened if we were silent,” she said, “The state of Texas wanted me to go away and be quiet, but I wouldn’t. And they only think they’ve heard the last of me.”

The crowd cheered, and Jeannine continued with even more fire, feeding off the energy in the room. “This is the next step in the civil rights  movement. We have to be extremely vocal. We must demand change in one voice across this country!”

It was a moment that, in another time on a larger stage, would have gone down in history. This was not lost on the audience who gave her a standing ovation as she stepped down from the podium.

Also speaking that afternoon were Sandra Reed, mother of innocent death row prisoner Rodney Reed; CEDP board member and exonerated death row inmate Darby Tillis; Chicago torture victims Ronnie Kitchen, Marvin Reeves and Mark Clements; and Jack Bryson, the leading advocate for justice for Oscar Grant.

Each speaker told of his or her personal struggle, and in doing so,  seemed to gain more courage while simultaneously building up the spirit of the audience. Marvin Reeves best summed up the feeling of being around so many like-minded fighters.

“When I look at the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, I grow stronger,” he said, “I love y’all, and I’m for certain y’all love me.” The applause that followed more than validated his belief.

Afternoon workshops offered convention attendees the opportunity to pick an area of focus and attend a presentation and discussion on that topic. I opted to hear about coerced confessions for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted to support Michael Scott who was speaking for the first time since being released from prison. And second, I wanted to have an answer for that age-old question from death penalty apologists: “Why would someone confess to something they didn’t do?”

I had a pretty good idea why someone would confess, but I never could have imagined the stories I would hear and the people I would meet in that workshop.

Unable to speak much on his case, Michael gave a brief statement and deferred to Joey Mogul, an attorney from the People’s Law Office in Chicago. She launched into a fascinating presentation on coerced confessions and the Jon Burge torture cases.  To me, the key statistic in her presentation was this -- in 25 percent of cases where DNA has exonerated the convicted, there were false confessions. That is a pretty significant number of people who said they committed a crime that we know, without a doubt, they did not commit.

The problem, as Joey explained, is that we have a system that rewards the gaining of false confessions. Police are trained and allowed to lie to the people they are interrogating, meaning they can legally tell you they have eyewitness pointing the finger at you when, in reality, they don’t. After many hours of questioning, deprivation and lies, it’s very likely that any of us would start to doubt our own memory.

And that’s not even taking into account physical torture, which was the  second portion of Joey’s presentation. With the help of brave torture victims Darrell Cannon and Anthony Holmes, she led a discussion about the atrocities committed on over 100 African-American men and women in the 1970s and 80s by Chicago police commander Jon Burge and his men. The officers beat, burned and electrocuted their victims into false confessions, leaving Anthony, Darrell and too many others with lasting scars.

“Am I still bitter? Yeah,” said Darrell, “Can I forgive? No. But regardless of the pain, we’ll continue to speak out until justice is served.” It was the kind of courage and fortitude that motivates you to keep fighting harder than you ever have before.

That evening was the big Howard Zinn event. It was everything I could have hoped for and more -- a sold-out crowd of 900 people, great speakers leading into the main discussion and fascinating back and forth banter between Zinn and Dave Zirin, sprinkled with just the right amount of humor.  It was a special night for the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, and I was honored to be present for it.

Inspired by the previous day’s events, the last day of the convention was a chance to get our plans in order. We had the fight and the determination, but we needed focus and an arsenal of tools.  Again, there were a couple of workshops from which to choose, and I was fortunate enough to chair an incredible discussion on getting the most out of the media. Being a writer, I’m a bit of a journalism nerd, but I personally thought this was one of the most important discussions of the entire weekend. Laura Brady and Liliana Segura more than aptly armed attendees with the knowledge they will need to go out and draw national attention to our cause and our cases.

Finally, it was time to wrap things up with calls for fundraising and voting on a new board and national initiatives. Everything went off smoothly, and suddenly it was time to go. Hugs were exchanged, business cards were swapped, future plans were made, and I believe everyone left feeling a little more equipped and a lot more inspired to go out and abolish the death penalty. I know I did.