National Convention 2009

Making the death penalty history

On November 7 and 8, over 80 people from across the country attended the Campaign to End the Death Penalty’s ninth annual convention in Chicago.

During the day, workshop and plenary sessions celebrated recent victories: the freeing of Chicago police torture victims Ronnie Kitchen, Marvin Reeves and Mark Clements, who were all released this summer -- and the freeing of Michael Scott, who after ten years in prison had all the charges against him dropped.

Hearing these individuals speak of their situation and their fight, and why the Campaign is so needed, was an intense and inspiring affirmation of the importance of our work.

Throughout the weekend we dug into important questions and challenges we face today in building a struggle that can “make the death penalty history.” The entire convention had a feeling of “what we do matters” and “what we think matters.”

The keynote evening event featuring Howard Zinn in conversation with  Dave Zirin was stellar. Nine hundred people turned out, filling Mandel Hall at the University of Chicago to capacity. The room was beaming with  enthusiasm, hope, a sense of purpose and respect for the struggles that  came before us. Marvin Reeves, Martina Correria, Sandra Reed and  Lawrence Hayes gave short greetings, which are excerpted below, along with Marlene Martin’s introductions, and parts of Howard Zinn and Dave Zirin’s conversation on “The Power of the People.”

Darby Tillis and Chris Lynch kicked off the night’s event with some death row blues tunes, sung by Darby and played by Chris on guitar.  Howard was very moved by the evening’s event, writing to me later, “It was an enormously moving experience, full of emotion and comradely love. It was not an ordinary political meeting, because it was suffused with passion, undoubtedly because we were in the presence of people who had suffered so much, but now were here free, triumphant and part of the movement that helped them to freedom.  You are all nurturing a profoundly important movement for human freedom.”

To see and hear for yourself this amazing event, you can buy the DVD for only $12, which includes shipping. Make your check out to the CEDP and mail to:

P.O. Box 25730
Chicago, IL 60625



When we invited Howard Zinn to be our keynote speaker, I thought it would be a long shot, because he is so in demand.  And I nearly fainted when he said he would come.

But I shouldn’t have been surprised.  Howard has always made his voice available to grassroots struggles, social justice struggles, the struggles against racism -- which our fight is a part of.  And there was another reason I shouldn’t have been surprised. In 1996, Howard agreed to be part of the first meeting that launched the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.

He spoke with Cornel West, Lawrence Hayes and others -- and more than 500 people turned out to get our group started.  We want to take a few minutes to share with Howard and all of you what we’ve been up to for the past 13 years. I want to ask four people who are part of our Campaign to say a few words.

The first is Marvin Reeves, who we had the wonderful pleasure of seeing take his first steps as a free man this July after 21 years in prison, falsely convicted and incarcerated. 

Marvin and his co-defendant Ronnie Kitchen were the victims of torture right here -- in the police interrogation rooms of Chicago by Jon Burge and his men. Ronnie was beaten into signing a confession and went to death row, and Marvin was given a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. For 21 years, these men were locked up because the cops and prosecutors fabricated a case against them.

Ronnie was here earlier but couldn’t be here tonight. It is my great honor to introduce to you a friend, a fighter and finally a free man -- Marvin Reeves.

Thank you very much. It feels good. I come here today so I can tell you my story, just a small part. I really want you all to know how important you all are to me.

The reason Ronnie is not here today is because he wanted to go shake the governor’s hand. I don’t want to shake the governor’s hand. I want to look in the faces of the people who helped free me. That’s what I want to do and it feels good.

I’m just one of a lot of people who are innocent and locked up. And I’d like to give thanks to the Campaign, because if it wasn’t for them, I’d probably still be locked up. It wasn’t the big people that made noise for me -- the ones that I expected.

It was the little people that made noise for me.  I had almost given up hope. I was in my cell and on my last appeal. Just like all the other ones, I knew when it came back it was going to say, “Denied.” And something told me to turn on the news. When I turned on the news, I saw people that I didn’t even know -- none of my friends, guys I ran the street with, guys I spent my money with, I didn’t see none of them. I saw people I didn’t know, like Noreen and Marlene, holding signs up, with my face on it, saying “Free Marvin Reeves.” I was like: “Wow, I didn’t even know these people. But for some reason, they know me.” I knew right then that it was time to get up and fight. Man, God is good.

They had buried me in that penitentiary with no hope of return. If you don’t know anything about the law, there’s something called the motion of  discovery -- meaning that all the work that the state’s attorneys do, they have to turn it over to your lawyers. Guess what? I didn’t find out I had this right until 20 years, and the motion of discovery pointed the finger at somebody else -- not me and Ronnie.

It was the little people that took on the cause, not the big people. I wrote many letters that fell on deaf ears. They always came back, saying, “We think you need a lawyer.” But oh boy, when I saw the New Abolitionist to get rid of the death penalty, I said to myself that these people are on to something, and I need to be on to it with them.

We discovered some things that you wouldn’t believe happened in America today. I’m the guy that used to sit in front of the TV and watch the news and say -- ”Man, I’m glad they got that guy; that could have been my mother.” “Man, I’m glad they got that guy; that could have been my sister.” When they came and got me, I said, “Wow, maybe all that wasn’t true.”

The snake has risen his head, and he’s striking everywhere. There are a lot of Jon Burges out there. And it’s the small people, like the people that came out today, that will make a difference.  To me, in the great words of the late Malcolm X, any person -- he said “man,” but I’m going to say person, because that means women included -- that won’t stand for nothing will fall for anything.

America is yours, it doesn’t belong to the crooked judges, the crooked state’s attorneys, the crooked politicians. America belongs to the people, and I believe the people’s job is to take America back.

Troy Davis has been on death row in Georgia for the past 18 years. He has faced down three execution dates and was at the end of his appeals when the U.S. Supreme Court this fall ruled that he would be allowed to introduce new evidence of his innocence to a court -- for the first time.

Many of you, I’m sure, have heard about this case. And the biggest reason why is the woman I’m going to introduce to you. She has led the way in the fight to win justice for her brother and to abolish the death penalty. Protest is why Troy is alive today, and the reason people we’re organized to protest is right here -- Martina Correia.

Thank you so much. As many of you know, my brother, Troy Anthony Davis, was sentenced to death in Georgia in 1991 based solely on eyewitness testimony.

There were nine non-police witnesses that testified against him. No weapon, no DNA, no motive, no anything.  Over the years, seven of the nine eyewitnesses have recanted their testimony and said they said what they did because of police and prosecutorial misconduct.

Yet because of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, we weren’t able to introduce this. In the United States of America, it’s not unconstitutional to execute an innocent person if the state feels they got a fair trial at the beginning.

And the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act does not attack the rich; it only attacks the poor and the people who cannot fight against it. But I’ll tell you, this Monday, Congressmen Hank Johnson introduced a bill that we hope will counter this act, and bring justice to innocent people all across the country.

What people don’t realize is that in my brother Troy’s case, not only does he have seven out of nine eyewitnesses who have recanted due to coercion or police misconduct, but you have nine additional witnesses who have never been heard in a court of law.

Troy has faced three executions, coming within 23 hours of being executed, two weeks of being executed, and 90 minutes of being executed. My family has had to go through that trauma each time. But every time we went through that, there have always been hundreds of thousands of people across the world sending in petitions, writing letters, holding rallies and doing everything to say, “I am Troy Davis, and this will stop.”

So Troy is alive today because of grassroots activism. And that’s one of the reasons that I’m so honored to be able to meet Howard Zinn. It comes full circle when you read about people, and you see television stories about people, and then when you realize you’re becoming one of those people.

We have to stay in this fight for civil and human rights, and we have to be determined and undeterred. And we have to be in this for the long haul, just like Mr. Zinn. I have been an activist since I was 13 years old, and I’m now 42, and I’m never going to stop fighting against injustice until it’s all gone.

My brother Troy Davis is innocent, but he is still on death row. And yes, the Supreme Court has ruled that he should get a hearing. But in this hearing, it will be a trial without a jury. So Troy’s lawyers have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he is innocent. And this judge has to decide whether or not he believes that.

Then he will decide whether Troy deserves a new trial.  So this is not a slam-dunk. This is an uphill battle that we have to fight. We need you to be standing across the country, saying, “ I am Troy Davis, and we are watching the state of Georgia.” We are watching the Supreme Court  because the Supreme Court has never answered whether actual innocence takes precedence over procedure -- and that should be an abomination in 2010.

Many of you no doubt have heard of Troy Davis, but you may not know the name of Rodney Reed. We in the Campaign are determined to change that.

Rodney is on death row in Texas, after being tried by an all-white jury and sentenced to death 10 long years ago.  Now I want to introduce to you Sandra Reed, Rodney’s mother, who is like so many of the family members who spend their life’s energy working for justice. I’ve known Sandra for many years, and she’s one of the most gentle and graceful people I’ve ever met -- but with a steely determination not only to win justice for Rodney, but also to end the death penalty.  Please welcome Sandra Reed.

This is beautiful, all so beautiful. Yes, I am from the Belly of the Beast: Texas. As Marlene said, my son has been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death row in Texas. And I’m here today as a voice for my son.

We’ve been in this struggle for 12 years, and I’ve experienced a lot of downs. The downs were being denied a fair trial. Every motion that was filed in Rodney ‘s case has been denied.  But the ups have been beautiful -- when I see Kenneth Foster Jr. freed from death row; when I can see and touch Michael Scott, who was wrongfully convicted of the Yogurt Shop murders in Austin, Texas; when I met and touched Marvin Reeves, Ronnie Kitchen and Mark Clements; meet people who care about right and wrong in the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.

As I said earlier, I don’t know where I’d be if it wasn’t for this Campaign that exposes the corruption of justice. I thank you all for coming out. It means so much. I’m in this fight for life.

Thirteen years ago, when we launched the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, Howard was there, and so was Lawrence Hayes. Lawrence spent 20 years in prison in New York, part of those years on death row. Since his release, he has made challenging the death penalty and winning justice his life’s work: Lawrence Hayes.

Thank you. I remember meeting Howard in 1996, and it was a moment of moments. We birthed the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, and we are here today to say: Put an end to the death penalty -- killing is wrong. It’ s wrong when a citizen does it, and it’s wrong when the government does it, and we need to join Europe and the rest of the civilized world and abolish it.

I want to take time to talk about some history. I want to speak the name of Howard Zinn and the words of Frederick Douglass, who said, “Slavery has been fruitful in giving itself names. It has been called the ‘peculiar institution,’ the ‘social system’ and the ‘impediment’…It has been called by a great many names, and it will call itself by yet another name; and you and I and all of us had better wait and see what new form this old monster will assume -- in what new skin this old snake will come next.” 

It is in the criminal justice system of America that this snake raises its head.  And it’s up to the people, because it’s the people whose power will change the destinies of this country. We are the people.

And now to our featured guests.  Howard Zinn is a historian, an activist and a renowned author of more than 20 books including A People’s History of the United States, You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train, and SNCC: The New Abolitionists -- that’s where we got the name for our newsletter by the way. He’s brought history to life for so many of us here, a history that tells the stories of ordinary people who, when they came together to resist, have changed history.  I’m also pleased to introduce Dave Zirin, an author, an activist, a sports columnist for The Nation and, and recently named by the Utne Reader to be one of the “50 visionaries who are changing the world.” His most recent book is especially appropriate for tonight; it’s called A People’s History of Sports in the United States.

Howard, it seems appropriate to ask you this right off the bat. Why, for so many years, have you stood so steadfast against the death penalty?

Well, I would have thought it was obvious.  For so many reasons, right? But just a gut feeling…  First of all, I don’t trust the states. I don’t trust the government. I don’t trust the judicial system. I don’t trust district attorneys. I don’t trust judges. And so, why should I accept any judgment they make against a human being? These people are not fit to make such judgments.

It’s all so obvious -- who are the people they sentence? Who are the people they put on death row? Who are the people that they put in prison? We know who they are. They’re mostly poor; they’re people of color; they’re troublemakers politically. 

Studying history, there are certain cases I learned about.  By the way, I didn’t learn about them in school. If you want to study history, don’t go to school. Especially not the University of Chicago.

Oh, snap.

But if you want to study history, go to the library. The library is the place. That’s what I did. I went all through the formal history training, right up through the PhD. So a PhD in history -- that must mean I know a lot of history.

No. I learned my history outside the classroom.  I learned it by reading on my own.  I read about the Haymarket affair right here in Chicago. And I read about these people who were sentenced to death on the basis of, well, no evidence. But they were radicals, they were anarchists. They deserved to die, right?

The campaign became an international campaign to save the Haymarket people who were sentenced to death -- eight of them. The appeal was turned down by an eight-member court of appeals in the state of Illinois. And George Bernard Shaw, the great playwright, sent a message to this country. He said, “You know, if your country needs to lose eight people, they had better lose the eight members of the Illinois Court of Appeals.”

The Haymarket affair caught me. It’s interesting because there are things that happen in history -- these very special events -- and when you read about them, you never forget about them.

So what is a people’s history?

The idea of a people’s history is to learn a history that you’re not taught in school.  Which means what? To learn about the struggles of ordinary people. To learn about history not from the standpoint of presidents and congresses and supreme courts.  Do you know how many volumes have been written about George Washington?  How many volumes have been written about the ordinary soldiers in the Revolutionary War who mutinied in Washington’s army?

In this whole country, with all the teaching that goes on about the Revolutionary War, which was one of our great, patriotic moments, they never teach about the mutinies in the revolutionary army -- the ordinary soldiers, the working people, the farmers who discovered that war is a class phenomenon. It’s the rich who benefit from war.  They discovered that the officers in Washington’s army who came from the upper classes were well-dressed and wellfed and taken care of, while the ordinary soldier was not given any shoes or clothes or pay. So they mutinied by the thousands.

That’s people’s history, you see? The farmers who, after the revolution, veterans of the Revolutionary War, they come home, and the promises haven’t been kept. Or they’re given land, and then the land is taxed so heavily they can’t pay it.  And so their farms are taken away from them -- foreclosures we call it today. And then they rebel: Shay’s Rebellion.

So I wanted to tell the story of the rebels. Not of Washington and not of Andrew Jackson. I had different heroes. My heroes were not George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson. No. My heroes were the opposition. My heroes were not Andrew Jackson, who killed Indians and yet became known as a great democratic president. No, my heroes were the Cherokee Indians who refused to be removed by the U.S. Army as it drove them westward.

Woodrow Wilson. In school, we learned he was one of the great liberal figures in American history. Woodrow Wilson, who bombarded the Mexican coast and killed hundreds of Mexicans because they refused to salute the American flag.

Wilson, who invaded Haiti and the Dominican Republic and kept an  occupying army there and killed several thousand Haitians because they rebelled against the occupation. Woodrow Wilson who got us into the slaughterhouse of Europe in 1917.

And he was the antiwar candidate.

That’s right. Woodrow Wilson promised to keep us out of war.

That actually goes right to what I wanted to ask you, because the news this morning that faced me over my morning coffee was that: President Obama has apparently agreed to upping the troop levels in Afghanistan by 35,000. And Afghanistan is often called a humanitarian or a just war, and I wanted to ask you -- is there such a thing as a humanitarian war historically?

I was in a war. Did you know that?  Notice the silence?  After I worked in the shipyard, where I went to work at the age of 18, I volunteered for the Air Force in World War II.  World War II is supposedly a humanitarian war, fighting against fascism. So World War II is a good test of whether you can have a good war because World War II is the best of wars. And if World War II fails the test of a good war, then all the rest have certainly failed the test.

World War II, although I volunteered for it and dropped bombs in it as a bombardier, when I have to think about it after the war, no, it was not a humanitarian war.

It was not a just war because what happens in war is that war poisons everybody who engages in it. You start out with: “Oh, they’re the bad guys; we’re the good guys.”  Soon, you’re the bad guys also.

They commit atrocities. Fascists -- they are bad. But then you commit atrocities.  You bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You bomb Dresden. You bomb Tokyo. How many Americans know that several months before the bombing of Hiroshima, we firebombed Tokyo and killed 100,000 people in one night? Not too many people know about that. Talk about learning history.

War is always the indiscriminate killing of huge numbers of people for a cause, which may look right at the time but which disappears with time. So, no, there’s no such thing as a good war, a just war. The human race has to find a way of dealing with problems in the world without war.

Eugene Victor Debs said the American criminal justice system is like a magical fishing net that catches the minnows while the whales go free. And you think about it: This country has 2 million people behind bars, while there is criminalization that happens at the level of government that people get medals for.

The hypocrisy.

It’s jarring.

I’ve had a correspondence with prisoners over the years. There are three of them.  There’s a woman in Wisconsin, but two guys I’ve had  correspondence with for probably 25 years. They’re lifers, which means they have no chance for parole. I’ve had this long correspondence with them.

These are magnificent people. One of them, Tiyo Attallah Salah-El -- some of you may have heard of him -- has organized from his prison cell a campaign against imprisonment.  The other guy is in prison in Massachusetts. These are magnificent human beings. Somewhere back there, maybe they did something, maybe they didn’t -- it’s not a matter of innocence.

Maybe they were guilty of something when they were 18 years old, and here it is 30 years later, and they’re still in prison.  These are rare and extraordinary people.  One of them -- this guy named Kevin Hicks, who I correspond with, is in a Massachusetts prison. Kevin Hicks is a Black guy who was in a shootout in a robbery when he was 18 years old. Like  Frederick Douglass as a slave taught himself to read, Kevin Hicks taught himself to read, and he has written novels and plays and poems and an autobiography. He sends me these things -- it’s amazing. And I think to myself, “My God, they’re keeping this guy in prison, and there are all these idiots up there in high office.” The word “hypocrisy” doesn’t even begin to describe the criminal justice system.

There’s actually a gentleman here tonight: Sherman Davis, who spoke earlier today. His first cousin, Adolpho Davis, was sent to prison at age 14. He’s still there at age 33. Tried as an adult for being an accomplice.  It makes you think about the vast human potential that this country wastes.

Yeah, it’s not just 2 million people in prison. There are probably 8 to 10 million people who have been in and out -- who have had some connection with the prison system. They’ve been in prison.  They’re on parole. They’re on probation.  It’s amazing how Americans grow up with a kind of  mythology -- we’re the greatest; we are number one. Number one in what? Number one in imprisonment.  But not number one in health care, not number one in taking care of kids.

I want to ask you, though, the prospect of looking to Washington, D.C., for change. Bill Maher had a line recently about our two grand political parties, where he said; “You have two parties in this country -- a center-right party,  that’s the Democrats, and another party that’s in a mental institution, that’s the Republicans.”  And yet I’m sure you hear people all the time who preach patience right now.  They say we need to wait and give President Obama a chance to work this out. I wanted to hear what you think about that.

Well, you know, I voted for Obama. I was happy that he won. I was happy to see the Bush gang leave the White House, right? But I also knew that Obama was a politician.

The signal that I got from him came early -- even before the presidential campaign.  It came when there was a primary campaign in Connecticut, and Joseph Lieberman, the war hawk, was running in Connecticut for the Democratic nomination for the Senate. And opposing him for the Democratic nomination was a guy named Ned Lamont, who was against the war. So it was very clear. Lieberman for the war. This guy Lamont against the war.

And Obama goes to Connecticut to campaign for Lieberman.  The Democratic Party has been as warlike as the Republican Party. In matters of foreign policy and militarism and expansion, the Democratic Party has been just as bad -- sometimes worse -- than the Republican Party.

People say, “Give him a chance,” or they say, “It’s only been a year,” or “He came in with this enormous burden that Bush left him, so you can’t expect things to happen overnight.” Okay, there’s an enormous burden that Bush left, but you would expect that within a year, he would at least take an ounce off this burden. No, instead, he added to the burden. He increased the military budget over the Bush military budget.  And, of course, he’s sending more troops to Afghanistan than even Bush did.

So when people say “patience,” they don’t understand that presidents don’t change things for the good on their own.  Here’s something Black people in the South knew. When I was in the South and involved in the movement, there’s one thing the movement learned -- they couldn’t depend on the federal government.  The federal government was supposedly liberal. It was Kennedy and Johnson -- and, no, you couldn’t depend on them to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments. You couldn’t even depend on them to obey the Constitution.

So what the Black people in the South realized is they had to do it themselves.  We can’t depend on Obama, not at all.  We have to do it ourselves.

How about the recent movie by Michael Moore?

It’s great that people are talking about capitalism and socialism. In fact, last week, I was invited to speak in the financial district of Boston -- a place where I don’t usually go. I was always afraid if I went to the financial district that I’d be arrested.  But I was invited to come there to speak to a group of hotshot lawyers and financial people and financial advisers, because they have a forum every month, and they decided, “Oh, we’re going to have a forum this time on capitalism.” I thought that was progress.

Since when have these people had a forum on capitalism?  So they invited a capitalist -- some guy who writes about the market and financial things -- and they invited me. And it was great, because I had an opportunity to talk about capitalism. 

It’s interesting when you get away from the abstractions, when you get away from the isms and the names. You say, “Should homes be built on the basis of who has the money and which homes are most profitable? Or should homes be built on the basis of who needs them the most? Should insurance company skyscrapers be built because they’re profitable and poor people not have any homes because it’s not profitable?”

Even when you ask people with money, if you put a question to them in a humanitarian way, without abstractions dealing with capitalism or socialism, they come up with the right answer.  I have never hesitated to say that capitalism is a failure. A total failure. Sure, we produce -- we have a huge gross national product, a very gross national product.

We produce more things, but where does it go? Who has it? Who profits from it?  Capitalism is a failure because it is enormously productive, and yet it’s poisoned by poverty and child sickness and millions of people in prison. There are so many signs of a society that is basically sick and that needs health care. We need health care, not only for our people -- we need health care for the society.

Before we finish up here tonight, I do feel the need to ask you one more question.  I look at this room, and I see a lot of young people and a lot of not-so-young people who may be thinking to themselves about devoting their lives to the cause of social justice. And unquestionably, we will hear from people around us that we’re wasting our time. What do you say to combat that?

In every period of history, the people who fought against injustice were considered to be wasting their time. But they persisted and persisted and persisted. All social movements that have achieved anything started very small and seemed as if they wouldn’t go anywhere. Some people get discouraged, but there were people who held on and held on and held on. If they hold on, the movement grows.

The reason it grows is because the truth is on our side. People basically have good instincts fundamentally, down deep, before they’re deceived by propaganda.  People don’t want war. People don’t want anybody to be poor and homeless. People are decent. And when the truth comes to them, they react, and then you have social movements grow.

Who knew that the South would rise?  Who knew that the antiwar movement would get to a point where the government had to say we can’t go on anymore?  Who knew that the women’s movement would create a new consciousness in this country? Who knew that we’d get to the point where you could have the kind of gathering with hundreds of thousands for gay and lesbian rights?

I think it’s important to understand when you think you’re powerless that the power of the people on top is only possessed by them as a result of the obedience of people below. When people withhold their obedience, they’re helpless.  You can have the most powerful corporation in the world. You can have General Motors. You can have Texaco. If their workers go out on strike, they’re helpless.

In the 1930s, people said, “You can’t defeat Ford and General Motors.” When their factories stopped working, they were defeated. When workers go on strike, when consumers boycott -- I remember when Jesse Jackson threatened the boycott of Texaco because Texaco was engaging in some racist things. That scares them -- a boycott. People stop buying our stuff? Oh, they caved in.

They depend on soldiers to fight wars, but soldiers can stop obeying orders. That happened in Vietnam. Soldiers revolted in the Vietnam War. The pilots wouldn’t fly anymore. There were soldiers who wouldn’t go out on patrol anymore.  When they can’t depend on soldiers, when soldiers don’t obey anymore, they can’t carry on a war. So the power is in the hands of the people.

I just want to say one more thing -- one more thing to young people especially. By young people, I mean everybody in this audience who is younger than me. In other words, 99 percent of the people in this audience -- I address you. And maybe this is something you already know, but I don’t care -- I’ll tell you anyway.

If you get involved in a movement, you never know whether you’re going to win or lose, but you’ve got to do it, because if you don’t do it, you will lose definitely. If you act, you’ll have a chance at winning.  And if you do get involved, your life will be better. You’ll feel better. It’s fun to be in a social movement with other people who think and feel the way you do. It makes life more interesting. It makes life more fulfilling. So whether you win or lose -- ultimately you may, you may not -- but in the meantime, you will win.

Many thanks to Carter Pagel for his help with transcription.