National convention sets course for the year

By: Noreen McNulty

The second annual national convention of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty drew more than 130 people to Chicago on November 9 and 10.

Organized around the theme "Abolish the racist death penalty," the weekend was full of both exciting and serious discussions of where the abolitionist movement in the U.S. is headed. Those who attended left with a renewed sense of inspiration and commitment to fighting a racist and unjust practice.

"I have to tell you, it reminded me of the 1960s," said Ethel Amey Robinson of Chicago. "I just couldn’t believe the amount of energy in that room and all of the people who had come from a ll across the country to attend. I had no idea it was going to be so good. I was overwhelmed. It’s like when you are invited to dinner, but you don’t expect a feast."

The convention couldn’t have happened at a better time. In both Maryland and Illinois, the battle over the death penalty was heating up last November.

In Illinois, the clemency hearings of Illinois death row prisoners seeking commutations from Gov. George Ryan were wrapping up, and activists in Illinois were mapping out a plan to win a blanket commutation to clear out Illinois’ death row. And in Maryland, in the wake of the sniper attacks, Maryland’s governor-elect Robert Ehrlich vowed to lift the moratorium on executions.

The importance of both of these local fights was discussed at the convention. As Marlene Martin, national director of the Campaign, said, "What’s key about whether our movement experiences a setback or whether we continue to see new legal and political challenges to the death penalty will be the amount of struggle we can organize. That’s why what we do matters so much."

The convention offered all of us a chance to step back and look at the long-term view of our movement. By building a strong base of grassroots support, we are sowing the seeds for future wins.

Stephen Bright, director of the Southern Center on Human Rights, was the keynote speaker of the convention, and gave an amazing and informative speech on racism and the use of the death penalty. At the "Face of Discrimination in the Criminal Justice System" panel, Angola Three Member Robert Wilkerson; exonerated death row prisoner and former Black Panther Shujaa Graham; exonerated prisoner Angel Rodríguez of Comite Exigimos Justicia; and Larry Ollins and Omar Saunders of the Roscetti 4 in Illinois gave moving and emotional tales of their firsthand experiences with the criminal justice system and how to fight it. Workshops included "Legal Lynching: Then and No! w," "Why Reforms Can Never Fix the Death Penalty," and "Organizing From the Inside Out: Making a Connection to Death Row."

The most important of the initiatives voted on by delegates were around finances. Citing this as a crucial area of our work, delegates voted in favor of a national fund drive to raise $25,000 by June 2003. And each October, chapters will hold "Death Penalty Awareness Week" in order to hold a week-long series of events on different aspects of the death penalty.