Protesters tell Maryland’s new governor

No to the machinery of death!

By: John Coursey

Maryland’s new governor, Robert Ehrlich, hoped his swearing-in ceremony on January 15 would be one of celebration and without controversy, as the first Republican to hold the state’s highest office in more than three decades.

Instead, Ehrlich had to contend with the loud chants of more than 75 anti-death penalty activists, angry that Ehrlich planned to restart Maryland’s racist death machine. Chants of "Hey Ehrlich, just face it, death row is racist!" and others could be heard throughout the inauguration ceremony.

It was a shock to everyone in attendance. The police, who promised to allow protesters a location to demonstrate across the street from the inauguration, threatened mass arrests if we didn’t agree to move further out of sight. We agreed to move, but it didn’t matter--everyone in attendance could hear us anyway. The chants could even be heard in the background of the news clips of Ehrlich’s speech shown on television.

Everything that demonstrators feared about Ehrlich was proved within days of his taking office. "Consider the moratorium lifted," said Ehrlich’s spokeswoman Shareese Deleaver in announcing that the governor had lifted the moratorium on executions imposed by his predecessor, Parris Glendening, by giving the green light to Baltimore County prosecutors to seek a death warrant against Steven Oken. He is slated to die the week of March 17.

During the past two years, Maryland’s death penalty has come under great scrutiny--first with the commutation of Eugene Colvin-El’s death sentence in 2000; Glendening’s declaration of a moratorium last May; and finally, the recent release of a University of Maryland death penalty study that showed the depth of racism in the state’s death penalty system. That study was years in the making, and it highlights the obvious racial disparities on Maryland’s death row, where eight of the state’s 12 death row inmates are Black, and all 12 are accused of killing whites, in a state where 80 percent of murder victims are Black.

But Ehrlich hasn’t once expressed concern about any of these issues. Now, he is signing off on Oken’s execution. Three more death row inmates in Maryland have exhausted their appeals and could face death warrants almost immediately as well. And three others could face death warrants later in the year. That total of seven possible executions in a single year comes in a state that has executed only three people in the past three decades.

The inauguration protest, organized by the Campaign, was a powerful message to Ehrlich and ot! her death penalty supporters, that they will face the same public outcry that eventually pushed Glendening to call a moratorium.

As John Gilliam-Price, the brother-in-law of the last man to be executed in Maryland, Tyrone X Gilliam, said in a speech after the protest: "Our numbers today, our strength and solidarity, show Ehrlich and all who oppose us that without justice, there will be no peace! Let us never forget our victories that have brought us to this point in history. The struggle continues...we are stronger and getting stronger!"