Organizing around individual cases

Is this the right strategy?

By: Marlene Martin

It might seem obvious after the successful fight to save Kenneth Foster from the clutches of the Texas death machine that abolitionists should organize around specific cases as part of the struggle against capital punishment.

But questions do arise from this issue in the abolitionist community. Some organizations argue that to take on specific cases of death row prisoner shows preference for some prisoners over others-- taking the focus off the system as a whole.

There is some truth to each of these points. For example, it certainly is true that in organizing for Kenneth Foster, we were unable to bring the same attention to other death row cases, even those who were being executed around the same time.

On the other hand, one thing that death penalty activists know very well is that there are similarities in every specific case that connect all cases together--for example, the role that race plays in who gets the death penalty, or the fact that the death penalty is given almost exclusively to those that are poor.

To raise these issues in a specific case is to begin the process of raising them in general.

We have a lot of misperceptions to break down in the fight to abolish the death penalty. An important way of doing this is to go the public directly with a compelling case. In the process of fighting around one case, we show the barbarism of the whole system. We force people to think through the use of the death penalty--not just for that one person, but overall.

I remain dumbfounded by the statistic that 65 percent of people support the death penalty, and 80 percent of people think an innocent person has been executed (91 percent think there is an innocent person on death row). How can some people hold these clearly contradictory views in their brain at the same time?

For most people, the issue of the death penalty is abstract--very few people know someone who is on death row. Meanwhile, they are bombarded every day by the media with horrific stories about murder and crime--stories that are all too true, but which never discuss the fact that poverty breeds crime, or that the death penalty will not make our society safer or prevent future crimes.

Alan Bean is an activist and minister with Friends for Justice, who is currently helping to publicize the terrible injustice that has taken place in Jena, La., where six Black youths are being railroaded into prison on assault charges in an atmosphere of Jim Crow-style racism. As he put it, “So long as defendants can be defined as heartless thugs, they are remarkably easy to convict. But when defendants like the Jena Six are revealed as flesh-and-blood human beings with faces, faiths, and families, and futures, no one wants to see them railroaded.”

It’s right to organize our forces around specific cases--whether those cases end in victories, as with Kenneth Foster and Kevin Cooper, or in defeats, as with Frances Newton and Stanley Tookie Williams.

These cases gain public and media attention, and with this kind of attention, people learn the specifics of the death penalty system--the fuller, human picture that is excluded from media reports of crime. This awareness changes minds, which is why support for the death penalty has dropped in places where controversy over individual cases has captured media attention--like, for example, in California in the wake of the struggles over Kevin Cooper and Stanley Tookie Williams.

By fighting around the cases of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Stanley Tookie Williams, Kevin Cooper, Troy Davis, Frances Newton, the Death Row Ten, Rodney Reed, Kenneth Foster and others, we break down the statistics into human beings--and ask the question: Isn’t there a better way?

It’s easy to see the importance of this strategy when we win--as we did in Kenneth Foster’s case. But even when we lose, the effect of highlighting individual cases is important.

Napoleon Beasley was sent to Texas death row for a crime he admits he committed when he was 17. He was Black and was tried by an all-white jury. There was an international outcry to stop his execution, drawing attention to the fact that most of the rest of the world doesn’t execute juvenile offenders.

Tragically, Napoleon was executed on May 28, 2002. But the impact of the controversy over his execution lived on. And 32 months later, the U.S. Supreme Court, packed with pro-death penalty justices, barred the execution of juvenile offenders. Napoleon’s struggle paved the way for that decision.

I hope the lessons learned from the Kenneth Foster fight get translated into more grassroots struggles around specific cases. The abolitionist movement will be that much stronger for it.