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Moratorium now! Abolition next!

November 9, 2001 | Page 5

Shujaa Graham: "They have to sense the power of our movement"
Organizing the struggle
Three strikes sentence overturned in California

ERIC RUDER reports from the first national convention of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.

FOR YEARS, Democrats and Republicans tried to outdo each other to show their support for capital punishment. In 1999, 98 executions were carried out in the U.S.--the highest number since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

But since then, the number of executions has fallen two years in a row--for the first time in 25 years. This is the latest sign of growing doubts about the U.S. killing machine.

In early October, the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights issued a study concluding that "the majority of those condemned to death in the United States, particularly when they are poor and destitute, have not benefited from a fair trial."

This has been true for decades. But only in the last couple of years have such injustices been widely exposed, thanks to the actions of opponents of the death penalty. By putting these issues front and center, activists have pressured the politicians to back away from their all-out support of capital punishment.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Illinois, where Republican Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in January 2000. Ryan's decision came after the release of the 13th innocent man from death row in 13 years. Those 13 are among 98 people who have been proven innocent and released from death row since 1976--a damning indictment of what Ryan called a "broken system."

Illinois' halt on executions was not only highly popular--80 percent of voters supported it--but it also put the moratorium issue on the agenda across the country. Since Ryan's decision, 36 of the 38 states with the death penalty have considered legislation to halt executions.

Against this backdrop, even some long-standing death penalty supporters have begun to question it. In October, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor expressed concern for the second time this year about the possibility of executing innocent people in a system where many poor defendants don't get decent legal representation. "More often than we want to recognize, some innocent defendants have been convicted and sentenced to death," said O'Connor.

Politicians are trying a new tactic to rehabilitate the death penalty--pack capital punishment provisions into antiterrorism legislation in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Iowa, Illinois, New York and other states have already considered or passed such legislation.

But the death penalty won't stop terrorism--any more than U.S. carpet bombing. "I vehemently object to the state taking up revenge and saying that it's to address my needs," Jennifer Bishop of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation told Socialist Worker. "Revenge clearly isn't the solution--revenge is what brought us to September 11."

We can't let the politicians exploit September 11 to give the death penalty a new lease on life.

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"They have to sense the power of our movement"

SHUJAA GRAHAM spent six years on California's death row and 11 years behind bars before he was exonerated and freed. He spoke to Socialist Worker about today's fight to abolish the death penalty.

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HOW DID you end up on death row?

I WENT to prison when I was 19 years old. The year was 1969. As I was in prison, I got involved in the protest movement of the 1960s and '70s, and I became conscious of what was going on internationally.

I was framed because I was outspoken about my political beliefs. On November 27, 1973, I was accused of killing a prison guard. In my fourth trial, I was finally acquitted. I was released in 1981. I went into society and tried to find the spot where I fit in.

I see prison as a small microcosm of the big picture--the struggle for liberation of the oppressed. That's been my life, and I've never turned back.

As we become bigger as a movement, then politicians will pay attention. But not until they sense the power of our movement. Once they sense the power of a mass movement, they will begin to turn around.

In my case, people didn't give up. They kept organizing and educating people to fight back--just like we're doing with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. We used to say the struggle is a process that undulates backwards and forwards. And I think that at some point, the movement will take a big leap forward.

DO YOU consider yourself a socialist?

I THINK that's the solution to the problem. People need a government they can respect, that gives them something other than rhetoric.

But in this society, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. People work all their lives, 50 weeks out of the year. And they get two weeks vacation--and therefore, they're only living two weeks out of the year.

I don't want to just exist. I want to live some. Like Dr. King said, it's not how long you live, it's how well you live.

I fell in love with the ideas and concepts of socialism. And it's just been my politics ever since. If we continue, I believe people will join us and follow that path.

That's what we need now, to bring the masses into the movement. And I think if we're persistent in this, we will succeed.

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Organizing the struggle

"I THOUGHT it was one of the most inspirational things I've ever seen." That's how Jenni Rowe of Maryland described the first national convention of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, held in Chicago earlier this month.

"The feeling of solidarity--so many people coming together for the same goal, the same spirit of decency--is incredible," she told Socialist Worker. "I've always been passively opposed to the death penalty, but in the last couple months, I decided it was time to get active. I love it, and it's something I'm going to stick with for quite a while."

The convention brought together activists from across the country to discuss everything from the nuts and bolts of building chapters to the lessons of the 1960s civil rights movement. Spirits were high, reflecting the growing momentum behind anti-death penalty forces in recent months.

But the highlight was hearing from the many exonerated death row prisoners and the family members of those on death row who attended. At a Saturday evening rally, five former death row prisoners told their moving and powerful stories to a crowd of nearly 200.

Members of the Campaign believe that the participation of exonerated prisoners and family members of those on death row give the organization a connection to the issue that few other anti-death penalty groups have. That connection--and the commitment of Campaigners to winning the fight against the machinery of death--was clear throughout the convention.

As Robin Hobley--the sister of Illinois death row prisoner Madison Hobley--said with tears in her eyes as she chaired the opening plenary session, "The Campaign has given me and many other family members hope that we may again touch our loved ones."

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Three strikes sentence overturned in California

THE TIDE of opposition to the death penalty is part of growing doubts about the criminal justice system generally.

In early November, a federal appeals court overturned a 50-year sentence given to a shoplifter in California under the state's "three-strikes-and-you're-out" law. The judges said that putting someone behind bars for 50 years for stealing videotapes worth $153 was "grossly disproportionate."

The ruling could pave the way for hundreds of legal challenges from defendants in similar circumstances.

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