Speaking out from death row

Lee Wengraf reports on the "Live from Death Row" national speaking tour.

Demonstrating against the death penalty in Austin, Texas (Matthew Beamesderfer | SW)

"IF THIS had been the 1950s, I would be hanging from a tree. I would be speaking to you as a ghost."

With those words, Yusef Salaam, exonerated and freed from prison in the infamous Central Park jogger case, addressed a crowd of more than 110 people who attended the Harlem stop of a "Live from Death Row" national speaking tour to build opposition to the death penalty.

Sponsored by the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP), the tour has made more than a dozen stops across the country, with many more slated for the spring.

Headlined by death row prisoners speaking over speakerphone, the "Live from Death Row" tour brings their voices from behind prison walls to live audiences, allowing them to relate their stories of injustice, loss and struggle, and add to the growing national chorus for abolition of capital punishment.

Featured speakers include Pennsylvania death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, John Booth-El of Maryland, Timothy McKinney of Tennessee, Kevin Cooper of California and Stanley Howard of Illinois.

What you can do

It's not too late to catch the "Live from Death Row" tour, or host a stop yourself. For details about dates and locations of upcoming tour stops, visit the Campaign to End the Death Penalty Web site, or contact the national tour organizer at [email protected].

Upcoming stops include:

March 25: Peace Center, Albuquerque, N.M.

March 31: Harold Washington College, Chicago, with police torture victim Darrel Cannon

April 1: Rutgers University Law School, Newark, N.J.

April 9: University of Maryland Law School, Baltimore, Md.

April 14: Georgia State University, with Martina Correia, sister of Troy Davis

April 14: San Jose State University, San Jose, Calif., with Kevin Cooper and Veronica Luna, whose uncle is on California's death row.

April 15: University of Texas-Austin

April 17: Binghamton University, Binghamton, N.Y.

April 18: Left Forum Conference, New York City, with Lawrence Hayes

April 28: Brooklyn College, Brooklyn, N.Y.

The events to date have brought out large crowds--a sign that the brutality of the death penalty and criminal injustice system is sparking activism. The tour kicked off in September 2008 at the Critical Resistance 10 conference in Oakland, Calif., with Barbara Becnel, longtime collaborator with the late Stanley Tookie Williams, as a featured speaker.

Later stops included Howard University in Washington, D.C., where Mumia Abu-Jamal spoke to an audience of 200; the CEDP's national convention in Chicago; and the Social Justice Conference in Binghamton, N.Y.

Highlights from the spring included a stop at the University of California-Berkeley, with Jack Bryson, whose son was brutalized in the police attack that killed Oscar Grant; and one at the Seattle Human Rights Film Festival, where CEDP board member Derrel Myers spoke along with Angola 3 member Robert "King" Wilkerson at a screening of In Prison My Whole Life, a new film about Mumia Abu-Jamal.

At the Harlem meeting, Salaam was joined by Lawrence Hayes, a former Black Panther and exonerated death row prisoner. Both men described the myriad injustices they experienced at the hands of the police, the courts and the media.

In February, 70 people turned out at Pace University in New York to hear Hayes and Salaam. "There is no reason to kill," said Lawrence. "No reason for me to kill, no reason for you to kill, and no reason for the state to kill." John Booth-El from Maryland's death row and Stanley Howard, speaking live, gave powerful testimony about the dehumanization of everyday life on death row.

The following day, Hayes and former Illinois death row prisoner Darby Tillis spoke to a crowd of 200 at Rowan College in Glassboro, N.J. "Death row is a place of horror," Darby told the audience. "It feels like hell, it looks like hell, it is hell." They were joined by Barbara Lewis, whose son Robert is on Delaware's death row.

On March 10, 60 people turned out at Towson University near Baltimore to hear Barbara Becnel and a call-in from Kenny Collins, a former Maryland death row prisoner now serving life without parole.

The recent abolition victory in New Mexico shows that momentum is with us to turn the tide against the death penalty for good. It needs to be ended now, and the "Live from Death Row" tour is part of bringing together the forces that can make that a reality.