Organizing the fight against executions

November 23, 2009

CHICAGO--Historian and activist Howard Zinn spoke to a packed audience of 900 people November 7 about the power of ordinary people in changing the course of history, in a keynote speech for the Campaign to End the Death Penalty's (CEDP) national convention.

Zinn was joined onstage at Mandel Hall at the University of Chicago by activist and sportswriter Dave Zirin for a conversation on a range of social justice issues extending beyond abolition of capital punishment. Zinn urged the audience to take action against injustice everywhere. "If you join a fight for social justice," he said, "you may win or you may lose, but just by being a part of the struggle, you win, and your life will be better for it."

The dialogue between Zinn and Zirin followed brief speeches from an inspiring group of people at the forefront of the struggle against the death penalty, including exonerated prisoners and family members of those on death row. "People who often feel tiny and unnoticed and passed over felt like heroes," Marlene Martin, national director of the CEDP, said. "Sandra Reed, the mother of Texas death row prisoner Rodney Reed, works as a janitor at a high school. On that stage, she was recognized and honored as a fighter."

Other speakers included Martina Correia, sister of Georgia death row prisoner Troy Davis; Lawrence Hayes, who was wrongfully sent to death row for the murder of a police officer when he was a member of the Black Panther Party in 1971; and Martin Reeves, recently freed after 21 years wrongfully incarcerated in Illinois prisons. As Reeves approached the podium, 900 people rose in recognition of his plight and endurance, in an emotional display of solidarity.

"Zinn and Zirin resonated hugely with the audience, who were on the edge of their seats during the event, and who lined up in droves to meet the speakers afterward," said Lee Wengraf, a member of the CEDP who helped organize the event. "It was an amazing way to make connections between the fight for abolition and a broader struggle for social change."

As Zinn said of the event afterward, "It was an enormously moving experience, full of emotion and comradely love. It was not an ordinary political meeting, because it was suffused with passion, undoubtedly because we were in the presence of people who had suffered so much but now were here free, triumphant and part of the movement that helped them to freedom."

The forum with Zinn and Zirin capped the convention of the Campaign, which drew nearly 100 opponents of the death penalty. Plenary sessions featured several men who were recently freed from prison after long struggles--Ronnie Kitchen and Marvin Reeves, who were victims of torture by Chicago police interrogators; Michael Scott, who was finally exonerated and freed in Texas; and Mark Clements, who was wrongly convicted at age 16 and given a life without parole sentence as a juvenile.

They were joined by other activists organizing around criminal justice issues. Jack Bryson, the father of two youth who were with Oscar Grant III the night he was killed by a transit police officer in Oakland, Calf., choked back tears after hearing from the previous speakers, and talked about what it was like to visit prisoner Kevin Cooper on death row in San Quentin.

Workshops covered topics ranging from how police coerce confessions from innocent people to hands-on sessions about how to use the media and how to build more effectively at the grassroots. The convention ended with delegates voting for several national initiatives, including an emphasis in the coming year on the cases of Troy Davis in Georgia and Mumia Abu-Jamal in Pennsylvania; a campaign to expose the scandals of the Texas death machine; and a national speaking tour on the topic of "Lynching Then, Lynching Now."

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