Highlights of the struggle

New York

By: Ben Davis

The Campaign to End the Death Penalty has been busy in New York this summer. With school out, members of the recently formed Hunter College chapter joined forces with the Harlem chapter to build struggle against the death penalty.

At the beginning of the summer, Campaigners organized a performance of Death Row Blues, a one-man show by exonerated Illinois death row prisoner Darby Tillis, on July 1 at Hunter College. Ever since he was freed, Darby has been telling the story of his courageous fight against the criminal injustice system. With his one-man show, he has a new tool in his battle: song.  

Dressed in an orange jumpsuit and with a solitary cot as a prop, Darby stalked the stage, alternating heart-rending monologues with blues and gospel-tinged songs. His words gave account of the crushing experience of a death row inmate, coming to terms with being railroaded by racist courts, facing the prospect of his own murder by the state, and finding religion behind bars. At each step of the way, Darby brought the audience into his struggle using his lyrics, a mean tune on the harmonica and the expert support of guitarist Davy DeLaFuente.

Hearing the audience clap along with the music was enough to prove that Darby has found a powerful weapon, using creativity to push against the dehumanization of all prisoners. During a question-and-answer session after the show, Darby was asked whether he was afraid that the government would try to silence him. “They can kill me,” he replied, “but they’ll never silence me.”

In Harlem, the Campaign organized a Day of Action for Rohammad Menzies on July 31. Rohammad, who has spent 15 years in a Virginia jail, faces life plus 56 years for a robbery that he did not commit. We worked with Rohammad’s sister, Tarita Menzies, to expose that a coerced confession, systematic racism and vicious sentencing practices were responsible for Rohammad’s conviction.

On our Day of Action, Campaign members took to the street in Harlem with fliers, pictures of Rohammad and facts about his case, urging people to call the Virginia Parole Board seeking justice for Rohammad. We wanted people to see Rohammad’s face and to hear his story.

This fall, we have plans to host the “Witness to an Execution” tour here in New York and to keep building our struggle to expose what’s wrong with the death penalty and the criminal justice system.