How to build our fight

Questions abolitionists should be asking

By: Marlene Martin

Clarence Darrow once argued in a debate about capital punishment that the reason hanging women for witchcraft stopped was because jurors refused to carry out the sentence—even though judges and clergy were urging they be hanged. “[The judges] instructed juries to hang old women for witchcraft, and they refused, and the old women were not hanged—and that was abolished in New England.”

It is worth reflecting on Darrow’s point today. Putting our message out to the public at large remains the best hope for ending the death penalty—not spending endless energy and efforts lobbying lawmakers and politicians. The fact is that politicians vote the way they think will be advantageous to get them elected. If we change public opinion, politicians will be more inclined to introduce abolition legislation.

This is why it is crucial that we build public events in the most creative, outward and (at times) confrontational manner we can, and urge others to join us—as a way of challenging the public’s view of capital punishment.

The Campaign’s fall-spring tour “Witness to an Execution” will do its small part to challenge public perceptions of capital punishment—by bringing out the truth about the sick ritual of death in this country, and how executions are used against the poor and disproportionately people of color.

Like the Journey of Hope tour this coming October, like the Silence Without Shame events, like anti-death penalty films and plays, efforts like ours are part of changing the way the death penalty is viewed, and creating an atmosphere in which the politicians will “hear” our demands.

The civil rights activists who struggled against Jim Crow racism didn’t confine themselves to only speaking out against segregation in restaurants and buses. They challenged economic discrimination against African Americans, and institutional racism in the courts, in housing and in the government.

It may seem like we could gain more support by watering down our anti-death penalty message—maybe by not talking about racism and focusing exclusively on the question of innocence—and then not only Democrats but Republicans might come out in favor of abolition.

But this view is shortsighted. The best weapon we have to fight capital punishment is the ugly reality of what the death penalty is.

We have to challenge the death penalty in all its ugliness. But we should not be afraid to see our fight in the larger context. The fact of the matter is that 3,300 people are locked up on death row, but more than 2 million people are behind bars in this country—the largest of any country, in both proportional and absolute terms.

In a sense, the death penalty is the tip of the iceberg. It is the most brutal and horrific aspect of it. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the rest of the iceberg isn’t significantly better.

A newly released report entitled Confronting Confinement gives a scathing account of conditions in U.S. prisons today. It says, for example, that “people who pose no threat to anyone and also the mentally ill are languishing for months or years in high-security units and Supermax prisons. And in some places, the environment in segregation is so severe that people end up completely isolated, living in what can only be described as torturous conditions.”

Progressive activists both inside and outside prison are trying to change prison conditions, or challenge three strikes laws or New York’s Rockefeller drug laws, or win reinstatement of parole for prisoners with life sentences. These activists are our allies. We need to see that their struggle strengthens ours, and vice versa.

In Illinois, an effort is underway to introduce parole for those serving life sentences (to read more, go to  In an Illinois prisoner newsletter, Stateville Speaks, George Goodman writes, “I am into the 16th year of my natural life sentence…[p]risons too often become a political platform for politicians seeking reelection, a financially motivated industry, and an unnecessary drain on society. Illinois has hung a sign above its courts and prisons which identifies its message loud and clear: ‘Abandon ALL hope, those who enter here!’

“Through the increasing use of long-term sentences, Illinois has created vast warehouses of the hopeless, spiritless walking dead. Now that the population is expanding exponentially, prisons are filled beyond capacity and threatening to burst.”

The issues George raises should not be isolated from our fight. In fact, I believe they need to be part of it.

We cannot focus exclusively on the tip of the iceberg without recognizing that the tip is connected to the larger iceberg. What’s needed is to create a climate that helps to thaw them both—not to see them in isolation from one another.