Lessons from the struggle

Fighting to stop the death penalty in New York

On April 12, New York abolitionists celebrated a victory in keeping the death penalty out of New York. A committee of the State Assembly voted 11 to 7 against considering legislation to bring back the death penalty.This means that it is unlikely that any other death penalty laws will be considered in this legislative term–so New York will remain a death-penalty free zone! What led up to this victory and how the Campaign pushed to keep the “grassroots” in the middle of this fight is explained by DELPHINE SELLES, who is active with the CEDP in New York.

In June 2004, the New York Court of Appeals ruled the death penalty unconstitutional. Although it was struck down on a technicality, and only seven people were sitting on death row, this decision unleashed an important battle in New York.

The death penalty was a centerpiece of Gov. George Patakifs 1994 election campaign: he brought it back as soon as he got elected. After it was struck down, Pataki–along with Democrat Sheldon Silver, the State Assembly speaker–promised to fix the law quickly. A redrafted law passed the state Senate last August, but got stuck in the Assembly. Democrats, who hold the majority, were split, and Silver, a staunch death penalty supporter, began to feel the heat, concluding that a debate was necessary.

Anti-death penalty activists, including the Campaign, lost no time in mobilizing our small forces. We convinced the major anti-death penalty group, New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty, to join us at a press conference on City Hall steps in July, which featured exonerated Pennsylvania death row inmate Nick Yarris, a representative of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), famed attorney Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, and local elected officials.

When Sheldon Silver announced public hearings to take place in December, our Harlem/City College and Columbia University chapters went all out mobilizing for them, with publicity blitzes and outreach to other campus clubs and citywide organizations.

Although this was an “official” political forum, we decided to spread the word as widely as possible to former prisoners, grassroots groups and individuals. The Columbia chapter wrote a newspaper editorial. We did class raps and tablings on why the death penalty is racist, as well as the insane expenditure of $170 million in New York state to prosecute it.

As liberal groups turned to a legislative and lobbying-oriented campaign, we argued to form a coalition with open decision-making and a coordinated approach. This coalition included New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty, NYCLU, Equal Justice and Amnesty International. Andrew Cuomo (a Democratic politician whose father was New York governor before Pataki, and who himself served as Bill Clintonfs Secretary of Housing and Urban Development) was able to pull in high-profile names such as rap mogul Russell Simmons and the presidents of the transit workers and 1199 health care workers unions.

There was some hesitancy in the coalition toward making the hearings a real public forum packed with activists. In addition, many were not sure that the issue of racism and poverty should be at the forefront of the hearings, or even that exonerated death row inmates should be given center stage.

The initial list put forward to testify at the hearings reflected this. An overwhelming number were from the religious community. We argued in the coalition that the voices of the exonerated and family members should be the centerpiece of the testifying, and put forward exonerated death row prisoners to be on the list. One of them, Darby Tillis, was not invited by the coalition specifically because, some said, he would be “too angry.”

Our chapters went into high gear to make sure that people who were most affected by the death penalty got a chance to testify, and to make sure that the issue of racism was front and center. Chapter members scraped together money to bring in Shujaa and Madison and pushed hard to get them on the witness list.

We continued to work with the coalition building the hearings, but organized our own press conference to take place the morning of the hearings, with Rockefeller Drug Law survivor Elaine Bartlett and Yusef Salaam, who was wrongfully convicted in the Central Park jogger case.

In other words, we pushed through with our overall goal of having those most central to the struggle–the forces we felt most accountable to–at the center of this dry, legislative event.

Everything we fought for in the coalition was vindicated at the hearings. The press conference was a huge success and attracted a lot of media. Our posters, chanting and banners helped set the tone for the day, giving a sense of urgency to the hearings. With large, multiracial contingents of union members in the audience, Shujaa, Madison and Juan Menendez (out of about 40 speakers, they were the only exonerated prisoners), brought the house down. These hearings would not have come close to looking the way they did without them.

In the hearing room, the presence of hundreds of mostly anti-death penalty people sent a clear message that both the press and the politicians were compelled to acknowledge. Many people wore anti-death penalty stickers and buttons, and CEDPers took up several rows, complete with signs.

For round two in late January, we were asked to MC a second press conference, where Cuomo announced an online petition that highlights Simmons and Local 1199–as well as CEDP–as partners.

Following the hearings, we organized a petition drive that collected more than 1,500 signatures from various neighborhood and college campus petitionings. On the day of the April 12 committee vote, CEDP members delivered the signatures to Assembly Speaker Silver at his downtown Manhattan office.

Activism and pressure continue to be essential to make sure that the death penalty stays off the books. And in keeping the death penalty out of New York, we have helped fuel the slow-simmering opposition to capital punishment around the country.

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