By Rev. John Dear
On Tuesday, Jan. 17th, 18 of us climbed the steps of the US Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. to protest the death penalty. We unfurled a huge thirty-foot long banner that read “Stop Executions!” We also dropped dozens of red and yellow roses all over the steps (representing all the executed and their victims). Hundreds of supporters watched and sang as the police arrested us. It was beautiful.
Our nonviolent direct action marked the 40th anniversary of the modern death penalty era. Organized by the Abolitionist Action Committee, our number included leaders and ministers from Black Lives Matters, Sojourners and Red Letter Christians, as well as the anti-death penalty leaders, including members of “Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation,” people whose loved ones were killed but are against the death penalty.
One was Sam Sheppard, whose father was wrongly convicted of killing his mother, who spent ten years in prison before being freed (you might know his story from the TV show and Hollywood movies, “The Fugitive.”)
We were remembering January 17, 1977, the day the State of Utah shot to death Gary Gilmore, who “volunteered” to be killed in revenge for his murder of Ben Bushnell and Max Jenson. This state-assisted suicide was the first execution after the Supreme Court’s 1976 decision to uphold the death penalty. Since then, there have been 1442 more executions. Make that 1443. The day after our protest, Virginia executed Ricky Gray. Nearly 3,000 prisoners are currently on death rows in 31 states.
Another friend arrested was Randy Gardner, whose brother was executed in Utah, like Gilmore, by firing squad. “My Brother Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed in 2010 by the same state and by the same method as Gilmore,” Gardner stated. “I believed then, and I still believe now, that the death penalty is morally wrong. I never condoned what my brother did, but when the state executes someone, they create yet another family that is damaged and grieving. We don’t have to kill to be safe from dangerous criminals and hold them accountable. It is time to abolish the death penalty.”
At the center of our group was one of the sweetest and bravest people I’ve ever met—Derrick Jamison—who spent twenty years on death row, came close to being executed six times, and 11 years ago was released after DNA proved he was completely innocent. He was arrested with us!
Though our witness was beautiful, we paid for it dearly. The police put the cuffs on as tight as possible, and we heard the commander say, “Put them through the system.” For me, the officer pulled my right hand back and pinched the nerve on my thumb deliberately; I was sure he was going to break my hand. We thought another friend did have his hand and shoulder broken, so he was hospitalized. We were chained by the ankles, waists and behind our backs most of the time, and it was very painful. During our two horrific days in chains and jail, we had very little water, and for me, two pieces of wonder bread.
On Tuesday night, we were put into very tiny cells with steel metal to lie on and bright lights on us. Welcome to D.C. Central Cellblock, a place I know well. Once you lay down, you were covered in cockroaches. Not one person in the group slept and we each went through an unexpected, terrible ordeal. (Several of us, for example, were nauseous the entire time.)
On Wednesday, we were moved into the main cells of D.C. Superior Court, all chained together—ankles, waists, and wrists–and there met hundreds of guys awaiting court. We were arraigned at 5 p.m. on Wednesday night, pled not guilty, and face sixty days in prison and a $5000 fine.
Ours was the largest act of civil disobedience against the death penalty in modern history. The government is clearly going after us for daring such a public spectacle at the Supreme Court. We have a hearing in late February, but instead of backing down, we will work to put the death penalty on trial sometime in the Spring.
As we go forward into this new administration, we keep on resisting every form of violence, come what may, including the death penalty, racism, police brutality, mass incarceration, poverty, corporate greed, war, nuclear weapons and environmental destruction. We go forward in a spirit of nonviolence in pursuit of a new culture of justice and nonviolence. And so, the struggle continues!