On the morning of January 17, 2002, myself and six other death penalty abolitionists unfurled a thirty-foot banner at the top of the Supreme Court steps in Washington, DC that read: "STOP EXECUTIONS!" Within 30 seconds of the unannounced action, United States Capital Police surrounded us and stripped us of the banner, which, by law, is illegal to display on the grounds of the Supreme Court.
Apparently, there are places in this country where free speech does not exist. And apparently there are places in this world where governments premeditatedly plan and execute a prisoner's death. The Supreme Court is a symbol of one of those places.
January 17th marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of when Gary Gilmore was executed in Utah for the murder of Ben Bushnell and Max Jenson. Gilmore had "volunteered" to be executed (by means of a firing squad) in 1977 and became the first executed US prisoner since the Supreme Court had reinstated the death penalty in the 1976 Gregg v. Georgia ruling.
A group of activists associated with the Abolition Action Committee decided to use this anniversary as an opportunity to make our abolitionist message heard and seen at the Supreme Court. The Abolition Action Committee is an ad-hoc group of individuals committed to highly visible and effective public education for alternatives to the death penalty through nonviolent direct action.
Five years ago on the twentith anniversary of Gilmore's execution, a similar action was conducted at the Court with an identical banner. For me, there was no question as to whether or not I would be present in 2002 to hold the banner proclaiming the message "Stop Executions!"
At 25 years of age, practically my whole life this country has been executing people. I can no longer sit by passively as the machine of death ignores the morality of unconditional love, forgiveness, and compassion while violating our fundamental rights as human beings.
While I do not particularly desire to be handcuffed, held against my will, chained to a wall, deprived of food, water sunlight, and fresh air for an indefinite amount of time, I feel that it is what I must do because I have a voice.
If the government of the United States is going to continue killing off prisoners one by one while more than half of the other countires in this world have abandoned the practice, then it is my duty to act.
If the governement of the United States is going to kill people in my name, as they did on January 16 with the 752th exeuction, then it is my duty to act.
And if the government of the United States is going to force a violent ideology upon me by exterminating other human beings in death chambers, hidden behind walls and wire fences, then it is my duty to act.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims that the death penalty is wrong, violating the fundamental right to life. The Unitarian Universalist principles affirm the worth, dignity and human rights of every person, and the interdependence of all life. And in my religious and political understanding "every person" does not mean "except murderers" or "except terrorists." It means what it says.
If our leaders, and our citizens, choose death over life, then I must raise my voice and say, "No more!" No more executions. No more violence. No more killing. And no more victims. Anywhere.
And on January 17th, the seven of us did just that. We took a stand, publically, and with such directness that we were arrested, and kept for 32 hours under that watch of the justice system.
The hours that unfolded after arrest shed a light on exactly why we cannot trust a system to provide true, unfaliable justice to all people, equally. From our initial arrest on the steps of the Court, it took eight hours to process seven people. It was utterly astounding to watch as officer after officer struggled to fill out the correct paperwork, correctly. Sometimes it took three attempts to get it right.
The processing system was far from an organized procedure - embarassingly slow and riddled with errors. For the most part, it was completely arbritrary. Some officers would ask some of us certain questions, but not ask the others. They forgot to read me my rights till about 3 hours after arrest. They failed to ask me several critical processing questions, but didn't forget to ask the arrestee sitting right next to me.
And this is part of this our justice system? The frightening thing was realizing this is the same system that is involved in the life and death decision of capital punishment. The rookie officer who had no clue how to fill out my paperwork that day is no different than the public defender who has never tried a capital case in his or her life. The difference: an error with my case will not result in much harm. An error in a capital case could cost an innocent person his or her life.
This is a system I cannot accept. Human error and arbitrary decisions have no place in a system that decides the fate of a human being. This is why the system of capital punishment must be abolished. This is why I choose to put myself at the risk of arrest for my beleifs, as well as my hopes and ideals for a peaceful, reconciled world.
The action of civil disobedience is a powerful tool for social change. Is it such a radical notion that although I am one (or we are few) there is great ability to make a difference in the world? By faith through action and perseverance we can move mountians. And together in our struggle, like a tree that is planted by water, we shall not be moved.
Scott Langley is a former staff-person with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and currently is a community resident of Boston's Catholic Worker House. Scott also serves as an anti-death penalty coordinator for a local Amnesty International USA chapter in the Boston area.
(NOTE: Pleading not guilty after arrest, the "Supreme Court 7" will stand trial in DC on June 27 for violating laws prohibiting assembling on the court grounds and displaying a banner. They are currently banned from being within one city block of the US Supreme Court pending the outcome of the trial.)Back to Action Home Page