Received a call from the past a few days ago ...
It was from UU minister, Rev. Paul Sawyer, formerly of the Berkeley Fellowship of UUs and the Onion in Pasadena. He was calling to say that on Monday, January 17th and the birthday of Dr. King, a group of stalwarts from around the state will gather near the gate at San Quentin to protest yet another execution and to demand a moratorium on the death penalty. Eldred, formerly the leading advocate has passed on now, and it's up to others to carry on in his name and that of Dr. Martin Luther King. "Will you join us?" How can I not?
On Sunday my friend and I participated in a gathering of vintage car owners in Mountain View at the NASA-AMES Space Museum. Later we sat in a diner in Hillsdale where I would meet my first giant apple-popover and a cup of tea. During the conversation I mentioned the demonstration coming up and in the process found myself assuring him that I did not plan to get myself arrested for civil disobedience activities but that might be beyond my control. We'd never talked about such things, but I was surely aware that our politics were in synch and that he would hardly be surprised. Didn't ask that he join me, but might have easily done so if I didn't firmly believe that these are individual commitments and needn't be imposed on others, nor did they need any friendly validation.
He mentioned in passing that -- given the state of the world at the moment -- little attention would be paid to such activities, worthy though they might be. I agreed. What with wars and "rumors of wars" and tsunamis and mudslides, etc., a few hardy souls gathered at the gates of San Quentin would hardly be noticeable. Quite true.
Have been thinking about that over the past hours -- wondering why I must do this. Being with Paul and the others, activists who have held this vigil at every execution since the moratorium was lifted in this state in the early nineties is a must do. They travel from far and wide to meet in the yard near the gates. I've only participated in one such, and it was a frightening experience. It was held on a dark moonless night with police helicopter flying overhead to overwhelm the bullhorns of the crowd that had gathered in a vigil.
I was further disturbed by the presence of the death penalty supporters who wielded signs proclaiming that support and spewing hatred for those of us who were surely not claiming support for the man strapped on that table in the prison, but wanting to plead for some sanity to prevail so that another life would not be taken for whatever reason. The subtly of our differences went unnoticed by those screaming for vengeance in the name of the families of the victims. It is all so wildly confusing!
I was at the time working with the state and saw the need to have this experience after receiving a letter from a constituent describing the abuses suffered by the demonstrators at the hands of prison staff during just such a demonstration. I needed to respond to him in the name of the Assemblymember I represented. I also wanted to know what it was like to actually be present at the time of a state execution. I was surely opposed to having any life taken in my name, but to that point it was hypothetical, only, and I needed to feel the feelings and know that pain for myself.
The issue had become more than academic since I'd visited with a death row prisoner, Stanley Williams, with Ms. Winnie Mandela, Barbara Cottman Becnel (of the film, "Redemption") some time before and been shaken by the experience. I'd been exposed to a man who, though convicted of 1st degree murder, had now spent over 25 years on Death Row -- 7 of those years spent in solitary confinement. That many years totally alone had been a transformative experience and I am certain that the man scheduled to die by lethal injection was not the man who had -- as an enraged young man -- been someone else. It was eerie. This was the same experience that had shaped Nelson Mandela at Robyn Island -- into the remarkable human being he would become as president of South Africa in later life. Meeting this quiet and unassuming Stanley Williams was one of the most disturbing experiences of my life to that time. I'll never forget him. It's also true that all of his appeals have now run out and that there is only one other execution scheduled between the one occurring next week, and his own. I'm not sure how it will feel to still have the memory of a warm and friendly embrace as I was leaving the prison community room -- from a death row inmate who will soon die to make the world safer for me... .
I'm sure that whether or not the world is paying attention, I will join the others simply because of the need to bear witness. Being there has less to do with changing others. Whether or not anyone notices that we're there, we will have changed ourselves. That change may be all I need to enable me to confront the issue with whatever leadership figures I meet in more effective ways. It may mean that -- sometime in the distant future -- I will have become a part of the critical mass that it will to take change this crime against humanity.
It makes no sense to kill people to prove that it is wrong to kill people!
One day someone with the power to change it will really hear that and say, "of course."
(Check out "Tookie's Corner" for the web site of Stanley "Tookie" Williams, Death Row inmate twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.)