Tuesday, November 29, 2005
But right now, there is something that YOU can do to help New Jersey along. The "Courier Post" is doing an opinion poll on whether or not NJ should abolish the death penalty in their online edition, so everyone go to www.courierpostonline.com/opinion and vote! And check out the results so far. When I looked a little while ago over 50% were voting to abolish! Check it out!
Monday, November 28, 2005
Now I'm always looking for short videos (10-20 minutes) to go along with presentations. A 10 minute video can really help make an hour long talk interesting. We have a few of these, but I like the ABA's call for a moratorium, which does a great job of talking about some of the problems in the legal system. The only issue I have with it is that it is out of date, still calling for the elimination of the death penalty for juveniles and the mentally retarded.
But I'm thinking now, primarily, of films as events. Film screenings where people come to sit back and learn a nd then maybe take part in a discussion, petition signing etc. There are a few terrific documentaries out there, like "Deadline" regarding the Illinois moratorium or "The Empty Chair" that Amnesty International used as a central part of their organizing for the National Weekend of Faith in Action on the Death Penalty. Both are really informative and well done (both are available through working films). But you run into a problem with documentaries (much like any other lecture, talk etc.: It is hard to get people to come!
So what's are solution? People have tried using popular films, "Dead Man Walking" is a favorite of mine, that deal with the death penalty (others that I think have even more limited utility would include "The Life of David Gale" and "The Green Mile") because they have larger drawing power, but how well do they really deal with the death penalty issue? Most popular films and television shows are not directly "anti-death penalty" and may not make our points so much as go for emotionalism. Is exploring the issue in an often cursory, although entertaining, manner enough? What have people found? What kind of films and cultural events go well? Which attract people and which send people away empowered and invigorated? I'll keep you all (or y'all as we say here in Tennessee) updated on my experiments in this regard. We'll be doing a screening of some kind at Vanderbilt in a few months, I may try an episode of "The West Wing" that dealt with the death penalty and see how we do with that.
Wednesday, November 23, 2005
What interested me in particular was not so much the facts that Catholics are moving against the death penalty (not that that is not great news, but we've already been there on this blog) but more so the story of the particular church, which had a mother of a man on death row as a member of their congregation. The parish began offering intentions for this man and eventually for the abolition of the death penalty. Now its members are lobbying the state legislature to end capital punishment.
What really struck me about this was how much the growth of this church mirrored an idea for a program which we hope to launch during the new year called "Circle of Grace: the Living Word on Death Row" This program is a ministry of compassion designed to pair churches of all denominations with individuals on death row. Churches would offer prayers at mass, send small care packages and cards for holidays and birthdays, and recruit members to act as pen pals with their inmate. The program is not one of evangelism, but rather a chance for churches, as communities not individuals, to live the Gospel by providing solace to those most estranged and marginalized from society. And the congregants will have a rare opportunity to truly apply their faith and to really grow in an understanding of the death penalty system. As we learn to stop dividing people into "us" and "them" and see everyone as our sisters and brothers, as the Gospel calls us to, I believe that support for the death penalty can no longer stand. Ideally Circle of Grace can offer comfort to the abandoned and growth and challenge to the comfortable.
As soon as FUSE is up and running, we will be able to begin once again writing to the row to assess interest from the guys there. Then we can begin pairing inmates with churches. Let the church say AMEN!
A short while ago, we sent out our initial letters to the inmates on death row, asking them to provide us with the names of their family members that they thought might be interested. This week, responses have started to come in and today we received three separate letters with contact information for five family members! Needless to say, we are excited here in the office. So as we all sit down for Thanksgiving dinner with our families and loved ones tomorrow, let's take just a moment to remember the families that can't be together and let's all give thanks that their voices may finally be heard.
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
Now supposing that you are a resident of one of these more rural counties and you have become interested in TCASK (and we certainly hope that you have). You may not have an easy organizational structure to allow you to spread your passion of abolition, and it is certainly hard for you to be a TCASK chapter all by yourself. It can also be hard for individuals to fit into the TCASK structure with our committees for outreach, legislation, and fundraising. Obviously, you can't be the representative for your area on all three committees. You'd be overworked like crazy, but if you only are a part of one, your efforts kind of get pigeon-holed and we may never grow in your area like you'd like. What to do?
Well here's a suggestion. Ask yourself, "Who do I know?" Who would be a good fit in one of these committees. Joining a committee, that meets by conference call, can allow new members to become involved quickly, but without putting the burden of organizing an entire region completely on them. It can also allow them to feel connected to both the staff (a representative of which meets with each committee) and other abolitionists around the state. Meanwhile, it allows you to continue as the bulwark of abolition in the area and builds are organizational capacity and structure in your region as well. And we all know someone. Someone who could really offer some good fundraising ideas, or might know a little about local politics and be interested in working on the legislative committee.
So instead of asking ourselves, "How can I organize these big three counties?" ask yourself, "Who do I know?" It might lead you to organizational success faster, and it'll help you keep your peace of mind.
this lil' tennessee dude is of 2 minds about this...
okay, if there is a grassroots clamor to organize around the moment then organizers should assist these activists in making the event strategic within the state...i mean, i think the last thing that the movement needs are loose cannons shooting off all over the place...i mean even as a metaphor, cannons shooting off randomly are likely to scare people...perhaps that' s not what makes sense in some states - perhaps in others it might...might...
so by all means if the people want to act, be creative and direct their motivation in a strategic direction...
but if there's no push from below to make something happen around the event i would think very carefully before seizing upon it just for the sake of doing something...
i mean let's face it - this is a negative event, a real bummer, a low-point, a nadir ... am i making my point???
1000 intentional deaths coordinated and carried out by governments in the name of all her citizens...
in tennessee we will issue a press release that taps into (HEAVILY) the press release from MVFHR ... we think that's strategic in that it's directed at the media per se and not at them as a proxy to carry a/the message to a wider audience...
1000 executions - f_____ing a - that's not right...make sure your response moves your state plan (or community) forward...
that's what i'm talkin' about...that's all i'm sayin'...
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Last night, we were certainly up against our equal. With tornadoes sited in the area and rain pouring down, Amy Staples, the chair of the state board, and I drove to David Lipscomb University to do a panel discussion on the death penalty. Of course when we got there, we found that the theatre was on the second floor of the student building and that everyone had been evacuated to the basement. Nevertheless, we did eventually speak, along with Harmon Wray one of the legends of the abolition community in Tennessee and Professor Lee Camp. We all spoke to approximately thirty or forty students who braved the rather heinous weather to attend.
Our discussions ranged over a number of topics, but one of the main concerns expressed was our focus in America on retributive justice. In a nutshell, if someone steals $20 from me, our system may capture that person and even incarcerate him, but he does not have to give my $20 back. In the same way, in speaking about the death penalty, advocates continually claim that the death penalty is "for the victims' families," yet families are often neglected. Families have begged to not have the murderer executed and the death sentence has still been sought. As the case goes through the appellate process, families are forced to relive their horrible loss again and again.
Restorative justice provides a different model. A restorative justice system would say that is someone steals $20 from me, they should have to work and pay me the $20 back. This is certainly a simplified explanation, but possibilities of such an approach to violence were similarly discussed. A restorative justice response to murder would include, a lengthy prison term with a meaningful work program for a meaningful wage, a large proportion of which would go to restitution for the victim's family (obviously not in a direct manner). In fact, public opinion tends to support such a model. While over 60% of people will say that they approve of the death penalty, less than 40% will still support the death penalty when presented with the alternative of life in prison and restitution to victims' families.
I was surprised and pleased by how thoughtful and prayerful the questions and comments from students following our presentation were. Harmon, who has done hundreds of such forums, said that they were the best that he had ever encountered. The attendees really questioned the way in which our system works, even when we had to start late and there was a tornado outside. Maybe our little discussion was the beginning of a hurricane.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops came out of their semi-annual gathering in Washington D.C. to release a new statement against capital punishment! The statement reaffirmed, in ever-strengthening language, that as a Church which expresses an abiding belief in the sanctity of all human life, we can no longer give our support to a policy which so fundamentally denies the dignity of some lives, and called on Catholics across the country to pray, learn, and act to end the death penalty. The statement also repeated what we know to be true: that the death penalty is applied unfairly along racial and economic lines. The bishops affirmed that, as people of faith and conscience, we must look at all these dimensions of the capital punishment system.
All across America, people of faith are beginning to re-examine their positions on the death penalty. Recently, polls have shown that the majority of catholic now do not support capital punishment. Additionally, those who attend mass at least once a week are more likely to oppose the death penalty than those who do not. More and more, we see a polarization of America into liberal and conservative camps. People who attend church regularly tend to fall into the "conservative" camp and vote overwhelmingly Republican. The death penalty is often labeled as a "liberal" cause, which would make one think that the trends for supporting the death penalty would run along the same lines as they do for voting. Fortunately, these numbers tell us that this is not the case. The death penalty is an issue which is not easily boxed or pigeon-holed. When we are talking about killing a human being, people on all sides of the political spectrum, especially from faith communities find that their consciences and beliefs cannot accept the killing of another human being. We are not liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans. We are Abolitionists who believe that life is sacred, that justice is vital. For once the Catholic Church and I completely agree.
Tuesday, November 15, 2005
I'd especially like to make note of my incredible mentor, Randy, who works himself to the bone, and has done so for many years. Without him TCASK would certainly not be where it is today. If you ever wonder if heroes still exist in today's world, look to Randy.
With humble thanks to all
alex "the jesuit"
I gotta tell y'all, the concept of strategy is not an easy one to grasp; I certainly struggle with it. When we're talking about a political issue campaign, we too often confuse strategy with tactics. When we talk about strategy we want to ask some basic questions:
What do we want? or What is our goal?
Who can give it to us?
With this as a starting point, we assess what resources we have (money, people, information etc.) and then ask what resources we will need in order to achieve our goals or, to put it another way, in order to leverage political power over the person who can give us what we want (aka the target). This may include secondary targets, for example, I need Assemblyperson X to vote for the moratorium bill, but I'm not in his district and he isn't likely to listen to me, however he is a devout Methodist and will listen to the Methodist District Superintendent from his area. The superintendent is then our secondary target, the person that we want to get to ask the target to give us what we want. Very complicated, and this is just the beginning, but, to prevent everyone from abandoning our newly budding blog here, we won't get into too many details here.
There's just one last issue, why haven't I spoken about rallies, petitions, public speaking? Aren't those part of our strategy? Yes and no and here is where I often find myself getting confused. The above are all examples of tactics. A tactic is an action you employ to help you gain political power over your target. It is not that these actions are not strategic necessarily, it is simply that they, in and of themselves, do not constitute Sstrategy. They are a part of our strategic vision but our strategy revolves around the question of our goal, target (and secondary targets) and the messages and messengers needed to develop and deliver those messages.
With all that said, TCASK's current strategic goal is to pass a moratorium and study bill in the next three years. It was wonderful for me to meet all the board (having only started here a few months ago I hadn't had the opportunity previously). We did develop a plan with goals laid out throughout the next three years as to what we need to accomplish and when to succeed in the end. I have great faith. The people we have at TCASK are committed and dedicated and I do believe that we can accomplish great things.
One of the nicest things about strategic planning is allowing us to think big. What a re we going to do? Pass a moratorium and study bill in three years! How are we going to do it? What do we need? We will begin 15 new chapters over the next three years! I think we can do it, but often in organizing we spend a lot of time on tiny details. How will I get so-and-so to the meeting? What are the details of the speaker's visit that we're bringing in? How should the press release be worded? In doing so, we can sometimes miss the forest for the trees. Strategic planning is designed to help us keep our eyes on the prize as it were. Even while working on all the tiny details (and without them we'll never achieve our goal) we keep in mind where we're going and why.
Carry on, all!
Friday, November 11, 2005
if you're checkin' us out you know about the lil' jesuit dude, uh, alex...
i just want you to know how lucky tennessee is to have this new york city boy down here ... i mean really lucky!
this is the first time that tcask ever applied for a jesuit volunteer to work in our office... and i knew nothing about how to identify the person we needed from the pool of possible volunteers ... i mean i've had years of management experience with kinko's and hr experience in offices but this is kinda different, ferreal...
so the jv corps south sent me alex's application and he looks great on paper (almost all of the applicants will) ... and we talked for over an hour - it was more of a talk than an interview really ...
and in the end we both contacted the office and said "yes" to whether or not we'd work together ...
but i'll tell ya, this is a very unique office, issue and environment to work in ... this is in no way shape or form a service delivery agency, it is an organizer's gig ... and alex had interned for assemblyperson benjamin in ny, organized for the afl-cio, been involved with soa watch for years, and organized students for kucinich on his binghamton campus ...
perhaps alex really chose us moreso than i chose him and than god...
or perhaps, and the irony won't be lost on everyone here, it was divine intervention that sent this hard-working, spirited, morally upright human being down here ... not to me (she doesn't have the time to fool around with worrying about me) but to tennessee ...
when you say your prayers tonight in tennessee (or elsewhere) keep young master alex (and his family) in yer heart ... we are blessed ...
peace out - <3
that's good - okay ... so check this out - this office has been all a-titter with activity over the past 2 months, seriously, like never before ... things have been happening so fast that it's a very good thing that we have a strategic sense of things and a vision of what we're doing and why to get to abolition here in tennessee ...
a very good thing indeed ... and what are we doing so much of??? systematic, strategic outreach and relationship building ...
systematic, strategic outreach and relationship building ...
so what's the big whoop about this???
well, most of our legislative partners just don't get it ... god bless their little hearts! alex and i were in a meeting this week with these partners and they are VERY good people, bright, passionate, intensely committed, and very skilled ... But, they have an insider mentality ...
we talked about a lobby day for "justice" that would be, say in march ... and either alex or i shared what we've been doing - targeting the legislative districts of judiciary committee members, writing letters to who we need to work with in the districts to be successful, following up with phone calls, setting meetings and/or presentations, and traveling to these districts to meet people and follow through with the process, face-to-face, inside the district, of grassroots relationship building...
almost as a chorus we were asked, "great! how long will you do that?" ... with the question being 2, 3 months???
alex said, "for the next 3 years we'll be doing that..."
that's what we do - somebody has to do it - somebody has to mobilize constituents, brand new active constituents who have never spoken on this issue before - somebody has to be the outsiders who understand what the insiders do even if they don't get what we do and how it makes their work ON THIS ISSUE possible...
that's all, this is in no way, shape or form a rant ... just thought i'd share with you ... I'm only saying...
FUSE hopes to take some small part in righting this situation. This program, inspired by programs like No Silence No Shame from Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights (MVFHR) will provide a safe space for families to come together, support eachother and speak out. These true victims of the death penalty will be able to move beyond the victimization inflicted on them by society and make their voices heard to their neighbors, the state, and their elected representatives, ending their silence to stop the violence. The initial mailing is going out to death row to ask the inmates to provide contact information for their family members who might be interested. It is an honor for me to be a part of this effort. I believe that these voices are the ones that the people of Tennessee need to hear to understand the truth of capital punishment.
Wednesday, November 09, 2005
Yesterday we had a meeting with a number of organizations who are ready to partner with us to work to pass a moratorium and study bill in the Tennessee General Assembly. We met with members of the Catholic Public Policy Commission, The American Civil Liberties Union, the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness. TCASK has almost no lobbying experience or expertise (we have a tiny staff and concentrate on education, organizing and outreach) so it is a pleasure to be able to cooperate with organizations who have been lobbying on a number of issues for years and have to contacts and knowledge that we can't succeed without.
It's also exciting to see what a broad range of organizations care about capital punishment. From Catholics to mental illness advocates to lawyers, more and more people are seeing the serious injustice in the Tennessee death penalty system.
Of course, in the end, legislators listen to their constituents, and that is why we're generally out there talking to folks all around the state. I've often spoken to legislators who say, even when they agree with us on the issues around the moratorium, that it is just not politically safe in their districts to cast any vote that can be seen as being against the death penalty, even if it is only to make sure that the system is fair and not executing innocent people. So we have to all contact out legislators and tell them that we support the moratorium and study. When they get enough phone calls, emails, letters, and visits they'll start to see that they may even gain support by voting for fairness and equal access to justice.
Tuesday, November 08, 2005
In my first week at TCASK, back in the end of August, Randy and I had set up an outreach program to make contacts in legislative districts that I target at the beginning of every week. And my very first outreach letters went to churches in Giles County. Now, two months later, those letters were finally bearing fruit. In my two and a half day tour I was able to speak to three different church groups, meet separately with four other ministers, and meet with the president and campus minister of Martin Methodist College, and with the publisher and editor of the local newspaper. Additionally, I spent Saturday afternoon walking around downtown Pulaski looking for small businesses that were open and wound up with 6 new moratorium petitions. So it was a great weekend.
There are a few particular highlights that I'd like to share. First of all, I was inspired on Sunday morning by the reception I received at Immaculate Conception. I was asked to address the Confirmation class before mass and then speak to a gathering of about 25 parishioners after mass. The response was overwhelming (see a previous post on speaking to faith communities). This incredible congregation on the spot formed a subcommittee of about a dozen people to work on the death penalty and has already formed concrete plans to pass a moratorium resolution in their parish in a month, so let's all give a shout out to Immaculate Conception. If we could get that kind of energy out of every church, we'd have this death penalty licked in no time. The congregation seems to have just been waiting for someone to come along and ask them to get involved. I'm sure that there are more congregations like this one all over Tennessee that are just waiting for one of us in the abolition movement to come up to them, provide them with inspiration, and ask them to be involved. Every poll done in the last fifty years has found that the South is the most church-going section of America. One of the things that I've noticed in my time here is how much more willing people in Tennessee are to invoke the Bible than people from up North. And all too often we view this Christian culture as an impediment to progressive movements. That is a mistake. The people who describe themselves as religious have an abiding belief in the sanctity of life and in God's power of judgment. They know that Jesus referred to caring for the poor more often than almost anything else. They know that their God is a God of justice, who clearly would oppose the executions of the innocent. It's time that we ask for their help, because we all have an awful lot to learn from one another. At least that's what I learned in meeting after meeting this weekend.
One of the nice parts of the conference for me was getting to meet other Jesuit Volunteers, to my right is Martin Caver ( a JV working with People of Faith against the Death Penalty based in North Carolina) Justin (to my left) is an Episcopal volunteer, but we won't hold it against him : ). He's with PFADP as well. We met a guy who gives ghost tours and explored a "haunted hotel" in our down time before the conference got started. We didn't find any ghosts, but we did get some mints and squishy baseballs. Virginia also has a brethren volunteer. I think the abolition movement is starting to get with the program and get us religious volunteers. You get a full time staffer for about a third or a quarter of what one would regularly cost.
One of the highlights of the conference was a march to the Texas Governor's mansion to demand an end to capital punishment in a state that is basically the capital of our system of death (Texas has executed 351 people since 1982, more than a third of all executions in America). I'm proud to say that TCASK members played a part in the March, and I'm even prouder to see that TCASK members were out in front on the issue of mental illness. The facts surrounding executing the mentally ill are pretty disturbing. 25% of inmates on America's death rows suffer from severe mental illness. In Tennessee, we are facing a hard execution date for Gregory Thompson, a severely mentally ill man, who has been awaiting death for twenty years for a crime that he committed during a schizophrenic hallucination. More and more people are coming to realize that our society, instead of treating the mentally ill, is increasing turning to incarceration. Above you can see TCASK members Ginger Eades, Stacy Rector, and Amy Staples on the steps of the Governor's mansion.
Of course it wasn't all fun and protesting! There were plenty of serious workshops, plenary sessions and informational literature. Maybe just as important were the opportunities to meet, network, and learn from other people doing this work around the country. Below you see a serious work of my building strategic relationships with Equal Justice USA.
It was a great conference. It resulted in this blog, 10 Tennesseans coming away inspired, and one happy Jesuit Volunteer. Onward to Abolition!
Monday, November 07, 2005
we've been stuck on 93 in tennessee for some time ... because we've not been on the road, because chapters haven't recruited a resolution team, because inertia is a formidable challenge...
but that's history ... in memphis on wednesday we obtained 4 resolutions and in giles county over the weekend we gathered 6 more ... that's 10 in 5 short days ... all because we were out organizing ... now we're over 100 and we're snipping at the tail of ohio
so travel works - get out of your office, get out of your home, get out of your classroom and go where the people are...
"Does anyone know what the fifth commandment says?"
as people glance around nervously and the minister/ deacon looks about knowingly, I give a little hint, "It's the first of the 'thou shalt not' commandments."
Fairly shortly, a member of the audience comes up with "Thou shalt not kill."
"Is that what everyone thinks? Is that what the commandment says?"
Heads slowly nod.
"You probably expect that I began with this because I'm going to tell you that right there, in His initial statement of law, God tells us that all killing is wrong. I believe that, but the problem is, that that isn't what the commandment says. Literally translated, it reads, 'thou shalt not murder' and I don't want to start off on false theological footing. The ten commandments don't forbid killing, they forbid murder."
Some heads nod in agreement, some people smile, happy to know that they are not about to receive a moral lecture.
"Does anyone know what the official cause of death is when a person is executed?"
Heads shake all around the room. This is hardly common knowledge, certainly not in church groups in rural Tennessee.
"It reads homicide. Murder."
I wish that I had a picture of the faces of people when they hear this fact. There is shock, there is a little disbelief (though mostly with the state and not with me). I think people feel that they've been lied to and suddenly they are really ready to listen and to hear. The fact that the state itself admits that what we are doing is murdering someone strikes right to the moral center of people. Even when we are prepared to execute a person, I think we are not ready to look at the ugly truth of it. It's why we paralyze a person with the first injection before pumping the poison into them. Seeing people's reaction to this fact reminds me that the vast majority of us, even those who "support" capital punishment, are shocked by violence and particularly by the act of killing. It's that understanding that makes me believe that eventually the death penalty will be abolished.