Opposing the Death Penalty

Making Change: Activism Under Obama

Our series of columns devoted to nonviolent activism under the Obama administration continues. Has change come to the White House, or is there merely a new face on the same old policies?

For anti-death penalty activists, the election of Barack Obama represented an unprecedented opportunity. It was a candidacy built on the victories of the civil rights movement while also inspiring a new generation of Americans to become politicized for the first time. As activists, we hoped to harness the grassroots fervor that fueled his campaign toward a broader movement for change. We also hoped that, by opening the door to public discussions about race that seemed unthinkable in previous years, perhaps the racist underpinnings of the death penalty—a legacy of lynching—would crystallize.

Months after his inauguration, for a Black man to occupy the White House (built by slaves) remains a powerful symbol of progress. But we have yet to see how this will manifest itself in the everyday lives of people in this country. Likewise, for the anti-death penalty movement, it’s difficult to measure how much Obama’s presidency will change our work.

Among members of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP), a national grassroots organization, some see change already. Lily Hughes, a longtime activist in Texas, where memories of George W. Bush’s sick enthusiasm for executions are all too fresh, says that the election “has raised the hopes and expectations of activists across progressive movements.”

“The death penalty is no different, and I think we have seen more of a general interest in the issue,” she says. Although it “remains to be seen whether our movement will see a shift in terms of numbers,” Hughes says, “even here in Texas, I have felt a renewed spirit from folks about what’s possible in this era.”

Lee Wengraf, a board member of the CEDP based in New York, agrees that the Obama era “is a better moment for activists.”

“There’s a sense of hopefulness that didn’t exist before,” she says. Obama’s election “changes the dynamic of what people understand is possible in terms of racial justice.”

“What’s challenging is that a lot of this hasn’t fully been expressed in terms of people’s actions on the ground.”

Let’s be clear: Barack Obama is no abolitionist. Although he touted his role in “reforming” Illinois’ rotten death penalty system as a state senator, he has long asserted his belief that the death penalty is an appropriate means for a community to express the “full measure of its outrage” over a heinous crime. More recently, his position has become more radical. After securing the Democratic nomination last year, he delivered a public statement condemning the Supreme Court’s decision in Kennedy v. Louisiana, which deemed it unconstitutional to impose the death penalty in cases of child rape. This stance aligned him with the most pro-death penalty judges on the bench.

Then there’s Obama’s unwillingness—some would say inability—to make stronger statements about the criminal justice system in general, particularly where it intersects with race. “What happened with Henry Louis Gates was very telling,” says Wengraf. “By retreating on his criticism of the Cambridge police, he missed an opportunity to underscore how severe the problems of racial profiling and [the] criminal justice system [are] in this country. That affects us as activists, because it closes a door in terms of what is part of the public discourse.”

Stanley Howard is a former death row prisoner who was tortured into falsely confessing to a crime by police on the South Side of Chicago in 1986. (One year earlier, Obama had moved to the same neighborhood to work as a community organizer.) Howard was instrumental in organizing other victims of police torture who landed on death row and connecting them to activists on the outside. He himself was pardoned by Gov. George Ryan in 2003, but he remains in prison on unrelated charges.

Asked if anti-death penalty organizing will be any different now that Obama is in office, Howard laughs. “The short answer is ‘hell no.’”

Howard argues that Obama is not an ally in the fight to end the death penalty. “If he was serious about reforming, he would do away with the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act,” he says. He puts his faith in the activists who have fought for years alongside him and other death row prisoners.

“We’ve got to keep trying, because the fight is not over,” Howard says. “People are being executed all the time. We hear about the high-profile cases, but there are so many more.”

Martina Correia echoes this. “I don’t think Obama has made things any different,” she says. “He supports the death penalty.” Correia is the sister of Troy Anthony Davis, a death row prisoner in Georgia who has come close to being executed three times despite overwhelming proof of his innocence. Through Correia’s tireless work with Amnesty International, as well as groups like the CEDP, the case has sparked a global rallying cry against the death penalty.

Correia was recently in New York for the 100th anniversary of the NAACP, which Obama attended, where the organization embraced the Troy Davis case as a top initiative. This, say Wengraf and Hughes, marks a crucial shift. “Bigger groups are starting to speak out and build around this issue in ways we haven’t seen in years,” says Hughes. Some of these groups have access to powerful people, who could prove to be important allies down the line. But for Correia, it is the forming of a broader coalition against the death penalty that is most significant.

“As a collective voice,” she says, “we have way more power than these people that we put into office.”