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Spring Break in the Belly of the Beast

It's easy to pity the Texas death penalty abolitionist. The Lone Star State is widely recognized as the "belly of the beast" when it comes to capital punishment. Since 1982, Texas has executed 405 individuals, more than the rest of the nation combined. Harris County, which includes Houston, would rank second in the nation for executions if it were its own state. Quite simply, no state in the union is more willing to administer lethal injections to the convicted. This would not be possible without broad statewide support for capital punishment, and an accompanying sense of "frontier justice" infused with the specter of Jim Crow.

Organizing against this state killing machine can be grueling -- even devastating. Yet there are reasons to press forward. Take the recent victory in the case of Kenneth Foster, Jr., a man sentenced to death for driving the car occupied by a man named Mauriceo Brown when he shot and killed Michael LaHood, Jr., in 1996. (Yes, sentenced to death for driving a car. Welcome to Texas). We saved Kenneth's life by building a vibrant and well-organized movement that left Gov. Rick Perry with no other choice than to, for the first time in Texas history, grant a commutation on the basis of grass-roots pressure.

Another reason for hope in Texas comes every March in the form of the Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break. Since 2005, high school and college students skip drinking on the beach with their friends to travel to Austin to participate in workshops, lectures and direct actions, all designed to train them to be better advocates for abolishing the death penalty. The annual event was founded by the Texas Moratorium Network and is currently run by Texas Students Against the Death Penalty, with the sponsorship of Campus Progress. Over the years, it has also enlisted the tactical support of legislative aids, lawyers, lobbyists and grassroots activists to help build and run events.

Scott Cobb of the Texas Moratorium Network has compared Spring Break to the Freedom Summers of the Civil Rights era. Like the northern activists who traveled south to fight segregation, Alternative Spring Break participants travel from across the country to ground zero in the death penalty fight, to both learn and contribute to the struggle. The death penalty has been shown time and again to disproportionately impact the poor and ethnic minorities, punish the innocent, and fail to deter crime. As I have told students in the debating workshops I have run in the past couple years, the death penalty is a microcosm of far deeper social problems and should be targeted as such.

Life and death lessons

I first hopped onboard the Alternative Spring Break in 2006. My group, the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP) accompanied the students to Huntsville, Texas, where a man named Tommie Hughes was scheduled for execution. On the bus down to Huntsville, where all Texas executions are carried out, members of the CEDP engaged the students in a debate about the value of vocal and political protest versus the traditional silent vigils that often take place outside the execution chamber. We all eventually agreed to lead the small crowd outside the Huntsville unit in protest chants up until the moment Hughes was to be killed. When the execution started, we would fall silent out of respect.

Across from the "Walls Unit," where executions are carried out, is the "hospitality" building. This is where the families of the condemned and their witnesses spend the day awaiting the 6 p.m. execution. We watched as Tommie Hughes' family left the small building for the much larger facility where they would watch their loved one die. Less than half an hour later, we watched them walk back. Tommie Hughes was dead. Texas had killed another. The students of the 2006 Alternative Spring Break had seen the reality of state killing up close.

The next year, the 2007 Alternative Spring Break coincided with Senate committee hearings on Texas' "Jessica Law," which would extend the death penalty to convicted child sex offenders. A number of high-profile death penalty opponents, including exonerated prisoners Kerry Max Cook and Shujaa Graham, helped out with the Spring Break and testified before the committee. Students also testified. Though Jessica's Law was eventually passed, the opportunity to speak truth to power in such a way, plus a rally downtown that concluded the spring break, were not in vain. The students who participated gained a real lesson in grassroots struggle through losses and victories.

Spring Break 2008: The case of Rodney Reed

This year's spring break took place between March 10 and March 14, coinciding with important developments in a high-profile Texas death row case. Rodney Reed is a black man who has lived on Texas' death row since 1998, convicted of the rape and murder of a white woman named Stacey Stites. Though a semen DNA sample connects Reed to Stites' body, other evidence in the case strongly implicates a former police officer named Jimmy Fennell, who was engaged to Stites at the time of her death. Several witnesses -- none of whom were called to that stand during the trial -- claim that Reed and Stites were having a consensual sexual affair (explaining the semen sample) at the time she was killed. Fennell, who failed two lie detector tests when asked if he strangled his fiancé, is believed by many to have lashed out at Stites in a jealous rage and then framed Reed for the crime.

The CEDP has organized alongside the family of Rodney Reed for years to win a new trial -- and an upcoming hearing before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals may result in just that. Fennell was recently indicted for kidnapping and raping a woman in his custody. The charges have shined new light on the Reed case and bolstered the defense's claim that Fennell is an explosive, misogynistic and potentially violent individual. For all these reasons, the CEDP and the Alternative Spring Break organizers saw fit to build the week's events around Rodney Reed's case.

On March 12, the spring breakers held a "people's tribunal" in front of the Texas State Capitol. A theatrical event that adopted the form of a court hearing -- complete with a "judge" in a gown and a "prisoner" in stripes -- participants took the microphone and spoke out against capital punishment. People talked about racism, the opposition to state killing by murder victims' families, international human rights standards, and the myth of deterrence, as passersby stopped to listen in. We described the conditions and dimensions of a death row prison cell (six-by-seven feet) to show how "cruel and unusual" begins well before the condemned enters the death chamber.

That night, the students, along with several local activists, made signs and banners for a rally in support of Rodney Reed. Starting in front of the Capitol, the March 13 rally included the Spring Break participants and several local activists. After a march downtown, the group returned to the Capitol to speak some final words into the bullhorn and display their signs for passing traffic. "The turnout wasn't the biggest we've ever seen, but it was vibrant and inspiring," said CEDP activist Lily Hughes. Hooman Hedayati, of the CEDP and Texas Students Against the Death Penalty, called the 2008 Spring Break a success. "A group of energetic students came to Austin to learn to be better activists and were able to pull off a direct action for Rodney Reed."

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals hears the Reed case on March 19, after which it may take as long as it pleases to make a decision. Whether Reed wins a new trial or not, one thing remains certain: The struggle will continue. As I write this, the Supreme Court is determining whether Kentucky's method of lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Nationally, more individuals than ever prefer life without parole to the death penalty. We are living in exciting times in the history of American capital punishment. If the students who came to this and previous years' Alternative Spring Breaks left with one lesson, it was hopefully that such change is in no way automatic. Through each loss and victory, a growing number of committed activists do the unglamorous work of attending meetings, making pickets, and fretting about strategic choices. As the students bid goodbye to Austin, one can only hope that they left the belly of the beast with a sense of not only what is possible, but what is necessary to wage an uphill battle against a particularly macabre expression of state power that will not leave the stage of history without a fight.

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