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“Raise Our Voice Until the Injustice Stops” – Reflections of Fast and Vigil

On June 28th, three of IJPC’s interns headed to Washington DC to take part in the 25th Starvin’ for Justice Fast and Vigil for abolition of the death penalty. While they sent updates which we shared on our our Facebook page, we wanted to give each of these young adults a platform for a longer reflection after they finished their experience. 

Jen, Donald, and Lauren on the First Night

From Donald: 

Taking part in the 25th Annual Fast & Vigil to Abolish the Death Penalty allowed me to see the impact that public witness can have. The individuals that started the Fast & Vigil, Bill Pelke and Marietta Jaeger-Lane, founded the organization Journey of Hope that works with individuals who have been affected by the death penalty and works to help them heal from their experiences of extreme violence. The Journey of Hope board has its annual meeting at the annual Fast & Vigil. Consistently throughout the weekend, Bill, Marietta, and the rest of the board members stressed the importance of involving younger members in the abolition movement.  Sitting outside the Supreme Court for four days straight and spending that time passing out information on why our group opposes the death penalty allowed the group to engage both individuals who were passionately pro-death penalty and passionately anti-death penalty. Our public witness gave those who are passionate about ending the death penalty connections to organizations leading the abolition movement that they may not have been connected to if we were not engaging them as they passed by. My experience at the Fast & Vigil allowed me to recognize how our public witness engaged more individuals in the cause and helped work towards the goal of involving younger individuals in the movement.

To pair with the learning about the effects of public witness, the experience also furthered my learning of issues surrounding the death penalty. The stories that were told and the experiences shared with me throughout the weekend gave me stories from many different perspectives- those who have been wrongfully put on death row, juror who have put people on death row, executioners, murder victim families, and families of those on death row. Hearing firsthand experiences with the death penalty, I realized how much the system attempts to hide the humanity of all involved in the process.

The account that made this most clear was from a victim named Dina whose perpetrator was put on death row. Dina spoke of her experience at her offender’s clemency hearing. Knowing that she was at the hearing to ask they give the offender clemency, the guards at the prison disrespected Dina and made things more difficult for her, with her specific example being guards making her change her clothes despite other females on the appeal board being dressed much more revealing than her. During the clemency hearing, Dina told the appeal board that putting this man to death would make the healing process more difficult for her. Of the six people on the appeal board, she said two members of the appeal board asked follow up questions and tried to understand why the death penalty would interfere with her healing, while the others remained silent and avoided looking at her. When she found out her offender would be put to death on a 4-to-2 vote, she knew who the two were that voted for clemency. She said the two that accepted her humanity and saw the pain that they caused her voted for clemency, while the others avoided her so that they could easily ignore her humanity and suffering. Dina’s account gave me a concrete example of how the system attempts to silence and hide those that voice opposition to the death penalty.

The individuals at the Fast & Vigil that have been involved with anti-death penalty work for many years emphasized the importance of using stories when speaking out against the death penalty. If you are unable to attend large protests or public actions aimed at ending the death penalty, get involved by educating yourself on stories from those personally impacted by the death penalty. Having these stories to use when speaking out against the death penalty will give you an ability to emphasize the humanity of those affected by the death penalty that society often ignores.” 

From Jen: 

Donald and Jen during the day, talking with visitors

The death penalty, on moral and logistical grounds, needs to be abolished in the United States and around the world.  That’s why I spent 4 days in front of the National Supreme Court building in D.C. to stand public witness to the truth of the death penalty.  Holding banners, handing out pamphlets, and telling stories made an impact on the people just walking by. I recall the educational conversations I have had with people from all over the country and all over the world.  Even if people did not stop to talk, I overheard the people walk by and talk about what we were doing. Statements like “I think that the death penalty shouldn’t be used because…” or “The death penalty should only be used…” were common.  I remember one man who walked by our banner and exclaimed “I didn’t know we still had the death penalty!” I was happy to explain to him that the death penalty is actively used, and gave him more information to read. Statements like these are why public witness like this is important.  Making people aware of the issue of the death penalty is one step away from getting people to question it, which is one step away from getting people to acknowledge that it needs to be abolished and steps later, the abolition movement is set to grow.

Besides talking to the public, I also spoke with the abolitionists who were standing vigil alongside me.  From hearing them speak, I was surprised to learn that the abolitionist movement was a more personal movement than I thought.  The evening teach-in sessions included speakers who were either family members of murder victims, family members of people on death row or death row exonerees.  These were people who dedicate their lives to the abolition movement because of their experience. They have come to this vigil for years past, are still coming, and will continue to come and stand vigil until the death penalty is finally gone.  It was amazing to meet so many people whom the death penalty personally affected, and I know I have been changed by hearing their stories.

I am grateful to have been part of this national action against the death penalty.  After my year with IJPC learning about the death penalty and education others on the death penalty, action was necessary for me.  During the fast and vigil, I thought of the people on Ohio’s death row, the next person to be executed, Robert Van Hook, and countless others who are hurt by this inhumane practice.  In the future I will continue to take actions locally to work to abolish the death penalty and I encourage others to do so as well. Calling Governor Kasich to stop executions in Ohio, especially upcoming executions, can do so much, as well as encouraging state senators and representatives to pass legislation which addresses issues such as removing the death sentence for those with serious mental illness.  I hope that this movement against the death penalty continues and that as a nation, we can raise our voice until the injustice stops.”

From Lauren: 

Lauren and Jen breaking their fast

“The community I found at Starvin’ for Justice was something that has stuck with me even 10 days after my experience there. That has given me a great deal of hope for the abolition movement. I had the opportunity to have intentional conversations with nearly everyone that participated in the fast and vigil, and each person had a unique motivation for being there. The vulnerability possessed by the community members, and the authenticity in their hearts is something I cannot compare to anything else. After hearing such meaningful stories from the fast and vigil members, it is impossible to imagine leaving with anything less than absolute hope in the future of the movement.  The thing that surprised me most about this experience was the amount of longevity people have in their work to end the death penalty. Several of the people in the community have been dedicating their lives to the abolition movement for decades. The work to abolish the death penalty is difficult, exhausting, and emotional – and it amazes me that there are so many people who are capable of keeping up this work long after many other individuals would have stopped.  

The opportunity to meet with individuals from all over the country encourages me to continue expanding our local community of abolitionists. I’ve seen the beauty that can be found in cherishing a community that is rooted in the belief that all humans are inherently worthy of life, and all the rights that are associated with that. I hope to continue advocating for that cause, while joining others in the work to end to the death penalty.

I know that there is power in creating a dialogue around this issue. Whether we’re directly working to stand against an upcoming execution, dreaming of policy change that would forever change this practice, or anything in between, I know that there will always be people willing to join the cause. The stories I heard, and the people I met will forever be held in my heart when thinking about the death penalty. I hope to share their stories in a way that supports their mission of abolishing capital punishment.

Although the fast and vigil was an incredible experience, I recognize that I am fortunate to have been given the opportunity, and it is something that not everyone is able to have. There is no expectation for people to travel hundreds of miles in order to advocate for this cause. If someone is unable to participate in a weekend long event, there are still plenty of things they could do to stand in opposition to the death penalty.

One thing that is always important in the time leading up to an execution is direct advocacy by means of calling your representative. The governor typically holds significant power and has the ability to alter the fate of whoever may be executed. It is absolutely essential to call them and share your thoughts regarding the execution. Another action that can be taken locally is attending vigils on the eve of an execution, and during an execution. As long as our system continues to enforce policies that say all people are not inherently worthy of life, we are obligated to stand in solidarity with those who are being oppressed. Attending a vigil allows you to join in a community with people who are opposed to this practice, while also holding closely the person who is facing execution.

All of these actions are essential, because without engaging in opposition to capital punishment, you are instead remaining complacent in system of killing.”