Activist Group Profile: Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement
By Nick Cooper
Illustration by Shelby Hohl
Photo by Erin Dyer
The members of the Abolition Movement have been at it for almost 30 years. Since Texas restarted the machinery of execution in 1982, Gloria Rubac, Joanne Gavin, and others have been leading the struggle, and waiting for the rest of Texas to wake up. Gloria is about to become a great-grandmother, and Joanne turns 80 this month, but the younger members of the movement might find it tough to keep up. The group goes to Huntsville several times per month to protest executions, writes letters, lobbies the legislature, organizes with families of convicts, and speaks out at churches, high schools, community centers, prison board meetings, college classes, and civic clubs.
For Norah, who has been with the group for six years, her opposition to the death penalty started in 6th grade when she went to court to see the sentencing phase of Peter Cantu’s trial. She remembers the people snickering when Cantu stumbled walking in the room, and the anger all around her. She thought about how many lives were affected, and despite being only twelve, something changed in her — “I was like, this is wrong.”
Since then, she has had a friend executed, and has another on death row. She doesn’t agree with killing anyone under any circumstance, and sees life without parole as a better choice. As a Mexican-American atheist, she is disappointed by the support for the death penalty widespread among Texas’ mostly Catholic Hispanic population for whom the prevailing attitude seems to be “In Texas, we’re tough.” Sometimes, the atheists in the group find themselves quoting the Bible to Christians.
“For religious people,” says Gloria, “it’s important to know that most major religions have come out against the death penalty, and there are different passages and leaders you can quote.”
Other people are only concerned by the cost factor, and it’s important to demonstrate how life in prison is much cheaper than death row. Some people are most affected when they learn how the death penalty is unfair to poor people, about all the former death-row prisoners that have been exonerated and freed, or the racism involved.
“Lynchings are now legal,” says Gloria. “The racism that goes on from the cops, to the DA’s, to the judge, to the prison guards, to the wardens is just overwhelming.”
She speaks of her own turning point, “In 1968 when Dr. King was assassinated, I was so upset I walked to a bar to have a drink. When I got to the bar, people I thought were my friends were celebrating. I walked out, went back to my dorm and thought a long time, and I figured out there’s a line in the sand and sure wasn’t going to be on the side with those people.”
For Joanne too, the struggle is part and parcel with anti-racism. “It’s the new slavery,” she says. “The thirteenth amendment moved slavery from the private to public sector. Texas alone pays not one cent for prison labor.”
Recommending the book ‘Worse Than Slavery’ by David M. Oshinsky, she continues, “when people owned slaves, they at least had a stake in the lives of their slaves, but those who were leasing prisoners would just work them until they died … Take a look at the fields of any Texas prison and you see the 21st century version.”
At the July meeting, a group of ten met at the Shape Community Center. Gloria began speaking about correspondence and news she had received. She talked about the problems of a prisoner named Jamie McCoskey who, due to the policy of not allowing wheelchairs on death row, is forced to crawl around his cell or to his meetings with visitors. His knees are red with large sores in the middle.
Next, long-time activist Sensei and his friend Massai arrived. Massai is the son of Carl Hampton, a Black Panther Party affiliate who was shot and killed without provocation by a police sniper in 1970. Massai had spent many years in prison, and spoke about his years in “administrative segregation” (aka solitary confinement), where prisoners were often offered a way back into the general population: snitching on other prisoners. The others in the room listened carefully, respectfully. This man had experienced something most of them couldn’t imagine.
Then came the practical part of the meeting – “Who can go to the next executions in Huntsville?” “Who can go to a protest in support of a prisoner in Bastrop?” “Who can go to the Texas Prison Board meeting in Austin?” “Does anyone know any doctors, professors, ministers, or any other ‘respectable’ people that can write letters to the parole board about this wheelchair policy and other matters? Because they’re not listening to us.”
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