Protest against death penalty planned for Martin Luther King Jr. Day

by Deon Osborne, Associate Editor
Published: Last Updated on
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Organizers dedicated to ending federal capital punishment will deliver a petition to all three branches of government in Washington D.C. on Monday, January 17 at 10 a.m.

The Abolitionist Action Committee will gather on the sidewalk in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building. On a day honoring the life and legacy of Dr. King, anti-death penalty activists will call on the U.S. to end the practice of killing its own people. The group will ask for the swift passage of the Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act, according to a press release from Death Penalty Action.

“We are calling for immediate passage of the Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act,” said Rev. Sharon Risher. Her mother and cousins were among those murdered in the 2015 racist massacre by white supremacist Dylann Roof. The horrific shooting took place after a prayer at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in North Carolina.

 “We are calling on the Attorney General to stop seeking death in all federal cases and on President Biden to commute all federal death sentences and to order the demolition of the Death House at the federal prison in Terre Haute,” Risher added.

death penalty virginia

Virginia Gov. Northam signs bill abolishing the death penalty in the state in 2021. / AP

Biden silent on death penalty after campaigning against it

The bill was sponsored by “squad” member Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass). And it would do more than just end the use of the death penalty at the federal level. It would also require that all federal death sentences prior to the passage of the bill be re-sentenced, something  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would’ve wanted.

“Capital punishment is against the better judgment of modern criminology, and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God,” Dr. King wrote in 1957.

Before Biden became president, twice-impeached ex-president Trump rammed through 13 executions. Taking a more humane approach, Biden campaigned on getting rid of the federal death penalty.

“Because we cannot ensure we get death penalty cases right every time, Biden will work to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example,” according to his campaign website.

Yet, since taking office, it’s been mostly crickets. To be fair, his Attorney General Merrick Garland has placed a moratorium on federal executions while the Justice Department reviews its policies. And White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has said Biden has “grave concerns” about the practice. But a year into his presidency, Biden hasn’t taken an official stance.

Julius Jones

Julius Jones supporters break down in tears after Gov. Stitt grants partial clemency hours before Jones’ scheduled execution on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2021. (Chris Creese / The Black Wall Street Times)

Organizers urge passage of Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act

Nevertheless, despite facing the immense grief of losing her loved ones to Dylann Roof, a white supremacist inspired by the racist rhetoric of far-right politicians, Sharon Risher has become a board member for Death Penalty Action. The coalition represents over 300 groups across the country supporting the legislation co-sponsored by Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, the first Black Congressional rep from Massachusetts. The bill has also gained support from Senator Dick Durbin, a Senator from Illinois, the state in which the federal execution chamber is housed. 

In total, the Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act has 78 co-sponsors in the House and 19 in the Senate, though it hasn’t yet come up for a vote in either chamber.

Channeling the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., protesters plan to risk arrest on Jan. 17 during a rally and march to the U.S. Capitol and the Hart Senate Office Building.

Bernice King, daughter of Dr. King and CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, voiced support for the protest on #MLKDay2022 in a tweet posted on January 9.

“I believe that honors both of my parents. Most importantly, we need to abolish the death penalty,” she tweeted.

Death Penalty flawed, arbitrary

Ultimately, 45 years after the first execution since a 1976 Supreme Court case upheld the death penalty, organizers hope to convince lawmakers to end the practice once and for all.

Support for the death penalty remains at 60% or above both on a national level and in states like Oklahoma, one of the most active dealers of death in the country.

Yet, for many who oppose government-sanctioned murder, the flaws outweigh any societal benefits. As if shifting its discrimination against Black Americans from one part of the legal system to the other, officials carrying out the death penalty continue to ignore the fact that Black men are more likely to receive a death sentence, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter Bernice, and others around the nation are ready to end it.

Death Penalty carried out in a racist way

Meanwhile, the state of Oklahoma appears to be competing for top ten in death penalty states, sitting comfortably at number two, according to a year-end report from the Death Penalty Information Center

It carried out multiple executions in 2021, even after a damning 2017 report from the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission calling out the state’s racist implementation of the death penalty. It found that crimes involving a white victim were more likely to include death sentences than crimes involving victims of color.

All together, there’ve been over 1,500 executions since 1976, with 186 exonerations. The statistics add weight to the argument that the death penalty is arbitrary and unusually cruel. Data shows it ensnarls innocent people in its clutches even as pro-death penalty advocates assert that it reduces crime without providing the evidence to back up that claim.

oklahoma death penalty libertarian party

Robert H. Alexander, Jr., center, a member of the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission, speaks during a news conference in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, April 25, 2017. The commission released a report that says the state should extend its moratorium on capital punishment. At left is Andy Lester and at right is former Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki) Sue Ogrocki—AP

Lawmakers, relatives of prisoners to speak at event

Ahead of the #MLKDay2022 anti-death penalty protest in D.C., Death Penalty Action will host an event on Sunday, titled “Stop Executions: A National Call to Abolish the Death Penalty.” The program will be offered in-person at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation and virtually. Masks and vaccinations are required to attend the in-person event.

Speakers at the event will include lawmakers such as Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Sen. Dick Durbin, protest organizers, and relatives of wrongly convicted prisoners. Notable relatives include Charles Keith, brother of Kevin Keith, who faces life without parole in Ohio. 

Other notable relatives include Antoinette Jones, sister of Oklahoma prisoner Julius Jones, who narrowly avoided the death chamber after thousands successfully pushed Gov. Kevin Stitt to commute Jones’ sentence.

Supporters for Oklahoma death row inmate Julius Jones call for his release. The action took place during a historic commutation hearing on Monday, Sept 13 2021. (The Black Wall Street Times photo / Mike Creef)

“All I can tell you is that when you have that peace you don’t worry about the naysayers, you don’t worry about the negative, you stay focused on what God has told you and you trust that,” Antoinette Jones told reporters moments after her brother’s life was spared on Nov. 17, 2021.

In addition, Cece-Jones Davis is a lead organizer for the Justice for Julius Coalition. She will also attend the #MLKDay2022 anti-death penalty protest.

“You don’t have to have some fancy degree to know what is basically right and wrong. And what we have experienced here has been wrong. What Julius has been though has been wrong,” Rev. Jones-Davis said on Nov. 17.

3 comments

Marie-Elise Boyer-Brown January 13, 2022 - 10:08 pm

We need protests in every large city in the States!!!!! I would go protest in Boston if there was something organized there… I would bring friends with me!

Op-ed: For King’s legacy, abolish the Death Penalty, demolish the Death House January 15, 2022 - 12:14 pm

[…] said, “Capital punishment is against the better judgment of modern criminology, and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of […]

Treasury secretary says US economy is unfair to Black people January 17, 2022 - 9:58 am

[…] King, who delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech while leading the 1963 March on Washington and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, remains one of the world’s most beloved figures. He considered racial equality inseparable from alleviating poverty and stopping war. His insistence on nonviolent protest continues to influence activists pushing for civil rights and social change. […]

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