Lee Wengraf crashed a party at the Hilton New York hotel in midtown Manhattan one afternoon last spring. Inside, Republicans nibbled and schmoozed at a fundraiser for Texas governor George W. Bush’s presidential campaign. Wengraf, 33, had showed up with three students. To get them all into this $1000-a-plate lunch, she had identified them as members of a college Republican club. In fact, the four are activists, and under their jackets and inside their briefcases, they hid the evidence of their ideology: anti-death penalty posters and flyers.
Wengraf, who is actually a Wall Street secretary, led her fellow activists into the press balcony overlooking the ballroom. As Bush began his speech, the protesters started shouting and showering diners with propaganda. Photocopied death certificates for Odell Barnes Jr. and pictures of Karla Faye Tucker—both Texans executed while Bush has been governor—fluttered down onto half-empty plates. As Secret Service agents and police officers hurried to eject the activists, they kept up their chant: “They say, ‘Death row!’ We say, ‘Hell, no!’ ”
Bush’s candidacy has been a boon for death penalty opponents, offering them a prime opportunity to inject their views into the national media. They have been chasing Bush down the campaign trail for months, calling attention to his record as governor of the state with the busiest death row. The national Campaign to End the Death Penalty has launched a “Bush Watch” to picket his campaign stops, and just last week death penalty opponents disrupted a NAACP meeting as Bush was about to speak. Since Bush took office, he has presided over more executions—137 at last count—than any other current governor.
Even before Bush announced his candidacy, anti-death penalty actions had grown larger and louder. The recent releases of several condemned men have pushed this issue into the media spotlight. While activists have long argued that innocent people are languishing on death row, mounting evidence of wrongful convictions is now threatening to undermine public support for the death penalty. Since 1973, 87 innocent men have been released from death row.
Questions about the possible innocence of Texas prisoner Gary Graham recently triggered noisy demonstrations across the country. Nearly 1000 people showed up at a protest on June 19 in Manhattan, while a comparable crowd rallied outside the Walls Unit prison three days later when Graham died by lethal injection.
As the anti-death penalty movement has grown, it has also diversified. Now the crowds flocking to street protests tend to be younger and less white than they once were. About this infusion of new activists, Steven Hawkins, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, says, “Certainly five years ago, it was spurred a lot by protest work around Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case, but in recent years, it’s spurred also by hip-hop artists speaking out more and more against the death penalty.”
Anti-death penalty activists have been battling to build momentum by converting the energy of their protests into a national moratorium on executions. The movement’s biggest success so far may be the January decision by Illinois governor George Ryan to temporarily stop executing prisoners in his state. Ryan, a Republican who supports the death penalty, acted after the number of innocent men released from Illinois’s death row had climbed to 13.
Nationally, lobbying by death penalty opponents has already convinced 24 local governments—including the city councils of Rochester and Buffalo as well as Philadelphia, Detroit, and Atlanta—to pass resolutions calling for a moratorium. And now Illinois congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. and Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold, both Democrats, have introduced legislation to impose a national moratorium.
The idea of a moratorium is certainly not new, but it is an ideal strategy for winning support from a wide range of organizations. This campaign marries groups like Amnesty International, which seeks to abolish the death penalty, with more mainstream organizations, like the American Bar Association, which neither advocates nor opposes capital punishment. So far, more than 1000 groups have signed a petition calling for a moratorium.
On August 1, capital punishment opponents will bring their banners and flyers and chants to the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. While passing around petitions calling for a moratorium, they will likely also shout the slogan of the Chicago-based Campaign to End the Death Penalty: “Moratorium now! Abolition next!”