January 17th – by Jack Payden-Travers
“I won’t be able to make that appointment as I’ll be in jail next Tuesday,” I told the nurse who was setting the date for my checkup to remove stiches. She appeared a bit shocked that this aging white middle class male was going to jail. I tried to assure her that I would return–just not on the 17th.
I explained to the nurse that January 17, 2017 is the 40th anniversary of the first execution in the United States since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in the case of Gregg v Georgia back in 1976. On that date in 1977, Gary Gilmore was executed by firing squad in Utah. Every five years a group of abolition activists opposed to the death penalty appears on the steps of the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) in Washington, DC holding a STOP EXECUTIONS banner. I was arrested there on the 17th in 2007 and again in 2012. On January 17, 2017 I will return to Washington and once again mount the steps of the Court and be one of those holding the banner. I know I’ll be arrested and likely held overnight before being arraigned for violating the rule of SCOTUS which prohibits demonstrations of any kind on the grounds or inside the building of the Court. I will likely serve time in jail for my witness.
At my last trial in 2012, I told the judge that I hoped that would have been the last time I would have to face arrest for prayerfully holding a banner as it appeared our nation was inching closer to finally ending capital punishment. Internationally the death penalty is now being questioned around the globe.
Our nation has the distinction of being the only country in the Western Hemisphere still carrying out executions. Our use of it puts us in a league with Syria, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea. Strange fellows that we choose to share a bed with to be sure.
I witness at the Supreme Court because my Christian faith calls upon me to choose life rather than death. Unfortunately, many of us still prefer to follow the Hammurabic dictate of an eye for an eye. I well understand that gut reaction to murder but I follow a Lord who told his followers to put away the sword. Who punished Cain by exile for the murder of his brother Abel but put a mark of protection upon Cain that allowed him to carry on his life. It is that belief that draws me back once again to the steps of the Supreme Court. I go to petition my government to stop killing in my name, to pray for an end to execution.
Since 1977, 1443 men and women have been executed in the United States; during that same time frame more than 150 have been exonerated and walked off death rows because they were proven innocent only after having been condemned to death. That means for every 10 executed, one was wrongfully convicted. I wouldn’t buy a car that failed to start one out of every 10 times I put the key in the ignition. Would you?
I return to the Court steps this year to call for an end to state killing, to witness for life, to call on the sitting judges to STOP EXECUTIONS. I will pray while awaiting arrest for both the victims of murder and their families and for those who kill, for the Dylann Roofs, and the Gary Gilmores. It is perhaps easier to pray for the victims of murder than it is for the perpetrators who face execution. But God’s call is to love our brothers and sisters regardless of whether they love us back. Consider joining me in praying for an end to executions.
Jack Payden-Travers is a lifelong peace and justice activist.