A Sign Of The Times, Anti-Death Penalty Protesters Arrested At SCOTUS (Update)

It’s impossible not to be struck by the irony of the plaza in front of the Supreme Court being one of those spaces where free speech is prohibited. Yet, that’s what the Court says, and that makes it so.

We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final.

Associate Justice Robert Jackson

The protesters obviously knew that when they came up with their plan.

More than 100 anti-death-penalty activists assembled first at the Methodist Building across the street from the court. They prayed and discussed strategy, then walked to the court, with some carrying signs that listed, year by year, the names of the more than 1,400 people executed in the 40 years since Gilmore.

They stood right in front of the marble plaza of the court, the point at which “freedom of speech stops,” as protest leader Bill Pelke said to the crowd. After singing protest songs, the protesters quietly made room for the 18 who planned to get arrested.

On the steps in front of the Supreme Court, the eighteen held a banner.

Abraham Bonowitz, of the anti-death penalty Abolitionist Action Committee (AAC), is arrested during a protest on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, marking the 40th anniversary of the first execution since the death penalty was reinstated, on Tuesday, January 17, 2017.

It’s not that their issue isn’t serious, or that they weren’t willing to be arrested in furtherance of their cause. To their credit, they knew going in that they would be arrested and peacefully accepted the fate of civil disobedience.

But why? No, this isn’t a question about the merit of being against the death penalty. It’s a question of what holding a banner that said “Stop Executions” was going to do to further their cause.

Do they think the Supreme Court isn’t aware of the controversy? Do they think a group of about 100 people would prove so overwhelming that, with everything else that’s happened, this would be the straw that would break the Supreme Court camel’s back? Perhaps the words on the banner, “Stop Executions,” would be so forceful as to persuade the justices to change their positions?

Yet, to 100 people at least, this seemed like a worthwhile idea. And no doubt, there are many others who weren’t involved who will cheer these protesters on.

Among the 18 were death-row exonerees, family members of murder victims, as well as survivors of those who were executed. Sam Reese Sheppard, whose father was the convicted murderer — ultimately acquitted — in Sheppard v. Maxwell, the 1966 Supreme Court case, also got himself arrested.

These were very serious people, who had suffered enormously from the failures of the system. And there is no failure more permanent than executing an innocent person. Well, perhaps the slow death penalty as well, but that’s an argument already had.

The capital police did their job without incident, largely because the protesters accepted their fate as anticipated.

As court police looked on, the group marched across the forbidden marble plaza and then up the marble steps. They strewed roses on the steps, then unfurled the illegal banner. Police stood mute for the first 15 minutes or so, until an officer warned them with a bullhorn that arrests were imminent. Protesters were peacefully handcuffed one by one, and the banner sagged as fewer people were left to hold it up.

Finally the banner was left on the stairs to be folded up by police as evidence. Officers also picked up the yellow and red roses, meant to signify that the protesters mourned not only those who were executed, but their victims as well.

The description is moving, emotional, visceral. No one was saved.

All of this is a microcosm of the times. A zone of censorship on the steps of the Court with the ultimate responsibility of defending the First Amendment’s promise of free speech. The civil disobedience of committed activists knowing they will be arrested for their speech. The dubious purpose served by their decision to do so nonetheless.

We have hashtags on the twitters. We have petitions at Change dot org. We have fake news and faker news. We have people banned from social media and books that don’t exist yet reaching number one at Amazon. We have people choosing to be arrested to hold a banner that reads, “Stop Executions.”

What’s next, the elimination of all thought, reduction to posting tiny images that convey some vague yet incomprehensible sense as a means of reducing the vast effort of thinking to its lowest possible thought? We could call them “emojis,” as in a reflection of our feelings since we’ve abandoned all rational thought?

Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’intrate.

Update: It turns out, jail wasn’t nearly as much fun as they thought it would be:

Though the action was beautiful, we paid for it dearly. The police put the cuffs on as tight as possible, and we heard the commander say, “Put them through the system.” For me, the officer pulled my right hand back and pinched the nerve on my thumb deliberately; I was sure he was going to break my hand. We thought another friend did have his hand and shoulder broken, so he was hospitalized. We were chained by the ankles, waists and behind our backs most of the time, and it was very painful. During our two horrific days in chains and jail, we had very little water, and for me, two pieces of wonder bread.

On Tuesday night, we were put into very tiny cells with steel metal to lie on and bright lights on us. Once you lay down, you were covered in cockroaches. Not one person in the group slept and we each went through an unexpected, terrible ordeal. (Several of us, for example, were nauseous the entire time.)

Jail is never as much fun as it looks on TV.

16 thoughts on “A Sign Of The Times, Anti-Death Penalty Protesters Arrested At SCOTUS (Update)

  1. Sabine Stevens

    Perhaps in a nation in which protestors often become destructive and violent, a true peaceful protest sets an example. Their message is not clouded by outrage against their actions.

  2. Lee Thompson

    Even if the protest was ineffective, is there not a substantial difference between slacktivist petitions and someone putting themselves on the line for a cause? The arrests occurred without incident, but as everyone here knows, *every* police encounter has the potential to go south fast.

    Sure, one well-qualified death penalty lawyer will accomplish infinitely more than the banner on the courthouse steps, and there’s not enough recognition of that fact. But lumping these guys in the same category as Twitter hashtags does them a disservice. Guts still count for something.

    1. SHG Post author

      Yes, actually getting off the couch is a magnitude of effort greater than the slacktivists. It is also a magnutide of effectiveness less than a great many other things that can be done to further the end of the death penalty. But slacktivists risk, at worst, a cheeto getting stuck in their nose, while these protesters were arrested for this pointlessness.

      What purpose is served by trying to find some merit in ineffectiveness? It makes the protesters feel all protest-y and achieved absolutely nothing? To that end, they have far more in common with the slacktivists then with anyone who engages in effective efforts.

  3. John Barleycorn

    Who says they aren’t comming back every other Tuesday until the court okays armed aerial enforcement of free speach zones?


    And when the court does so what are you going to do?

    P.S. Speaking directly to your synisum do you figure they are more likely to get a senator to ask a future supreme nominee about the constitutional merits of the death penalty with a donation to his or her political action comitee and a follow up post card?

  4. Brian Cowles

    I wonder if we as Americans have lost sight of what a protest is about. For many, the rationale is to “let our voice be heard”…which says nothing about actually effecting change.

    For that matter, what does a list of protests that actually achieved something since the 1970s look like? The new Tea Party, the Seattle WTO protests…and as near as I can tell, that’s about it. Which means anyone under the age of 40 has two major sources of inspiration…one of which is heavily political (so those on the other side aren’t likely to pay attention), and the other of which ended in riots.

    1. SHG Post author

      I don’t know what your notion of “we as Americans” means. I don’t know what your impression of “lost sight what a protest is about” means. I know what it meant to me in the 60s and 70s, but I have no clue what goes through your head.

      But even “let you voice be heard” was directed toward effecting change. It was people who had no other way to get people in power to hear them taking to the streets, en masse, to tell them they were for or against something. Sound familiar? Like Ferguson?

      It had purpose. It wasn’t just masturbation. It wasn’t just repetition. It might not have made all hell break loose, but it was always intended to *do* something.

      1. Brian Cowles

        It was, yes. But this is far from the first time someone protested, said they were unhappy, and had no clear plan to follow up and ensure something actually got done about it. Occupy Wall Street, for example, although that women’s march tomorrow would likely fit here as well.

        I’m glad you remember what it was like in the ’60s and ’70s. Unfortunately, being under 30 I am not so lucky. As I noted, there have been few effective protests for anyone under 40 to remember. Many people are disillusioned with how things work. They don’t expect things to change. Why should they expect protests to change anything?* And then it follows, once you no longer expect to change anything, that you stop trying to.

        In other words, what I wonder is if the primary rationale for protesting has moved from “we are unhappy and want change” to “we are unhappy”, with no expectation of anything being done about it.* It would help explain the bastardization of BLM, since who needs to defend the mission of something they can’t believe will do any good? If (one believes) a protest will have no impact, why bother trying to maximize its impact?*

        On the bright side, you should probably be glad you don’t know what goes through my head. It’s been known to cause insanity in approximately 12% of cases.

        * I do not share this opinion.

  5. james

    It served the same purpose as this blog, which is to say it means nothing and saves no one.

    Both are equally cool and good in spite of and because of that.

    1. SHG Post author

      The purpose of this blog is to give me a place to write. It serves that purpose perfectly. And to your surprise, apparently, it’s helped quite a few people and even saved many. But that’s an added benefit, since that’s not its purpose.

  6. Nathan Larson

    These arguments about ineffectiveness always come up when people commit civil disobedience in numbers too small to immediately force political change. The point is to demonstrate organization, courage, determination, fortitude, and solidarity. Entering the prison system can teach these activists about how the justice system works; give them an opportunity to meet other downtrodden members of society within the prison walls; and strengthen them through exposure to hardship and adversity. Thoreau spoke of “how much more eloquently and effectively he can combat injustice who has experienced a little in his own person.” They have now had that experience, and next time, the harsh realities of it won’t be as shocking to them.

    This kind of civil disobedience is part of a long-term strategy for change. It’s intended to get people talking about the issue of capital punishment, for example, through blog articles like this one. In that sense, these activists have a more subtle and indirect approach in mind than people may be giving them credit for. It’s a form of theater that has already accomplished some public relations goals.

    Matthew Hall’s essay “Guilty but Civilly Disobedient” argues, “civil disobedience serves as a firebreak between legal protest and rebellion, while simultaneously providing a safety valve through which the profoundly disaffected can vent dissent without resorting to more extreme means.” Perhaps we should be glad that there’s a tradition in this country that when people get so fed up with injustice that they’re unwilling to wait any longer for the wheels of the democratic process to turn, they tend to resort first to civil disobedience rather than violence as the next step in the escalation of their methods.

    The human and financial costs of these arrests should be chalked up as just more of the expenses of our political process, like the cost of TV ads or red MAGA hats. You gave them some free publicity, so maybe they got enough bang for their buck, when you take into account the other benefits I mention above.

    1. SHG Post author

      The details matter, from the purpose of the protest to the particulars of its execution. Sometimes size is relevant. Other times not so much. When it’s a cause that’s already a well-recognized controversy and a decision outside the political process, a protest disconnected from any particular decision-making timing or one that’s been done to death, the generic and shallow discussion is largely irrelevant and unilluminating.

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