The death penalty was something I was morally opposed to, but not actively involved in abolishing before I began working for IJPC. I suppose I was like scores of other American citizens who didn’t have a clue about the realities of the issue-the politics, the injustices, the flaws that are so pervasive and impossible to free from human error and corruption. I have received quite an education since then, and the Walk To Stop Executions not only gave me ample time to reflect on what I’ve learned, it provided the opportunity to learn even more.
Perhaps I have Polly Anna syndrome, but I believe in the goodness of people and that much of what I think is wrong in the world would be remedied if only people knew the truth. I knew that a group of people in bright red t-shirts walking along the highway would catch people’s attention and give us a platform for sharing the truths we know about Ohio’s death penalty system, and that was what motivated me to sign on for the week-long 83-mile walk.
Though there were lots of people who honked in support as they passed us on the road, there were at least as many or more who made their opposite position known. I expected this, but what I did not anticipate was the level of anger and hostility people had, and that some of them were outwardly aggressive about it. I spent a significant part of the walk being the flagger out in front of the group. I waved a yellow caution flag back and forth to alert drivers that they were about to see something unusual and to be careful of the people walking behind me. There were some careless drivers who gave us a bit of a scare by coming a little too close for comfort because they had been looking at their cell phones or just not paying attention in time to see us. There were others who appeared to intentionally drift over the white line as they approached, and then flipped us off or rolled down their windows to shout things like, “Kill them all,” and even, “Go home, dirty hippies!”
I know that anger is a symptom of fear, and it became more and more apparent to me that there are an awful lot of Ohioans who are very much afraid of what they see going on around them these days. No doubt, we are constantly bombarded by the media with stories and images of local, national and global violence. But people have been led to believe that we can stop the violence we so fear with force, with more violence. We don’t see that we contribute to this cycle of violence by responding to it in this way, that we are harming ourselves by harming others. The conversations we had in the town gatherings along the way made room for an alternative way of thinking about all of this.
Supporters of the death penalty think that it is an effective deterrent to murder, that only guilty people are on death row, and that by killing them we make society a safer place for the rest of us. We witnessed several people changing their minds after hearing the facts of the system exposed by individuals with first-hand experience: a former warden, an innocent man exonerated after twenty years on death row, and from a current inmate via a phone call. Time after time, I heard people remark, “I didn’t know that.” I draw hope from that statement, believing that once a person does know, they will think and act differently about capital punishment.