Thursday, June 28, 2007

Jackson, Part 2

I almost had to stop in the middle of a yoga class this evening because I felt myself get so angry I wanted to just weep. I'm so angry at the State for its brutality. What the hell will killing a 63-year-old man with organic brain disease do for anyone? To hear a prison official tell the family "I'm sorry for your loss" was crazy - as if John had died of natural causes. And to see the four sons ask prison guards for permission to check in with the hearse driver, that they'd hired, before the hearse left the prison grounds with John's body was especially disturbing.

It's shameful. It's unbelievably brutal. The death penalty lessens us all; we become monsters. Death at the hands of State serves nothing- whether its bombs, starvation, or execution chambers. It makes me want to throw up.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Last Night at Jackson

Last night I made the familiar journey to Georgia Diagnostics & Classifications Prison (a.k.a. Death Row) because the State was scheduled to execute Mr. John Hightower- in my name. It is the 16th time I have stood outside the prison and the 16th person they have executed since 2001. In 2001, a five year halt to the death penalty in Georgia came to an end when they abolished the electric chair (as a result of our litigation) and thus resumed executions.

Not that anything good can ever happen at death row, but some things happened last night that I know will stay with me for a long time.

When we arrived, we had a small sized group- about 15 people. Two carloads of interns from the Capital Defender came down plus the usual folks who are down at every execution, with two strong absences: Mary Ruth and Ed Weir. The Weirs ran New Hope House for years, offering a home to families visiting their loved ones on death row. Mary Ruth passed away from cancer last December, and Ed is now on the road as an activist. I really miss them, in particular last night.

We proceeded to do the usual, standing with signs, setting up candles, talking to reporters. A little while later, Mary Sinclair arrived followed by 5-6 cars filled with Mr. Hightower's family members. In total, 20 of members of Mr. Hightower's family stood witness with us during the time of his execution. All four of his sons were there. 5 of his grandchildren were present; the two teenagers were extremely distraught and were consoled by their parents while the three little ones ran around and played as any child would. His son, Alonzo, showed me a picture that had been taken the day before of Mr. Hightower in his death row uniform smiling and surrounded by all of these people that he loved and that loved him back. An aunt shared with me that prior to coming to the prison that evening they had had dinner at New Hope House and got to speak on the phone with Mr. Hightower for two hours; they passed the phone around. She told me that he told them to keep it together and be strong, and that he had made peace with this a long time ago.

The media was being very persistent in trying to get a family member to comment- even thought we made it clear repeatedly that they were not interested. When the execution was over, his son Chris told the media again that he didn't want to comment. He was dealing with the hearse at the time and they still wouldn't leave him alone. When they continued to push him, he said "Here's our statement- We forgive the state for this murder." I nearly lost it at that point.

While I hate the reason we had to go to Jackson last night, I feel really honored to stand witness and in solidarity with such a brave and loving family. I also remain in awe and gratitude of my co-worker, Mary Sinclair for all she does for the families of people on death row. Her compassion, patience, and anger about how wrong the death penalty is seem to be exactly the right combination of characteristics that comfort the people in this terrible position. I am so fortunate to work with her.

I look forward to when we won't have to make the trek to Jackson.

Fear of Sharks

A few weeks ago while I was at my parents’ house in Chicago, Hank wrote to me about what he called “a beautiful experiment in parenthood.” He screened the movie Jaws to his two young sons.

He was careful to preface every scene with that was about to happen and how it was different from what real sharks will do. The boys even laughed at the girl being dragged around in the opening scene. The juvenile mind found its own. At the end, everyone was fairly entertained and agreed that no fish would ever do that in real life.

About an hour later, I find myself flipping through the channels and see slightly grainy footage of 70s-era teenagers hanging out on sailboats. I hear the telltale two notes that signal that Jaws is coming. For the first time, I don’t change the channel. I think of Zan & Jonah and remind myself that real fish don’t act like this. When Jaws emerges, I notice how his flesh looks like metal and his eyes are expressionless. He looks like, well, a robot, which I suppose is exactly what he’s always been. I don’t know how it could have taken me this long to recognize this. I watch the whole movie and find myself giggling at how silly the story is. I cheer and laugh out loud when the shark gets caught on the power line and explodes into ash.

In the following days and weeks, I find myself captivated with any and all images of sharks being shown. I watch a shark fishing show with my family and see how easily and brutally the fishermen take down huge beasts even while drinking Coors Lite. When they announce that a second whale shark at the Atlanta Aquarium died, I obsessively check the news stations for updated information on what happened. I feel my heart heavy for a couple days for the loss of this creature that I’ve never even seen. I watched a PBS program about the first great white shark to survive in captivity for an extended period of time at the Monterey Aquarium. She swam in an almost spooky way but was beautiful and graceful all the while.

I can’t help but ask myself “is that it?” Does this mean that a lifelong oppressive and irrational fear is gone? Will I be able to swim in the ocean without keeping my eyes on my toes and jumping if anything brushes up against my skin?

I keep thinking about the “skin” of Jaws in contrast to the tender, sleek flesh of the baby great white in Monterey. Both make me smile now. I look forward to more.