The execution of Troy Davis two weeks ago reminded me of a point in my life when I became active in fighting the reinstatement of the death penalty in Iowa. I no longer recall specific dates, but I do remember the moments.
Harold Lamont (Wili) Otey was executed by the State of Nebraska on September 2, 1994. Perhaps a year before that, sometime in the fall, he must have had a stay, because I’m quite sure that the vigil I attended on behalf of Otey was a fall event. Iowans Against the Death Penalty had organized a rally on the west steps of the Iowa Capitol. The weather was balmy early in the evening, but it became breezy and crisp after sunset. I had attended a few IADP meetings, but I was not an active participant, until this night.
Television cameras had set up, print reporters had their notepads in hand, and a radio station reporter had a microphone that he put up to each speaker’s face. The first few people to speak were quite predictable. They said all the right things and cited all the statistics. The news media was about to leave when I asked if I could read a poem.
I was given approval and began reading a poem written by Carl Sandburg; one he wrote in the 1920s.
I AM put high over all others in the city today.
I am the killer who kills for those who wish a killing today.
Here is a strong young man who killed.
There was a driving wind of city dust and horse dung blowing and he stood at an intersection of five sewers and there pumped the bullets of an automatic pistol into another man, a fellow citizen.
Therefore, the prosecuting attorneys, fellow citizens, and a jury of his peers, also fellow citizens, listened to the testimony of other fellow citizens, policemen, doctors, and after a verdict of guilty, the judge, a fellow citizen, said: I sentence you to be hanged by the neck till you are dead.
So there is a killer to be killed and I am the killer of the killer for today.
I don’t know why it beats in my head in the lines I read once in an old school reader: I’m to be queen of the May, mother, I’m to be queen of the May.
Anyhow it comes back in language just like that today.
I am the high honorable killer today.
There are five million people in the state, five million killers for whom I kill
I am the killer who kills today for five million killers who wish a killing.
As I was reading this, I felt a television camera in my face; the radio reporter’s microphone under my chin. Like the queen of the May, I became the leader of the parade, but there would be no execution. After I finished, the media packed up and left.
One lone reporter remained and reported the real story. Darkness had replaced dusk. Sirens wailed in the downtown area west of the Capitol and the wind picked up, as the rustling of the leaves became more of a backdrop to the eerie sensation surrounding the participants.
Among the people at the west steps was John Ely, the state senator from Cedar Rapids who led the abolition movement in the Iowa Senate during the 1965 repeal. He had spoken earlier, and I thought I had been in midst of a hero. But another hero emerged from the darkness and stood to the side.
He stood with his hands in the trench coat he was wearing, and it was difficult to see his face. But someone in the crowd knew it was former Governor Harold Hughes, a man who risked his political career by signing the bill that abolished capital punishment in Iowa. He was wearing an earring now. It’s part of the reason why I wear one, which is a longer story. He asked if he could address the crowd.
In his loud baritone voice, that never needed an audio system to be heard, Governor Hughes mentioned that he had listened to all the speakers before him. He waited until the media left so that he could again proclaim his dislike of capital punishment. He wanted us to know that he was with us. His conscience couldn’t let the night go by without speaking out one more time.
After that night, I became more than active; I dedicated a large part of my life to the abolitionist movement. People in Georgia maintaining vigilance as the state put Troy Davis to death brought back memories. I truly believe that a stronger movement is coming. As we said in 1995, during Iowa’s serious attempt to reinstate the death penalty, “Don’t kill for me!”