The RW Interview

Jeff Garis:
Thoughts of a Pennsylvania Abolitionist

Revolutionary Worker #1053, May 7, 2000

The RW Interview is a special feature to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music, literature, science, sports and politics.

The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own, and they are not responsible for the views expressed elsewhere in the Revolutionary Worker and on this website.

One of the amazing things about the urgent struggle to stop the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal is how this movement has united people from diverse political viewpoints. Recently the RW had the opportunity to talk with Jeff Garis, the executive director of Pennsylvania Abolitionists United Against the Death Penalty--a position Garis describes as "the most difficult, challenging and, of course, exciting and rewarding job that I've ever had--I think also the lowest paying job."

"In January 1997," Garis told the RW, "there was an initial meeting with eight people who really wanted to see the anti-death penalty movement in the U.S. broadly, and in Pennsylvania specifically, begin to use more aggressive non-violent direct action tactics. That was something that was really lacking. The anti-death penalty movement in this country for a long time was, in my opinion and in the opinion of people involved in starting the Pennsylvania Abolitionists, very defeatist, very staid, definitely not activist-oriented for the most part. We felt like the anti-death penalty movement needed to be shaken up." This was the beginning of the Pennsylvania Abolitionists, which now numbers 4,000 members.

Since its founding, the organization has taken a direct action approach to fighting the injustices of the death penalty--departing from the execution night vigils outside prisons that have characterized the anti-death penalty movement. Garis and others have faced arrests numerous times--from protesting outside the governor's mansion to actions attempting to shut down the Philadelphia District Attorney's office. Garis notes that in Philadelphia the district attorney is seeking death sentences "at an unprecedented pace with just complete and total disregard for the wishes of the public." On one occasion, Garis and others were arrested for passing out statistics about how the death penalty is being applied in Philadelphia outside the criminal justice center. "It was like six of us handing out fliers," Garis told the RW. "One of them is a Catholic priest from coal country in Pennsylvania. They told us you're not allowed to hand out information about the death penalty on this street. They threatened to arrest somebody for wearing a sweatshirt that said `I Oppose the Death Penalty--Don't Kill For Me.' Through the struggle Garis maintains an optimistic view. "The simple facts about the death penalty in Philadelphia are so horrendous that they are willing to resort to these kinds of repressive totalitarian measures to prevent people from even educating the public about this. We had calculated that they would do this kind of stupid stuff in the first place and our feeling was let 'em go ahead because it's simply just going to expose what's going on and they may wish by the time it's all over that they had just allowed us to hand out our fliers that day. And that's exactly what happened.... And of course people want to know then what was it you were handing out that was so dangerous?"

Jeff talked to the RW about how he sees the significance of the fight to stop Mumia's execution and about the workings of the justice system in Pennsylvania.

Jeff Garis: One of the other things that we do is we are out in support of and will always provide somebody to speak out at any Mumia related events and to make clear that we are not going to allow former leftists or pseudo liberals to try to divide Mumia from the rest of the people on death row in this state. Because frankly if the state of Pennsylvania can get away with carrying out the execution of Mumia in spite of the overwhelming international outcry against this then I'm really not sure what we can do to stop the execution of anyone else. So there's a lot at stake for all of the other people on death row in Mumia's case and there's a lot at stake for Mumia in what happens to the other people on death row in the state.

There are people like former leftist Marc Cooper right now in Mother Jones website who say Mumia's case is really detrimental to the anti-death penalty movement in this country.

It's just absolutely amazing. I mean we are probably the most active and one of the most well organized state anti-death penalty groups in the country right now. We're here in Pennsylvania, the state where Mumia sits on death row. We're headquartered in Philadelphia, which is where we started out and is still one of our most active areas, the very city that sentenced him to death. And these so-called investigative reporters never bother to ask us what we think the impact of this case is.

The way we look at it is we have a tremendous opportunity here. We have a real resource that people in other states don't necessarily have.

People around the world know from Mumia's case how bad the death penalty is being applied in Pennsylvania. And it's our job to use that awareness to help further educate people about the broader issues of the death penalty and about the many other people on death row who are quite probably innocent of what they've been sentenced for. So the fact that there's an international movement of support around him is nothing that we're going to sit around here and bemoan. It's fantastic organizing and it's organizing that we are involved with and that we work very closely with.

We have specifically stated that we do not take a position on the guilt or innocence of anyone on death row in Pennsylvania because our issue is that the death penalty is categorically unacceptable. Now, if you asked within our group what is people's position on Mumia's case--is he innocent, does he deserve a new trial--you'll get all kinds of responses. But I think you'll also find a lot of support for him.

Our goal and what we're trying to do is very much single issue. Because we're organizing around a single issue, we are able to connect with bringing people from an unbelievable spectrum. We've got RCP supporters and we've got Catholic nuns and priests. We've got ACLU and we've got Quakers. We've got MOVE and we've got Republicans, Democrats, Greens--everybody. We've got people who are pro-choice, do not trust the government and do not want the government interfering in people's lives and who feel the death penalty is a very fundamental violation. We've got people who say I'm anti-choice but I'm pro-life and the death penalty is a life issue. It's actually kind of exciting because then people get to know each other, they work with each other and build some trust and people really broaden their understanding about what's going on as they interact with other people. But we are focused on a single issue and our goal--and we will be around until the death penalty is abolished, period.

RW: What are the reasons that you personally oppose the death penalty?

JG: I was a minister in a Mennonite denomination. Mennonites would be in many ways similar to Quakers. I was raised with a very strong faith-basis. A very central part for me of what it meant to be a Mennonite, what it meant to be a Christian, was that it is wrong to kill people period. That's in a whole range of areas. That applies to war, that applies to all kinds of things and in particular to the death penalty.

I'm reaping the benefits of oppression and exploitation around the world and oppression and exploitation within this country because of the lifestyle that I enjoy. As much as I try to not enjoy it, as much as I try to not participate in it, there are benefits and privileges that come to me as a white male in this country. Therefore I'm not going to condemn or criticize someone else who is being subjected to that kind of oppression for saying I am going to physically resist, I'm going to fight back. I certainly understand why people would do that. And I think that the condemnation rests not with those people who have no other option but to protect their own lives by resorting to and responding to the kind of force that they're being subjected to. I think that the people who need to be condemned are the people who are creating those conditions in the first place.

One of the other things has just been I simply do not trust the government of this country for much of anything. With its legacy of racism, of class violence, of commodification of resources and people, I certainly don't trust this country and this government to make decisions about who lives and dies. And I think that it is antithetical to democracy to allow the government and the politicians to execute the citizens in their country. I think that at the very least we can say that it is a bad idea to allow any government to execute its citizens and certainly this one in particular.

I'm not under the illusion that many people espouse the same kind of faith perspective that I espouse that killing is just categorically wrong. I understand that and I respect people who have a difference of opinion on that. But I think that very few people outside of paid politicians and paid prosecutors who support the death penalty in theory would support it in practice in this country because in practice this death penalty in the United States and in Pennsylvania in particular targets the poor. It targets people of color. It targets political dissenters. It targets people who because of these other things may very well, in fact, be innocent. I think that when confronted with that reality there are very few people who would support what is going on. Which is, of course, why the politicians and the paid prosecutors have to utilize propaganda and have to resort to creating a lot of lies about it.

This gets back to why were we arrested--for pointing out that more than two-thirds of the people on death row in Pennsylvania are people of color. We have 127 people on death row from this one city, which is more than 37 states in the United States. Of those 127 people, only 13 of them are white. Nearly 90 percent are people of color. Well over 90 percent of the people on death row in this state were simply too poor to afford an attorney to represent them.

RW: Philadelphia concentrates a lot of the abuses with the death penalty--a lot of people don't get adequate legal representation, there's widespread prosecutorial misconduct, perjured police testimony, forced confessions. In the 1960s people used to talk about "Mississippi justice" and everybody knew it meant you couldn't get any justice in that state. "Philadelphia justice" is a story most people don't really know about. Could you get into this more?

JG: I think it would be hard to find a city much worse than Philadelphia in terms of its justice system for a whole host of reasons. It starts with the police because that's where the initial arrests are made.

In the 1970s we had a mayor who I have no problem saying was a racist thug and that was Frank Rizzo. Frank Rizzo was not simply pro-police. Frank Rizzo was pro-police misconduct. He was pro-police corruption. He was pro-police state. And that's when you see a lot of the things like the repeated attacks on the MOVE organization. All that began on Rizzo's watch. Rizzo had been part of the police so I think the feeling was when he became mayor anything would go--and anything did go. And I say to people sometimes: Rizzo has been dead for not quite 10 years but this city is still haunted by the ghost of Frank Rizzo. And a lot of the current political players were cronies of Rizzo.

So you start with the police. Then you go to the prosecutors in this city, where there is aggressive pursuit of death sentences. Why? Well, it's not simply just to get people sentenced to death. It is because if you are seeking a death sentence, you can automatically strike from juries anybody who has qualms about the death penalty. So right away you get to screen out people who might be more reasonable, people who might be more likely to question--you know, well the police said this but something doesn't sound right about it.

If you've got people who are very poor or if you get people who are not extremely rich who get charged with a crime and they face the death penalty, you end up with them having a court-appointed attorney. Their attorney's not getting adequate resources to do the kind of testing that should be done to establish whether or not the person was even there.

You've got a defense attorney who may very well say to you, "Look we can fight this if you want to, but the reality is you're African-American. They're going to stack the jury against you and this jury will probably be ready to sentence you to death. If we plead guilty to second degree murder and plea bargain--even if you're innocent--you can come away with at least keeping your life, even if it's behind bars for the rest of it."

Innocent people get sentenced to death and in order to avoid the risk of getting a death sentence innocent people plead guilty to things that they haven't done and accept life in prison or extremely lengthy prison sentences.

Until about four years ago, the way that the county of Philadelphia handled representation when a person was facing a death sentence was different than if they were facing any other charges. Normally you would have gotten somebody from the public defender's office who was trained in criminal defense, who was getting paid something, and who had some standards and accountability to the people they work for. But if you're facing a death sentence you don't get somebody from the public defender's office. You get a "court-appointed" attorney who may or may not have any experience in criminal defense, let alone capital defense. And it historically has been a system of political patronage, people who are hack lawyers who couldn't actually practice law and make a living at it on their own are connected with some figures in the city government and so they get these little jobs thrown to them. And you don't have to do a good job. You just have to show up and you get your money. After a lot of lobbying, the city finally said OK, we'll let the public defender's office take 20 percent of the representation for people who are facing death sentences. In the last four years, exactly zero people have been sentenced to death when they were represented by the public defender's office. They haven't had anybody end up on death row yet. So you've got a system like that that plays into "Philadelphia justice," as we call it.

Prosecutors have used perjured testimony. And you have prosecutors who have become quite adept at how to violate the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Batson case which said that you could not strike people from juries on the basis of their race. There's a videotape that was used in the Philadelphia district attorney's office, a training session for new prosecutors coming in where a senior ranking prosecutor in the DA's office explained how you can strike people on the basis of race--you just have to come up with some means to cover it up. Because they've been able to strike people from the jury pool you end up with juries that are much more likely to convict.

You've got a lot of really bad judges in this city, judges like the infamous Sabo. Sabo's got more people on death row than any other judge in the country by a long shot. But he's not the only one in this city. There are other judges like Latrone, who has sentenced 15 or 16 people to death. There are quite a few judges like that, and those judges run their courtrooms like their own petty fiefdoms. And when you've got a judge there who is essentially a prosecutor in robes and who controls what information the jurors are going to be allowed to hear, you end up with a system that is rife with injustice.

And then if you want to talk about appealing it, you'd better be ready to face people on the state Supreme Court bench like Ron Castille who used to be the district attorney in Philadelphia and did not feel that the fact that he had been the district attorney should have given anybody pause to consider whether or not he was really unbiased when he cast a vote with the other justices on denying Mumia's appeal to the state Supreme Court.

I think that Philadelphia justice is anything but justice and in a country where we have all kinds of injustice riddling our so-called criminal justice system, Philadelphia may very well be one of the worst.

RW: What do you think the stakes are in the battle to stop the execution of Mumia and why do you think this case is so important?

JG: The stakes are very high. We're talking about a person's life here--a person who many, many people around the world, intelligent, thoughtful people from all kinds of perspectives, have serious questions about his case and how it was handled.

As I said earlier, if the state of Pennsylvania can execute Mumia in spite of all of that, then what do we do to prevent the executions of other people on Pennsylvania's death row? What would happen to people on death row if the one person who has been a voice for them is executed? What is the effect on anyone else? I kind of shudder to think about that.

And there's a lot at stake for Mumia in terms of what happens with all of the other people on death row. I think people have to understand that if you're going to help Mumia you do have to be concerned about what happens to the other people on death row, not in just in Pennsylvania but everywhere, and that as long as there is a death penalty in this country that this kind of thing could happen. If it could happen to Mumia, it could probably happen to almost anybody who has the wherewithal to speak out, to speak up and to uncover what's been happening.

RW: We've said in our paper that it will take a movement that's broad, diverse and determined to stop Mumia's execution, that his name has to become a household word and the injustice of his trial be the subject of broad debate in society. What do you think it's going to take to stop Mumia's execution?

JG: I really think what has to happen to stop the execution of Mumia is that some of these politicians have got to fear the political repercussions of the execution. A guy named Joseph Loeper, the majority whip of the Pennsylvania Senate, told us that the Republican Caucus made a strategic decision a few months ago. They decided to vote against even looking at how the death penalty was applied because while it might sound reasonable, a study might forestall or ultimately totally prevent the execution of Mumia. They talked about this openly in their caucus and then they had the audacity to say it to me! As he put it, it's a significant political issue for many of us in the suburbs of Philadelphia and even looking at how the death penalty was being applied might prevent them from cashing in on his execution. I paraphrased that last part a bit, but that was what he said.

I can't believe this guy thought that this was acceptable to say this to me. Aside from how somebody feels about Mumia's case, shouldn't that be pretty terrifying to realize that there are politicians who are saying it is so much in my political interests to make sure that we kill this one guy that I don't care who we kill along the way because I'm going to get elected by the Fraternal Order of Police membership or whatever by making sure that this execution goes forward?

The whole idea of those who advocate for the death penalty is that this is a solemn duty of the government to protect the people, that we must be objective in how we do this and that we do not relish this at all, that we have this entire legal process and appeals process in place basically so that politics does not influence the judicial process. And here you've got this guy saying the people making the laws are making sure that we don't even look at the whole death penalty just so that we can get this one guy? Unbelievable. Unbelievable.

I think that keeping the focus on stopping the execution is probably one of the most critical things to do in order to stop the execution. I would like to believe that everybody should look at his case and the kind of trial that he had and come to the same conclusion that I have personally--how can you not say he deserves a new trial? I mean to me that's like common sense. But I think when we talk about stopping the execution that leaves a lot of room for people to have a whole range of perspectives on his case.

A lot of people can be brought in on it as long as the focus at least begins with that and there's not a litmus test for something like Mumia is innocent. And I'm not really going to say what my opinion on that is only because to me, from where I'm coming from, that's not the main issue. But when you start getting into that and there's a conclusion that's already drawn, then it's harder to bring in the broadest range of people possible. And I'm not faulting anybody. I'm just saying from what I have seen, as long as the focus is on stopping the execution, that's where you really can connect with the widest amount of support.

It's like with the moratorium for us. A moratorium on executions, a two-year halt, is not our goal. The moratorium and organizing around the moratorium is a mechanism by which we can connect with people who might otherwise have thought of themselves as being on the opposite side of the issue. But we get the opportunity to dialogue with them and then we begin to have them see themselves as part of us. Once you get people to admit that regardless of how you feel about the death penalty in theory, there's something wrong with the death penalty in reality, from there you start to build trust. People start talking.

I'm confident that the more people think about it, the more people look at it, ultimately they may very well end up in the same place that I'm at. I don't want the government in the business of killing anybody--and I may not even want this government. Now, if I come in and start with my ultimate goal and say you accept it or you reject it, then we're back to putting up a lot of walls and putting a lot of lines there. And that may be worthwhile to do at some point, but if we're trying to organize a broadly focused movement then I think we have to be as inclusive as possible.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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