Justice Day on the Hill

On April 2nd, TCASK members from across the state convened in Nashville at the state capitol to voice their opinions on the death penalty to Tennessee legislators. Last year’s Justice Day on the Hill was critical in the passage of Senate Bill 1911—a bill to create the Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty. The Committee began meeting in October 2007 and has been producing fantastic results, uncovering myriad problems within Tennessee’s death penalty system. A primary focus of Justice Day this year was thanking legislators for the creation of the Study Committee as well as those legislators who signed onto Rep. Mike Turner’s letter asking the Governor to pardon Paul House. Another aspect of Justice Day involved asking legislators to consider extending the study for an additional year in order that it be thorough and complete.

Justice Day on the Hill epitomizes what TCASK is about—ordinary citizens doing extraordinary things. How many folks out there can claim to have met directly with their elected officials to voice their opinion on the death penalty and advocate for change? Not many. Sometimes it seems that our society’s obsession with being entertained has led to a great deal of apathy. I recently read a NY Times article prompted by the death of the 4,000th U.S. serviceperson in Iraq. The content of the article was mostly made up of emails and blogs written by U.S. soldiers. One soldier, Ryan Wood, wrote a telling commentary concerning U.S. society and its infatuation with celebrity such as Britney Spears. “This little piece of truly, heart-breaking news captured headlines and apparently American imaginations as FOX news did a two hour, truly enlightening piece of breaking news history. American viewers watched intently, and impatiently as the pretty colors flashed and the media exposed the inner workings of Brittany’s obviously, deep character. I was amazed, truly dumbfounded wondering how we as Americans have sank so low.”

Tennessee’s broken death penalty might seem less important when you place it up there with issues like the war in Iraq or Darfur, but it is important to me. It’s also important to folks like Leslie who made the 2 hour trek from Tracy City to Nashville. It’s important to Amy who made the 3 hour trek from Memphis to join her mother Doris for Justice Day. It is important to students like Kathryn, Mary, Michelle, Anna, and Whitney who woke up at 4:30 a.m. to drive to Nashville for Justice Day on the Hill from East Tennessee. Try asking these folks what they think about apathy as they huddle up outside of a legislator’s office to plan out their meeting. They would acknowledge it exists, but they witness to the power of engagement. They witness to democracy, to grassroots, and to change.

My first meeting of the day was with Rep. Chris Crider. I brought Doris and Amy (future Board Chair of TCASK) along with me. Amy seemed nervous. I ended up leading most of the meeting which was successful. Afterwards, we debriefed, and I focused on how easy it is because legislators want to hear from you. Amy still appeared uneasy, especially after I told her that we had planned on her leading some meetings later on in the day. After lunch I ran into Amy for the first time since our first meeting. Immediately I could tell there was something different about her as she shared about her experience of leading a very powerful meeting with Senator Beverly Marrero. As an organizer you dream of moments like this when folks feel empowered to make their voices heard. You put in long hours coordinating the event—setting up meetings, creating materials, doing outreach. All of that time is worth it when you see someone realize their own power.

TCASK schedules Justice Day on the Hill far in advance so we were thrilled to learn that the House Judiciary Sub Committee of Criminal Practice and Procedures would be voting to extend the life of the study committee on April 2nd. This gave the day an additional level of excitement and importance. In the end, the bill to extend the life of the study committee made it out of sub-committee. It still has a LONG way to go. But I am confident that it will pass as long as citizens continue to advocate for change and realize their own power.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand, it never did and it never will”
-Frederick Douglass

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