Breakin' It Down!
March 5, 2007
Capital punishment a.k.a. the death penalty.
Why should you care?
Barbaric practice and unfair application to poor and minorities.
What you can do today:
Instead of choosing beaches and beers, a number of college students nationwide will be spending their spring break this year doing activist work. One such destination is Austin, Texas, where the Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break will be held for its third year. The five-day event (March 13-17) is organized by Texas Students Against the Death Penalty, and offers students an opportunity to hear from exonerated Death Row inmates as well as the families of murder victims. Participants will not only hit the streets to protest, but also learn how to effectively handle the press and meet with their legislators.
As president of Texas Students Against the Death Penalty, Hooman Hedayati, a sophomore at University of Texas-Austin, works year-round to try to mobilize sentiment against capital punishment in a state that has performed over a third of the executions in the United States since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Despite his state's history, Hedayati believes that change for Texas could be right around the corner. Prior to his week playing host, he talked to WireTap's Adam McKibbin about his personal path to activism and the schedule of events waiting for alternative spring breakers in Austin.
WireTap: What does your alternative spring break entail, and what's the history behind it?
The alternative spring break program was started in 2005 by the Texas Moratorium Network, which is another nonprofit group in Texas. I was in high school at the time, and I found [the program] interesting. I came to Austin and became involved in the anti-death penalty movement. At the end of the 2005 spring break, a group of students and I decided to start this student-run anti-death penalty group in Texas. [We] concentrate on student activities and starting anti-death penalty chapters in high schools and colleges around Texas.
In 2006, the Texas Moratorium Network gave us the main responsibility for organizing the spring break. That was our second year, and it was a huge success -- we had MTVU covering us, National Public Radio, and almost all the local papers and TV channels. Many students who came here went home and started their own groups; some who came to Austin from Kansas started Kansas Students Against the Death Penalty. This year -- March 13 to 17 -- is probably going to be the biggest yet. One of our main goals is to bring in student leaders from different universities and high schools and get them trained on different issues, such as lobbying, direct action, how to write press releases, how to talk with media, and, more importantly, to learn about the death penalty system in Texas.
WT: The impression with an event like this could be that it's all about marching and protesting, but that's not the case, is it?
During this spring break, there's only going to be one real protest -- a direct action day on Thursday. We try to schedule the workshops so students will plan and organize the protest on the day before, so some of them will be writing press releases, and they will all decide where they want to protest. In 2005, we decided to go to the governor's mansion and then walk to downtown Austin. The students this year will have the chance to decide whether they want to do the same thing, or do something new or more interesting.
WT: How did you get involved with this cause personally?
I'm originally from Iran. My family moved to the United States about four years ago. In my first year of high school in Iran, I was walking home, and I witnessed a public execution. In Iran, there are public hangings for the high-profile cases; it's supposed to be a deterrent. Since then, I've had the feeling that [capital punishment] just didn't sound right to me.
There was a high-profile case in San Antonio when I was in high school. There was a big investigation by the Houston Chronicle about this person named Ruben Cantu, which said generally that he was an innocent person who was framed and convicted with the death penalty on a false confession by another person. I decided to go to Austin and learn more, and since then I've been working every day to reform the death penalty in Texas.
The promotional materials for your event invite students to come and "change the world forever." Do you feel that you are on the cusp of that change?
During the last few years, there have been some huge cases on the issue of lethal injection and several other death penalty issues. New Jersey passed a moratorium last year, and Maryland is going to vote on a moratorium very soon. But Texas does more executions than any other state, so we think Austin is the best city for this spring break; we think we can start the change from the heart of the problem, rather than in states where they don't even execute anybody.
WT: A Gallup poll last year indicated that, while conflicted, the majority of Americans do support capital punishment in some form or in some cases. If those polls are accurate, does that make capital punishment an issue -- like school segregation in the South -- that should be taken out of the hands of voters at some point?
Well, it also depends on how you ask the question; if you ask people if they prefer life without parole over the death penalty, the majority of Americans [say yes]. As for taking it out of their hands, yeah, the fact is that we do not need to get the majority in every case in order to pass laws and stop the death penalty. We need to talk to the legislators and explain it to them; as long as we have their support, we should be able to stop executions. Even in European countries, most people support the death penalty, but, in general, none of them practice it.
WT: Do you get a sense of whether the students who are signing up for your spring break really are sacrificing time in Cancun, or do they tend to be the sort that would never go within 100 yards of a Senor Frog's during spring break?
Yeah, some people who are coming would probably have stayed home otherwise, and some people couldn't go [to Cancun or other vacation destinations] because of the cost issues. In Austin, we just charge $25 for housing, and there are no registration fees. But a lot of students are skipping programs and activities in order to come to Austin.
Also, a lot of people have a misunderstanding about our program and think that you wake up in the morning and start going to workshops, and then you go back to sleep and come back tomorrow. But if you look at our schedule, we have activities in the mornings, but it only goes through the night on two days. Students have free time in the evenings to go and have fun. During the last few years, a bunch of students became really good friends and went to the South by Southwest festival, the biggest event in Austin every year, where hundreds of bands play. So there's also the fun and entertainment part.
WT: How do you advise students to interact with counter-protesters or people who are vehemently pro-execution?
When someone gets executed, we send press releases and talk to students and try to emphasize that we respect and understand the other side of the issue. On the moral side of the issue, I believe [executions] are morally wrong. Prosecutors always say that family members of victims are going to feel better after the executions, but there have been several studies during the past few years that have said that doesn't really happen. One of the things we'll be doing this spring break is bringing in more murder victims' family members -- people who have lost family members but are against the death penalty. One of our main speakers is Renny Cushing, who is the director of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, a nonprofit group that is campaigning against the death penalty.
There are also going to be exonerated death row inmates coming to talk to students, which I believe will be one of the most important workshops we're going to have. These are people who spent 20 years on death row for crimes they didn't commit, and they're speaking for reconciliation and forgiveness and trying to forget the injustice that has been done to them.
Adam McKibbin is an editor of TheRedAlert.com.