Social movements being collective activities and efforts used by certain groups of people or institutions and organizations to bring about desired social change in the society have been in existence in the US and other parts of the world since time immemorial. The most notable ones are the civil rights movements in the beginning of the 18 century and industrial revolution period (Snow, Soule & Kriesi 26). These social movements make use of a variety of strategies to recruit their members ranging from social networks to collective identity. They play a significant role in mobilizing social, economic and political change processes (Staggenborg 35). For instance, in the United States, the Anti-death penalty social movement comprising of those who oppose the imposition of capital punishment on those found culpable of first degree offences such as murder or homicide has played a contributory role in persuading, convincing and influencing the abolition of this practice by use of lobby groups in various states and learning institutions.
Their main concern about death penalty is the high number of death penalty convicts being exonerated by Higher Courts or the same courts that condemned them to suffer death after evidence has come up disproving their guilt. This movement is also made up of lawyers or defense attorneys who play the role of arguing for the overturning of death penalty convictions and also lobbyists who advocate for legislators in various states to abolish or amend death penalty laws besides holding public debates on the same. The purpose of this paper is to trace the origins of the anti-death penalty social movement in the US, its leaders or participants, recruitment, framing of issues, and strategies and tactics employed in advancing the movement. The paper will also evaluate the success or achievements of this social movement, its failures if any, ways of achieving more success and also do an overall assessment of the ADPM as a social movement.
Historical Origins of the Anti-Death Penalty Social Movement in US
The anti-death penalty movement (ADPM) in the US has a rather protracted history, originating in the colonial period during 1608 period when the first execution of Captain George Kendal took place. Since then, more than 15000 American men, women and children have been tried and executed. During these colonial times, the death penalty or capital punishment abolitionist movement was mainly influenced by what early European scholars like Voltaire, Montesquieu, john Howard, Bentham and John Bellers. Also of significant influence during this period was the writing of Cesare Beccaria in 1767 titled On Crimes and Punishment in which he had argued that the taking of one’s life by the state was not justified. The However, the anti-death penalty social movement in the modern day US began in earnest and gained momentum in the nineteenth century in the 1970s. The abolitionist movement registered its first major victory in the 1960 US Supreme Court decision in Trop v. Dulles 356 U.S. 86 (1958). Here, the court used the “evolving standards of decency” principle to hold that death penalty was unconstitutional. This was followed almost immediately by another victory in U.S. v. Jackson 390 U.S. 570 (1968) and yet another in Furman v. Georgia, Jackson v. Georgia 408 U.S. 238 (1972). The first setback to the anti-death penalty movement in the US was to come in the decisions in Woodson v. North Carolina (428 U.S. 280 (1976) and Gregg v. Georgia 428 U.S. 153 (1976) where the US Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, giving it a clean bill of health and overruling earlier decisions in Furnam and Dulles (Haines ).It is therefore change of attitude of the American people and members of its highest judicial authority about death penalty that has been the precipitating event within the ADPM. Since 1976, while there is a global trend towards abolition of death penalty, the practice has remained in the statue books of most states in the US including the Constitution that does not explicitly abolish it. Thus, the social movement against capital punishment in the country has continued in its quest to one day see the practice being struck off criminal our justice system.
The ADPM Social Movement Organizations, their Leaders, Recruitment Strategies and Solidarity Creation
A number of organizations are committed to and associated with the death penalty abolition movement in the United States. For the purposes of this paper, the organizations that will be considered and discussed in terms of their contribution to the movement are classified into clusters consisting of national, faith based ad state-based group organizations. In this regard too, the successful and less successful ADPM organizations will be discussed under the same section. According to Goodwin and Jasper, there are a number of factors that underpin and influence membership, recruitment or participation in social organizations. One such factor is the social network under which an individual’s recruitment and participation in a social group will depend on whether or not a person knows someone else. Moreover, the social identity of the prospective members also affects their recruitment and membership of such social movements as the anti-death penalty movement in US (15). According to these authors, social movement organizations usually frames issues based on the cultural, religious or political beliefs, attitudes and views held by their members and prospective members. Additionally, the framing of issues in alignment with these individual and national values is based on moral shocks involving diagnostic, prognostic and motivational training strategies (Goodwin, Jeff & Jasper 49).
The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty
This is as a matter of fact the largest organization leading the anti-death penalty social movement in the US currently. It has affiliations and support or membership both state and local levels. It was established by one Henry Schwarzschild, a civil and human rights activity in 1976 in response and reaction to the US Supreme Court ruling in Gregg Georgia 428 U.S. 153 (1976), reinstating the death penalty in US. According to the information available on the organization’s website, NCADP’s mission is to see the abolition of death penalty not only in the US, but also globally. It aims to achieve this by working together with its affiliates in local and state regions to educate and create awareness about the need to have a death-penalty free justice system in America. Some of these affiliate organizations associated with NCADP include the New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty, Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty among others. One of its solidarity creation strategies is holding of annual conferences, building coalitions with other movements, working with the media to disseminate ideas and networking. According to this organization, death penalty should not be permitted as a form of criminal punishment on the basis that it is arbitrary in its application, its execution is costly, it does not necessarily help deter crime, is racially administered and that it may sometimes result in human rights breaches. Other campaign and solidarity creation methods, tactics and strategies used by the NCADP to advance their ideas and philosophies on death penalty include using social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook for activity coordination or facilitation, liaising with state and local media to help in awareness creation, lobbying state legislators to promote and enact anti-death penalty laws and cooperation with other organizations.
Also associated with this organization are the Students against the Death Penalty (TSADP) that lends support to NCADP in its activities in learning institutions. This students’ not for profit organization carries out anti-death penalty campaigns by promoting activism among the youth and educating the public on the need to put an end to the death penalty in US. An example of this is the Texas Students against the Death Penalty. The other organization to this end is the Equal Justice USA (EJUSA) that holds dialogues with the affected stakeholders in this field to find reasonable ways of putting an end to death penalty and hence avoiding the injustices and costs that come with it.
Based majorly on the Christian and Islamic religious conviction and belief that the arbitrary and inhuman or degrading taking of another person’s life is against God’s wishes, such organizations have mounted campaigns calling for an end to death penalty in US. As Drinan observes, even the Catholic Church that has previously vocally supported death penalty has joined the bandwagon and has become “one of the most vocal critics of the death penalty (Drinan 171). However, the according to the author, not all religious groups in this camp support the abolition of death penalty. A research study by the Lipka of the Pew Research Center also claims that some religious groups in US do differ from their members on the issue of capital punishment (1). According to Palacios renewed stance by the Catholic Church on death penalty by supporting the anti-death penalty movement has mainly been informed by the imagination or notion of the Catholic Church on social justice pertaining to human dignity, human rights and the need to provide alternative options for vulnerable groups in the society instead of condemning them to death (81). Accordingly, these are some of the values upon which most religious organizations frame their issues on abolition of death penalty in the U.S.
The Catholics against Capital Punishment (CACP)
This religious organization is supported by the Catholic mobilizing network and seeks to end the application of death penalty as a punishment in the US. According to the Catholics Mobilizing Network, the CACP was established by one Francis (Frank) and Ellen McNeirney in 1992. It started off by raising awareness on the injustices that death penalty promotes. The main tactic used by this organization to marshal support is education and awareness creation through religious gatherings and conferences attended by Catholic bishops and other Catholic faithfuls.
The Death Penalty Information Center
This is a non-profit organization based in Washington, DC that was formed in 1990 to provide information concerning capital punishment issues. It collaborates with the media and other similar organizations to disseminate news to the public about death penalty and why it should be abolished. Further, it publishes list of executions and identifies those in which wrongful convictions were evident and defendants exonerated.
These organizations supporting the anti-death penalty movement in the US are divided into successful and non-successful groups depending on whether or not their activities are legalized or legislated by the relevant states. Examples of the successful groups of organizations under this head include the Alaskans against Death Penalty and the New Mexico Coalition to Abolish Death Penalty and the New Yorkers for Alternatives to Death Penalty. On the other hand, examples of the less successful state-based organization spearheading the ADPM are the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Coloradans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty Foundation and the Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (VADP).
An Overall Evaluation/Assessment of the Anti-Death Penalty Social Movement: Success, Failures and Suggestions on Improvements
As is the case with the above individual organizations, the ADPM employs various methods to advance the movement’s agenda. Some of these strategies include holding or hosting of conferences, dissemination of information through the media, social networking and partnerships, connection with supporters and members of the public through social media. According to Herbert Haines, traditionally, the proponents of the anti-death penalty movement or the abolitionists as they were known mainly sought to achieve their goals via a “moralistic critique tactic” (Haines 163). In this sense, the abolitionists based their arguments on racism, human right, and equality of treatment concerns. However, as Eren (58) observes, most of these tactics are out of tune with most conservative Americans and hence this lack of favor from the American public majority has undermined the success of this movement. According to this author, it is like the supporters of this movement have been addressing the gallery or preaching to the choir since the approach has since been more emotional than realistic. As an alternative to these “old” tactics, the Eren argues that the anti-death penalty organizations (ADPOs) should, if they are to achieve their objectives of complete abolition of death penalty, resort to more realistic, consensus-based and rational tactics for their case and frame their tactics or strategies based on frames or arguments of crime-prevention. He suggests a movement towards the left rather than right, the former of which involves a movement towards a radical justice or economic paradigm. Moreover, in order to improve the movement and ensure success, the ADPOs and ADPM as a whole must align or ground their arguments and strategies on a more significant movement that criticizes and fight against mass incarceration. To do this, it is important to appeal to the emotions, beliefs, feelings and views of those members of the American communities who are or have been directly affected by the continued imposition of death penalty on their family members. Furthermore, as McLaughlin contends, the anti-death penalty movement in the contemporary US needs to be framed by its advocates upon the notions of justice for victims, innocence of defendants, wrongful convictions, inefficiency of death penalty, its costs, availability of alternatives and support from the law enforcement officers (691).
Nevertheless in conclusion, it may be argued that in spite of the apparent weaknesses and failures in the anti-death penalty movement in the US as identified in this section, advocates of this social movement have made some strides achieved some progress .This success is mainly in terms of the number of criminal conviction s that have been overturned owing to their efforts and protests. But for any future success to be guaranteed for the anti-death penalty organizations and movement there must be a change in the manner in which the movement frames issues about death penalty abolition in US.
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