Thursday, July 01, 2004

Saving Starfish

The 11th Annual Fast and Vigil to Abolish the Death Penalty is winding down. Less than seven hours to go and those poor fasters and vigilers can eat again! Here's the latest from Kristen, our chronic blog chronicler:

Hate to disappoint, but the electric blue hair mentioned in the “Last Supper” blog was a wig. Mikhaela Payden-Travers is actually a redhead. Looking at the large banner she was holding, the twenty-three year-old said she had never pictured herself holding a sign when she was in high school or even in her first three years of college. She had always disagreed with the death penalty theoretically, but had never felt like actively protesting against it (let alone fasting for four days as she is doing now).

“I was a politically apathetic nihilist…I saw my parents do all this activist stuff and I didn’t see much change happening,” she said bluntly. Her mother is an Episcopal minister and her father is the current director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. “I’d always say, ‘Oh, you’re going out there with your signs again.’” When Mikhaela used to hear the popular story of a woman who walked the beach everyday to throw a few individual starfish into the ocean to save them from death in the sun, she typically responded, “Why not just get a bulldozer and toss ‘em all back in there at once?” I laughed because I used to think about that too.

Mikhaela has since changed her mind about the starfish.

She still considers herself a pessimistic nihilist, but she also knows that she can make a real difference in the lives of individuals. As part of her work as office director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty over the past two years, she corresponds with people on death row. She does not cook, but tried to make some of the recipes that one of the inmates sent her. Recently, she received and forwarded some poetry from death-row inmate Robin Lovitt. “Would I put it in an anthology of contemporary poetry? Probably not,” said the English literature major. “But it is really heartfelt and you really get to see into his life.” Mikhaela plans to pursue a career in teaching literary cultural studies, but has also decided to continue to be involved in the abolitionist movement by becoming a death-row pen-pal.

She attributes her change of heart in part to a course she took on the Holocaust during her senior year at William and Mary. “It really showed me what this post-modern nihilistic ethos could lead to—not caring about other human beings’ lives.” Maybe she thinks about that as she watches dozens of people walking by the Fast and Vigil without taking a second look. “Most people just don’t pay attention because it doesn’t affect them—its not their family member or friend being murdered or executed,” she said when I asked her about the reactions she gets from passersby. “I’m guilty of that too sometimes…it speaks to why we still have the death penalty.”

After our conversation, I told Mikhaela a bit about myself. As a philosophy major interested in academic arguments against the death penalty, I too had never really pictured myself protesting until I picked up my first anti-death penalty sign this summer at NCADP. “It’s good to have some signs with your theory,” Mikhaela said. And we both laughed in agreement.

No comments: