Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Part Two: The Execution of Samuel Flippen

Part two of former NCADP intern Rachel Lawler's account of the vigil outside Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina on the morning of Samuel Flippen's execution:

Those of us who were to participate in the direct action did a lot of praying over several hours, for clemency, for hope. Shortly after midnight, it was announced that the Governor had denied clemency. I was standing near one of Sammy's young cousins who fell to the ground and sobbed "Why, why?" I wish that there was something I could have done to console him, but I knew that no words would have been able to abate the incredible despair. It was then that we circled, joined hands in prayer, and then proceeded to walk out of the designated area and further down the road for approximately a half mile, before turning around and walking back toward the prison.

Strangely, I felt at peace during this walk. I knew that I was doing the right thing. Petitions, calls, media, blogs, nothing else had worked to stop this execution. Direct action was the only remaining option. I was not going to let the execution happen silently and without expressing my dissent, nor were the others with whom I was walking in solidarity. Silence is consent.

During our walk toward the prison we sang "Salvator mundi, salva nos," which increased in volume as we drew nearer to the prison. We were walking along the opposite side of the street and when we finally arrived directly across and waited for a car to pass, all eyes were on us.

We crossed the street together and did not stop at the crosswalk, at which point public property ends. We continued to walk and were then notified that we were on state property and if we refused to leave, we would be charged with second degree trespassing. Four people, dressed in black, had planned to stay and risk arrest. Three others (I included) laid hands and prayed for them, but had not planned to risk arrest. After the first warning, and what turned out to be the only warning, an officer said "You are now under arrest for trespassing," at which point the three of us backed away (we were expecting additional warnings) and to the other side of the crosswalk.

Joined by several others who had walked with us, but not trespassed, we sang a hymn for them and read the following Lamentations:

"When all prisoners of the land
Are crushed under foot,
When human rights are perverted
In the presence of the Most High,
When one's case is subverted,
--Does the Lord not see it?

Let us test and examine our ways,
And return to the Lord.
Let us lift up our hearts
as well as our hands,
To God in Heaven.
We have transgressed and rebelled,
And you have not forgiven.

My eyes flow with rivers of tears
Because of the destruction of my people.
My eyes will flow without ceasing,
Without respite,
Until the Lord from heaven looks down,
And sees."

I was participating that night, first and foremost, on behalf of myself and my convictions, not necessarily on behalf of any organization (especially ones that have policies about civil disobedience!) We all stood and watched as those who had refused to leave were handcuffed, led away, searched, put into the paddy wagon to be taken downtown where, as we would later find out, they would each be held on a ridiculous $5,000 bail (raised from $3,000 the time prior, $1,000 before that, and a written promise the first time). Two of the participants chose not to post bail and were released later that day.

The action was over. Clemency had been denied. There was nothing left to do except wait, anxiously, in dread to hear that Sammy Flippen had been executed. It was somewhat reassuring to hear earlier that night from one of his family members that he was at peace and was prepared for his fate.

At 2 a.m., when most of the state of North Carolina was fast asleep, we were outside facing Central Prison, knowing at that very moment that the life of a man was being ended unnaturally and at the hands of the state. Some children had long ago fallen asleep on the ground, but were awoken by ubiquitous cries and sobs when the family members got the news – Sammy was dead. A young, female cousin cried out in sorrow and confusion "Why did they have to do this?"

And the truth is, Sammy Flippen's death was unnecessary. His death did not bring Britnie back. It was obvious, however, that it caused an immense amount of additional pain. Opponents of the death penalty who were present could do nothing but stand and allow their physical presence there with the family to be an offering of support. An uncle of Sammy's prayed for the family and afterward, there was nothing left to do. Sammy's mother and father exited Central Prison and some family members were escorted out of the cage area and into the cars that the mother and father were driving. Sammy's mother and father thanked us for all that we did. I only wish we could have done more. Signs were disassembled, barriers were removed, small puddles of wax from vigil candles that had dripped and melted over the course of the evening remained on the sidewalks; tears had evaporated.

I'd say that we all walked away that night a bit worse off than when we arrived. We bore witness, not visually, but to the best extent we could, to the extinguishing of a man's life and future and the devastating effect that it had on his family members. I arrived back at the Nazareth House that night and realized that for several hours, sharp pains (which I attributed to the stress of the evening) in my stomach had gone unnoticed because of all the commotion. I could barely sit at the kitchen table with the others who were eating, solemnly. None of Sammy's family showed up that night. But I don't blame them. I can't even imagine how they felt. In a sense, I was glad that there were so many of them there that night, so that they wouldn't be alone in their sorrow; they had one another to endure with. Although I wish that I'd never again have to be outside of a prison when an execution is taking place, I will continue to do all that I can, for as long as it's necessary. My experience in North Carolina only strengthened my resolve to work for achieving complete abolition of the death penalty. It is definitely exhausting (physically and emotionally), but it is what I must do.

If you would like to see some really dramatic pictures from this vigil, go

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