Death Penalty Activists Soldier On

Anthony Pignataro:

If you happened to walk past the north steps of the State Capitol around noon today and you ignored a nice man in a baseball cap who tried to hand you a small slip of peach-colored paper while saying something to the effect of “The death penalty is too expensive,” you should know that he doesn’t take it personally. He’s out there just about every month, as are the half-dozen others who joined him today in their efforts to tell people that capital punishment is wrong.

“We don’t do things in proportion to deterrence,” Christine Thomas of the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the organizers, tells me. “In California, we have 2,000 homicides per year. One thousand go unsolved. We spend a billion on a handful of homicides. We’re taking money from the victims, who are forced to live on the same streets as those who killed their loved ones.”

I ask her if money is their best argument against capital punishment.

“Money is the crucial issue, but it’s really about how we have a finite level of resources,” Thomas says.

Others, like Georgia Lyga, who is short, white-haired and full of fire – “You don’t want to talk to me,” she told me, “because I’m just old and cynical” – are a bit more plain-spoken. “The money – that’s the only way we’re going to squash this thing,” she said.

They’re out there on the third Monday of every month (“except January and February,” Lyga tells me, “when it’s so dead here you could fire a cannon and not hit anyone”) from noon to one p.m.

To them, the death penalty is simple perfidy – government betraying its basic mandate to uphold life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Or, as one activist’s t-shirt put it, “Execute Justice, Not People.”

For a few minutes, I stood next to two guys – Gary Timmons and Jerry Frink (the later of whom is running against Congresswoman Doris Matsui on the Peace & Freedom ticket) – as they held a banner saying “Just Say No To Death Row.” We watched John Reiger trying to hand people little “We Can’t Afford the Death Penalty” fliers. Few take them.

“People on the right don’t take them because they already made up their mind,” Frink, who’s wearing a red baseball cap saying “John 3:16,” tells me. “And people on the left don’t think they need to.”

Timmons, who tells me he was in prison once himself and now runs a house for parolees, shakes his head. “I come hoping for a crowd, but there never is one,” he says.

A few minutes later Timmons is proved wrong, but it’s a crowd of high school kids on a field trip. Reiger doesn’t miss a beat, and manages to hand out lots of handbills.

“It’s too bad they don’t take a picture on the steps and then we can get the banner in the background,” Timmons jokes.

By 12:30, Lyga is tired from doing so much standing, so she and two others sit on the Capitol steps behind their banner.

“She keeps saying she’s looking for a replacement,” Frink says. “Who could take Georgia’s place?”

OCT. 18, 2010

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