By Andrea Hall and Kevin Scruggs – current Maryland State Death Penalty Abolition Coordinators (SDPACs)
This blog series tells the story of Amnesty International’s involvement in Maryland’s historic death penalty repeal campaign, featuring the memories and insights of volunteers and staff who played critical roles over more than three decades.
In 2010 and 2011, we were fortunate to land in Maryland’s established and well-organized death penalty repeal coalition, continuing the work that countless others began decades earlier.
When we took on the shared role of State Death Penalty Abolition Coordinators for Amnesty International, we knew that repeal was a realistic goal in the relative short term, and that we had skills and experience to give to this campaign.
It was immensely rewarding to see the system work. Each year, we would employ the same basic strategy: in the spring and summer, we would lay the groundwork for the legislative session. We attended fairs and concerts, knocked on doors, collected signatures, and phone-banked. We handed out flyers, spoke to student groups, wrote newsletters, and marched in rallies. We drove hundreds of miles to reach out to a diverse constituency.
With this foundation, we would head into winter and begin our campaign to let Delegates and Senators know that their constituents wanted repeal. Then the political process would begin. Committee hearings were organized. Votes were held.
Through the entire process, we used technologies those who started this campaign in the 1980s could not have dreamed of – Facebook, Twitter and our emailed newsletter – to spread our message and generate momentum for the campaign. Our Facebook account was a central resource for information on the repeal movement and although it has been a useful campaign tool, it has its limits. It is very difficult to get your organization noticed on Facebook, but once they find you, your followers are loyal.
Our Twitter audience grew more organically and we found that this tool is much more opportunity-driven. We saw our biggest gains in followers, and gained our most active followers, after live-tweeting an event, such as a legislative hearing, a march or an execution in another state. Twitter creates a culture where followers want to be engaged in both the media and the campaign.
We emailed the newsletter to over 500 subscribers. This tool required the most maintenance, with people subscribing and unsubscribing, but was an effective way to distribute information.
We constantly strove to strike a balance between providing sufficient information and not flooding people’s space and time. By combining these media tools with traditional grassroots organizing, we increased our chances of success. Not all of our efforts were fruitful. While 150 people attended one speaker panel, a film screening drew just two attendees. We organized carpools of activists to our state capitol, only to have them cancel at the last minute.
What we never expected, however, was how much this campaign would give us. We’ve been the recipients of a wealth of experiences that we have enjoyed immensely. We worked with students, faith communities, campaigners, ministers and legislators. We stood side by side with people working very hard in the background. We were simply amazed by the fact that passionate people who were willing to work could make such change.
But passion can come with a price, and the hard part was always keeping things in perspective and remaining calm with the big picture in mind. The death penalty brings out a lot of emotion for people on both sides of the issue. We would like to be able to say we kept our cool, and we usually did, but not always. It is a fine line you have to walk between being driven by principles and passion, but conducting yourself with professionalism. Through it all, we armed ourselves with the facts, we debated, disagreed and sometimes, we changed minds.
We are honored to count among our colleagues people who have started grassroots organizations, organizers who helped achieve repeal in other states, men who have spent years on death row for crimes they did not commit, and those who have lost love ones to unspeakable acts, yet still find the courage to speak out against state-sponsored killing. They spent decades being told “not this year” but never accepting defeat. Their strength and wisdom enriched us, and we will always be grateful for that.