Starvin’ for Justice: Reflections of the Four Day Fast and Vigil

By Andrea Finuccio

For the last 17 years, the Abolitionist Action Committee has been holding a four-day fast and vigil outside of the Supreme Court from June 29-July 2, and it is aptly named “Starvin’ for Justice.”  The vigil starts on the day Furman v. Georgia was decided in 1972 (temporarily banning the death penalty) and ends on the day in 1976 that Gregg v. Georgia overturned Furman, and its purpose is to protest and petition for the abolition of the death penalty. Three weeks prior to this event, I got an email from another intern asking me about information about it to put into a newsletter, and once I was done doing some research I was so intrigued I signed up. I participated fully – I only drank liquids, I slept in front of the Supreme Court, and I tabled and handed out pamphlets in the DC heat, while still going to work and school. It was one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever partaken in. Below is a summary of my experiences, and I hope that by reading this you will be inspired to sacrifice something small for a cause you love.

On the night of June 28, I walked into a private room at the Capital Brewing Company to enjoy my last meal before four days of fasting. I came alone as I knew no one, and slowly realized that most of these people had been coming for years – they had friends, connections, stories and inside jokes – something I lacked. But as I enjoyed my black-bean burger and French fries, people noticed I was a newcomer and introduced themselves to me, and I began to ease up. As the clock slowly closed in towards midnight, the group began their walk to the Supreme Court for the vigil’s kick off.

Some of the abolitionists and me (far left with white shirt) in front of the Supreme Court on the last day.

At 12:01am, the anniversary of the decision of Furman v. Georgia, the fast officially began. As we stood in a circle in front of the Supreme Court, we went around one by one and said whom we are and why we were there. People were from all over – Washington, California, Connecticut, South Dakota, France, Sweden, and London – and each had their own personal reason for participating. It was then I knew that this week was going to be something to remember.


Comings and Goings at the Supreme Court

Today marks the last open session of the US Supreme Court for this term.  It also marks the last session for Justice John Paul Stevens, who resigned earlier this year, and whose proposed successor, Elena Kagan appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee today to begin her confirmation process.  As noted in an op-ed in the Atlanta Journal Constitution by former Georgia Supreme Court Justice Norman Fletcher, Justice Stevens’ career covers the entire span of the “modern” US death penalty, from its re-instatement in 1976 (which Stevens supported) to more recent decisions restricting capital punishment by banning executions for those with mental retardation (Atkins v. Virginia, 2002) and for juvenile offenders (Roper v. Simmons, 2005).

In 2008, while upholding the legality of lethal injection, Stevens wrote that he no longer felt the death penalty could be justified on constitutional grounds.  He called capital punishment “pointless and needless extinction of life with only marginal contributions to any discernible social or public purpose” and argued that as a result it is “patently excessive and cruel and unusual punishment.”

His last major act involving the death penalty was to pen the concurring opinion in support of an extraordinary evidentiary hearing for Troy Davis, a hearing that took place last week.

Tomorrow, June 29th, will mark the 38th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision, in 1972, that all capital punishment statutes were unconstitutional.  4 years and 4 days later came the decision that ruled states’ new death penalty laws to be constitutional.  Every year at this time, activists come to the US Supreme Court, braving the heat, for a 4-day Fast and Vigil, marking this unfortunately brief period of death penalty pseudo-abolition in the 1970s.  Those in the DC area should join them.