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A life’s sentence


Former death row inmate Shujaa Graham says that if he was guilty of anything, it was of trying to organize his fellow prisoners in the California prison system. It was 1969 and Graham was 18 when he went to jail for robbery, though he had been in out of juvenile hall for years. Out on the streets, militant groups like the Black Panthers and Civil Rights demonstrations were on the rise. And, "we had our own Civil Rights movement within prison," Graham says. In 1973 he was accused of murdering a white prison guard --- framed, he says, because he spoke out too loudly against the system.

Graham went through four trials before being acquitted, and he was released in 1981. Graham will be in Rochester along with Anthony Arnove, co-editor with Howard Zinn of Voices of a People's History of the United States, on Thursday, January 13, for a talk titled, "Tortured by the US Government: from Abu-Grahib to San Quentin." Graham talked to City Newspaper recently from his home in Maryland. Following is an edited transcript of that conversation:

Graham: I'm always constantly talking about life and death. It's hard on me, but I know I have a responsibility because I was fortunate to get out. So I try to be a force for a lot of the people who can't speak. And I try to be movement for those who are stuck.

City: It's only within the past few years that you started accepting speaking engagements and positions within the anti-death penalty campaign. Have you always been active in that movement?

Graham: Actually, I've been fighting capital punishment constantly ever since I was 18 years old and I was in prison.

In '73, after being in prison then about four years, I had been involved in the prison movement, fighting against police brutality, prison reform, racism.

I was organizing and active, trying to bring prisoners together. At that time they didn't have black prison guards, and that was a part of our grievance. If you know about Attica and things that happened, that was going on throughout the United States at that time. I got out and I've been involved in doing what I'm doing ever since.

I work in the anti-war movement; I deal with homeless issues. I just try to serve humanity.

City: What about the war do you oppose?

Graham: To see thousands and thousands of people unnecessarily die because we made the wrong decisions, it's hard. That is the price we pay when we make collective decisions about things. Our sins become greater. And long after the war is over with, after the last body is brought in, what about those who participated in the death process? What kind of psychological damage has been done to those?

Years from now we will talk about them. We will see them on the highways of our cities, at the stop signs, killing their wives, killing themselves. Their greatest fight will be when they come home.

City:What message are you hoping to get across by telling your story?

Graham: There's got to be another way to be able to resolve and deal with our problems, a more effective and humane way.

Like Martin Luther King used to talk about, we must develop a method that will reject revenge, retaliation, and violence. Because then we have set the foundation, for not only human happiness, but justice, peace, and equality for all the people in our world.

He talked about how we are all tied up in one single garment... what affects one directly affects us all indirectly.

City: What kind of justice system would you like to see?

Graham: We have to come up with more humane methods. If something happens to someone, the state has an obligation and a responsibility to confine. But don't kill in our name and call it justice.

I've had it on both sides of the fence. In my little hometown that I was born and raised in, my mother's brother became a police officer. He died violently at the hands of the staff. Did anyone get capital punishment for that? No. My mother's brother, living in South Central, California, lost three sons in the Crips and Bloods war. Did anyone get capital punishment for that? No.

I would like to see capital punishment totally abolished and eliminated.

City: Do you think there are problems in the whole justice system, not just with the practice of capital punishment?

Graham: There's one judge, an Illinois Supreme Court judge, and he was talking about capital punishment because that's what was being debated... and he was talking about, if there's things going on like this on cases on such a serious level --- inadequate representation, prosecutor misconduct, etc. --- he said: I don't want to begin to think about what's going on in the less serious, low-level cases. He said: I'm not just concerned about the death penalty; I'm concerned about the entire criminal justice system. And this is a state Supreme Court justice.

For example, the state I'm living in now, Maryland: Last year, 85 percent of the murder victims in the state of Maryland were African-American. No one was on Maryland death row for killing those blacks. Not that I'm advocating equal killing, but I'm just trying to present a case in terms of the racism and the discrimination. Everyone on Maryland death row, the murder victims were white. I just call it a system of racism.

City: Are things getting better?

Graham: I've been doing a lot of speaking at the universities around here in Washington, DC. Most of my greatest support has been from the universities I was afraid to go to, like Georgetown, and George Washington, and American University. That's where I find my best supporters. So I'm encouraged.

After being in a situation where you've been constantly told that you were a nobody, and that you're nothing, to be condemned, and then to come all the way back and to hear people say good things about you, it kind of makes me feel that all I went through has been worth it.

Most things that are right to do always take a lot of strength.

The talk with Shujaa Graham and Anthony Arnove is on Thursday, January 13, in the Webb Auditorium on the Rochester Institute of Technology Campus, at 7 p.m. Free. 442-2216