On February 10, 2004, Kevin Cooper sat with his spiritual advisor, waiting for death. He had received his execution date only seven weeks prior. Over the course of those seven weeks, Kevin was “psychologically, mentally, and physically tortured.(1)” Less than four hours before employees of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) were scheduled to strap Kevin to a gurney and pump poison into his veins, Kevin learned that the U.S. Supreme Court had granted a temporary stay of execution.
After his temporary reprieve, Kevin remained on death row at San Quentin. He watched as three more men were executed: Donald Beardslee and Stanley “Tookie” Williams in 2005, Clarence Ray Allen in 2006. Throughout this time, and continuing to the present, Kevin organized against the death penalty, writing prolifically and working with the Kevin Cooper Defense Committee to raise awareness of the plight of the 750 men and women awaiting their executions in California. In 2016, Californians voted to revitalize the machinery of death. Kevin Cooper, having exhausted his appeals, remains at the top of the list of potential executions. If it wasn’t for his own tireless advocacy, however, Kevin might not have survived his original execution date.
The work of organizing and fulminating for change is hard. When you are locked behind bars, isolated from society at large and forced to live every minute under an oppressive, invasive and restrictive regime, organizing is next to impossible. And yet there are prisoners putting in the hard and often dangerous work of organizing. For those of us committed to fighting for justice, to rolling back mass incarceration and abolishing the death penalty, it is crucial that we follow the lead of these extraordinary efforts. Charts and statistics can’t match the power of personal narratives of injustice. That is why the lived experience of Kevin Cooper, an innocent man caught in a racist system geared to protect procedural finality rather than human life, is so powerful.
Prisoner-led organizing has won big gains for justice. In the late 1960s, for example, Scandinavian reform groups under the acronyms KRUM, KRIM or KROM, depending on the country, sprung up. These grassroots organizations featured prisoners and outside allies finding ways to organize and work together toward the ultimate goal of prison abolition. Although that larger goal has yet to be achieved, through prison strikes and other actions the organizations won huge concessions from the states, including substantial decreases in incarcerated populations, and the abolition of the youth prison system in Norway in 1975.
Just a few years ago, here in California, after years of the CDCR resisting prisoner-led actions, a core group of prisoners, all of whom had been caged in solitary confinement for years if not decades, came together against incredible odds to organize a hunger strike to force the state to address the inhumane conditions of solitary confinement. The hunger strike was incredibly dangerous, and involved great sacrifice, but it worked. The strike, amplified by allies on the outside, garnered national attention and forced the California legislature and CDCR to address the demands of the prisoners in solitary confinement. The use of solitary confinement has been cut drastically, including a 97% cut in inmates stuck in solitary confinement for 10 years or more.
Kevin Cooper has been organizing against the death penalty from inside his death row cell for decades. His refusal to resign himself to the overwhelming power of the state may have saved his own life. It was Kevin himself who reached out to the newly-formed Northern California Innocence Project and piqued their interest in his case. The Innocence Project reached out to the attorneys who are still working with Kevin today, and they drafted the petition that secured Kevin a stay of execution in 2004.(2)
Despite the manifest injustice of his own circumstances, however, Kevin’s work has remained remarkably selfless. He has been focused on the plight of all those who suffer under a sentence of death, rather than focusing solely on his own compelling case for innocence. On February 1, 2004, only nine days before he was to be put to death, Kevin issued a statement breathtaking in its solidarity:
“While I am an innocent man about to be murdered by this state, I realize that innocence makes no difference to the people who control the criminal justice system, including this prison. This is the same system that has historically and systematically executed men, women and children who look just like me, if only because they can.
While it is my life that will be taken, and my body filled with poison, I will not say that this is my execution! That’s because it is not, it is just a continuation of the historic system of capital punishment that all poor people all over this world have been and are subjected to.
To personalize this crime against humanity as “my execution” would be to ignore the universal plight, struggle and murder of poor people all over this planet we call Earth. This I cannot and will not do!(3)”
Kevin’s powerful moral clarity has convinced Carole Seligman of the Kevin Cooper Defense Committee that if Kevin were to win clemency, his example, and his advocacy, could end the death penalty in California. The outrageousness of his case has already moved some powerful actors. Five Ninth Circuit Court Justices, dissenting from a ruling ending Kevin’s federal appeals, began their dissent, “The State of California may be about to execute an innocent man.(4)” The American Bar Association, the ACLU, and notably Lillian Shaffer, sister of one of the victims of the Chino Hills murders, have written letters in support of clemency for Kevin Cooper. Nevertheless, Kevin’s clemency petition has been languishing on Governor Jerry Brown’s desk for two years. Unless Governor Brown feels pressure to act, he may leave office with Kevin’s life continuing to hang in the balance. We can support Kevin’s abolition work and help save his life by joining him and his team in their efforts to urge the Governor to act. Please keep an eye on this page for more details on how to join us in a day of action on February 22nd, where we will coordinate actions from the Bay Area to Sacramento to demand that Jerry Brown take action.
On Saturday, February 10th, you can come hear from Kevin himself, as he calls into Koret Auditorium at the San Francisco Library’s Main branch. Live From Death Row: A Conversation with Kevin Cooper will be held from 2:00–3:30 p.