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San Quentin Vigil Arrests

by Terry Burke aka elbop (elbop [at]
Report form the February 3, 2004 vigil and civil disobedience action at San Quentin. Stop the Killing: At San Quentin, In Our Neighborhoods, Iraq and the World. Imagine Affinity Group, The Religious Imperative to Stop State Murder and Others hold an all night vigil and in the morning, 4 are arrested.
Below is my report from the vigil on Tuesday February 3, 2004 with Rev. Paul Sawyer at San Quentin, also posted at:

Terry aka elbop


At 12:01 am on Tuesday, February 10, 2004, the State of California plans to execute a man named Kevin Cooper, held on death row since his conviction for murder in 1985. This will be the first execution in California since 2002, and the 11th since the reinstatement of the death penalty in California in 1978 [1]. There are currently 610 persons under a death sentence in California, [2] their number is growing at a rate that I hear is as many as two per month...

On the night of Monday, February 2, 2004, Rev. Paul Sawyer and I drove away from the warm and comfortable homes of our friends in Berkeley and San Francisco into the rainy night toward San Quentin Prison in northern California.

We had come north from Los Angeles equipped with a large sign, plastic drop cloths, umbrellas, candles -- and love -- for all who live and for all who have been killed, innocent victims and murderers alike.

Members of the Imagine Affinity Group and The Religious Imperative to Stop State Murder have gathered at the gates of San Quentin to witness and resist the killing at every execution since April 1992 when Robert Alton Harris was put to death in the San Quentin gas chamber. This association of nonviolent activists goes back to the 1960's and has been active ever since, standing with dignity in resistance to all forms of killing in the name of the State. From Militarism and Wars of Aggression, to the Nuclear Terror designed in the weapons labs of Public Universities, to the Prison Industrial Complex and its corrupt system of injustice, to the slow death by Impoverishment and Social Neglect in the neighborhoods of working people all over the nation and the world.

Rev. Sawyer had convened the action in honor of two members who have gone beyond this world recently, Father Bill O'Donnell and Eldred Schneider. Between them, they had been arrested in civil disobedience actions hundreds of times over the years. They are remembered with great love, and their commitment required us to continue in their name on this occasion.

Our all night vigil began when we made a rendezvous with a long time companion, another man named Kevin on the empty late night streets of San Rafael. Kevin joined us bringing a van to shelter us from the rain, healthy soup, and hot tea to keep us strong through the cold and wet night to come.


At 11:45 pm, we arrived in the surreally quaint village that lines the quiet road to the prison and found a place to park at the edge of the State property. Small gingerbread houses face a beautiful scene, looking over the San Francisco Bay. These waters are for the neighborhood's residents an invitation to gaze with pleasure. For those beyond the fences and gates, they are mostly unseen by prisoners who spend their days and nights inside the walls.

The prison is on a site named for a local Miwok Indian called Quintin, who was a fierce defender of his land against the conquering Spaniards who colonized the area in the early 1800s. He was the first prisoner on this land, being captured by Mexican forces in a war of native extermination in 1824. The site became a State Prison after it was purchased for ten thousand dollars from an American land speculator in 1852. [3] The long peace of the ages has been shattered here since those first days of European conquest, and the place has been dedicated to the killing of those that society deems unwanted and guilty, whether they in fact are or not.

Through this history and continuing today, these unfortunate ones have always been disproportionately drawn from the communities of peoples not of European origin and white skinned -- the Red, the Brown, the Yellow and especially, the Black.

Currently, Whites represent over 59 percent of the population of California, [4] but only 41 percent of the 610 sentenced to death at San Quentin.

African Americans, comprising under 7 percent of the state's people, count for over 34 percent of these condemned prisoners. [5]


Our large sign said "Stop The Execution of Kevin Cooper! Stop The Killing: At San Quentin, In Our Neighborhoods, Iraq and the World." We placed the sign on the outside of the van's windshield and lit our candles. Soon we were joined by three who came from the East Bay, and then another two, and then a man from Marin... soon there were 9 gathered in the intermittent rain under the glare of the prison lights which cast shadows far into the bay and over us all. We greeted each other and made acquaintances, we shared our stories and huddled together in conversation. One woman brought out a sign that said "Stop Racist Scapegoating - Defend Civil Liberties" and wandered a few feet in the direction of the gates. She crossed over a speed bump beyond which there is an incongruous gift shop which stands between the end of the houses and the gates of the prison.

Our sign carrying friend was soon met by a pair of guards who issued forth from the checkpoint with a warning: There would be no problem if we wished to congregate as a "prayer vigil", but if there were going to be signs, this would constitute a "protest" and would not be allowed. Neither the sign on the van nor the slogans on some shirts were considered to be a violation of the "prayer vigil" definition however; apparently only hand-held signs are considered to trigger an act of "protest". Further, anyone crossing the speed bump could expect to be arrested for trespassing, unless we needed to use the restroom next to the little gift shop.

So here we had armed State officers issuing orders which contradicted themselves. They granted us a First Amendment right to assemble and speak, but only if we were deemed to be "praying". Our rights to free speech and assembly here were conditioned on our being engaged in what the officers arbitrarily (and inconsistently) considered to be "religious activity"... they were limiting our First Amendment rights based on their willingness to define our speech as "religious activity" which would seem to be a violation of the same First Amendment. Under their watch, only those whose "religious speech" was recognized by the government would be allowed to assemble and speak that night. All in the name of defending the public order, ironically under an authority whose boundaries they themselves seemed unable to understand or respect.


By 3:00 am, there were 6 of us left, and we all found some way to take a rest. All except our stalwart Kevin, who stood watch over the sleeping Rev. Paul in his van, the little tent which was set up next to that for our three friends, and me in a chair under a plastic cover in front of the sign. I slept sitting up and woke to the sound of rain a few times, but stayed dry while the candles stayed lit, and Kevin stayed up.

At 5:00, the first news van pulled up and I awoke. The rain had stopped again, and I got out of my cocoon. Kevin fed me hot soup, and we learned that the news would be broadcasting live every 15 minutes, so we woke up Rev. Paul so he could begin playing the role of spokesperson and begin the day right.

Paul got up wearing a black leather jacket over a black turtleneck sweater with a black knit cap. I said he looked like a burglar which he thought was funny since he was also wearing a colorful religious scarf called a "stole" around his neck -- he said he was here to steal the power of the death machine and we laughed.

Before the first light of dawn the reporter did an interview with Paul which presumably was fed onto the airwaves as "Breaking News" for the rising masses in the metropolis beyond the bay. He said we were there to speak out against the horror of the death penalty. Asked about Kevin Cooper he said, "We'd be out here whether he was guilty or innocent, because it is wrong to take another human life." When asked if he thought Gov. Schwarzenegger would grant a stay of execution, he said "I don't think so, after all, he's the Terminator!"


Another news van, a few photographers... another 2 dozen folks arrived in the early morning before 10:00. Folks had heard about the vigil on Pacifica KPFA, on, through Death Penalty Focus...

The Warden's assistant came to see what to expect, leaving looking relieved that this would likely be a small gathering. We were met by Michael Kroll, founder of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, DC who had been a friend to Robert Alton Harris, the first man executed under California's 1978 death penalty law in 1992 and the first after a 25 year break in the killing at San Quentin. Others showed up -- Father Louis Vitale of San Francisco, Hal Carlstadt from the Imagine Affinity Group wearing a T-Shirt that said "Fr. Bill O'Donnell Replacement Team" with a photo of the priest behind bars. And then, from up the street came a man shouting "No! No! No!" dressed in a Santa Claus suit... this was the clown prince of political satire, Wavy Gravy. When asked why he was in a Santa suit, he corrected the questioner -- "I'm Insanity Clause! Let me ask you - Why are we killing people to show killing people is wrong?"


The circle of about 40 gathered and Rev. Paul Sawyer spoke. He read from the works of Yeats; he spoke of the Death Machine that has overcome America, of the relationship between the coming execution and all killing. He pronounced the bankruptcy of the notions that violence can make us safe, that killing can end injustice or bring back the dead. He proclaimed the surety that killing leads to more killing and that we as persons of conscience had a duty to confront these ill-conceived fallacies, these pillars of the system of death.

Father Vitale brought our attention to the fact that it has been two years since the last execution in California. He saw this as evidence that "it is not in us to do this. Some think if we put this person to death, we will be safer. But that's not true."

Wavy sat and sang "Blowin in the Wind" and led us in a song of protest and rejection of injustice. He recounted that he had once led an entire brigade of Santas into civilly disobedient action at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratories into jail.

Hal Carlstadt gave homage to Fr. Bill O'Donnell and Eldred Schneider, the honorees of the day in whose name we were to witness the coming arrests of these four men.

The circle was invited to make our own comments, and we did... then the four walked across the line and into direct confrontation with the power of the State.

The State's officers moved to close the gates of the prison as the protestors approached. They assembled behind their closed gates with their cameras, their guns and their scowls. Apparently, they believed that by closing the gates and blocking the road at the highway behind us that they would negate the action by preventing any "crime" from occurring. This stalemate went on long enough for all but one TV crew to leave, about 40 minutes... then the Highway Patrol marshaled its forces and moved in, handcuffing the four, all in their late 60's or older, and taking them away to be incarcerated at the county jail.


Three of us prepared to follow our brothers to the jailhouse and make arrangements in support of their release. We packed up and said goodbye to the others assembled, most of whom were on their way now to join the Rally scheduled on Kevin Cooper's behalf later that afternoon in San Francisco.

We spent the rest of the day and evening being delayed and to some extent mislead by the personnel at the Marin County Jail, who were making it more difficult than in years past for the arrestees. In previous years, this kind of symbolic "crime" -- trespassing, blocking a street -- has been handled by the simple issuance of a ticket, or at worst, a trip to the jailhouse and quick release on a citation.

But times have changed. The State is no longer interested in permitting dissent or deviance from the officially approved forms of expression or identity. In our current environment, there are harsher penalties, meted out on a sliding scale to keep people divided and separated.

For Clerics and other "respectable people," acts such as these may now require a bail payment, such as the $602 bail demanded to secure our friend's release in this case.

As we have seen, for repeat offenders, there can be several months in jail as in the recent case of Kathy Kelly's sentencing to federal prison for her crossing the line at the School of the Americas. For Union members, there will be torture as in the case of the tear-gassed and brutally handled AFL-CIO members at the legal Free Trade protests in Miami recently, or simple terror as when the UFCW Local 770 President was arrested two weeks ago at Von's Grocery Co. HQ by a SWAT team for crossing a line onto company property in the company of ministers. For youth, the rubber bullets come out and the welts are exacted, or houses are searched and property is seized, good names are smeared as in the case of the "Enviro-terrorist suspects" arrested in Pomona last fall in the wake of the still unsolved burning of SUV's in the San Gabriel Valley of Southern California. For people of color, brutal daylight beatings are applied as in the case of 16-year-old Donovan Jackson-Chavis in Inglewood in 2002, whose tormentors have so far escaped justice.

Or as in the case of Kevin Cooper, the full weight of prosecutorial corruption and police oppression results in the legal lynching of a man whose guilt is denied by one of the crime's own surviving witnesses. A man to whom the State refuses to grant a hearing on the possibility of "cooked evidence," choosing instead to proceed with its plan and seal the fate of a possibly innocent man rather than pursue the justice it exists to guarantee.


Our friends held fast in jail on Tuesday and refused to negotiate with the Marin authorities. Instead, they demanded to be treated with dignity, to be given treatment for their medical problems, to be allowed to call the news media (permission denied). In the end, calling the State's bluff worked. They were released without bail at about 6:00 pm that evening, charged with "interfering with a public agency" and required to appear sometime in the future for "judgment."

I think it would be more appropriate if the State had charged itself with that crime, so that the Public's Agency and Right to a Just Society could finally become a reality. As Rev. Paul Sawyer said on Tuesday, "its going to take a revolution -- a nonviolent revolution -- to make this government stop its machine of death and allow us to realize our divine potential in this world."

Terry Burke aka elbop
web manager,
Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace


[1] - California Department of Corrections

[2] - California Department of Corrections

[3] -

[4] - Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University

[5] - California Department of Corrections
op cit., note 2, above.
§The Arrest of Fr. Vitale
by Terry Burke aka elbop (elbop [at]
§The Arrest of Rev. Sawyer
by Terry Burke aka elbop (elbop [at]
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