Michael Ross decided he wanted to die, to begin with.
Ross was a horrific serial killer, a man who in the early 1980s raped and murdered 8 women, most of them teenagers. He had been on death row for two decades when he decided he would like the state to end it; he had converted to Catholicism while in prison and wanted to go meet the good lordy. The state of Connecticut, for some reason, decided to give him what he wanted. And since the death penalty is an abomination, there was to be a protest.
I was sent to observe. I was asked by Peter Goselin, a man I had known from Connecticut United for Peace, affectionately known as CutUp, and years of local activism. Peter was a great guy and activist, a local NLG lawyer. Big and gregarious, he was the kind of pragmatic radical I’ve always liked. He’s still doing his thing in Hartford. Anyway I had been trained to provide legal observation by the NLG years back; they hold these inservices that essentially teach you how to testify against abusive cops at protests. I went to one, at one of the endless activist conferences I was attending in those days. I had videotaped the local Vets for Peace on a Memorial Day parade for Peter once; this was in 2004, so you can imagine the abuse they received. Peter emailed me and asked me if I would go to the prison for Ross’s execution. There had not been an execution in the state in a generation and no one was sure how the cops would react. I said sure. He dug around in his office and found one of the ridiculous ball caps that the NLG uses to identify legal observers at protests.
“It’s really important to wear the hat!” he said.
I ditched the hat. I mean, it was bright neon green.
The execution was set for not long after midnight on a clear May night. We were meeting in a church, first, somewhere up in the quiet north of the state, a place that would be sleepy even if it wasn’t close to midnight. On the way there I got pulled over at a DUI checkpoint. The cop seemed impossibly young. It’s funny, how many of them I met, in those protest days. He was surprised when I told him that I was heading to the execution. “I thought that was tomorrow night!” he said as he handed me back my ID. I told him that, because the actual event would take place after midnight, the date of the execution was misleading; it would indeed happen in just a few short hours. This confusion with the date was, I was fairly sure, by design. They probably hoped it would help keep down the fuss.
At the church, I noticed a different crowd than the ones I had become used to. There were some of the usual socialists milling around, but mostly the crowd was older and more overtly religious than what I was used to. This was at a time when I had been organizing maybe 20, maybe 30 hours a week. It was only a couple of months after we had finally pulled off an antiwar march through the center of Hartford, then as now the hardest thing I had ever been a part of. It was a rousing success. A couple thousand people showed up. I had come to realize, in the weeks that followed, that I was more exhausted than energized, and though I would not know it at the time, that night at the prison ended up being something like an ending for me.
An older activist, clutching a placard that read “Don’t Kill in My Name,” addressed the group, describing the march, talked a bit about the cops, the timeline. My recollection is that we loaded into some school buses after that, but I’m not 100% sure. One way or another, we ended up at the outskirts of the prison. It was a lot of people, more than I expected, hundreds, but quiet. The protest took the form of a procession. Some people carried candles. Every once in a while I heard people singing, but for the most part people just walked, as I remember. It was an odd but moving sight, to see the long line of people, snaking around the grounds, carrying candles, singing hymns. Not my type of protest, really, but then you go to peace with the army you have, not the army you want. In any event, it was clear that my services that day would be unneeded, hat or no hat. I’m not sure I saw more than a couple cops that entire somber night, and besides, I doubt they’d get too rough with a bunch of old hippies and Quakers.
I wound up walking along these three kids. They were young, probably teenagers, maybe early 20s at the oldest. Two men and a woman. They were grumbling kind of strangely and eventually I realized that they were counter protesters, though I doubt they had thought it through enough to really consider themselves that. I’m sure states that execute people more often have a real smooth system, sorting out your protesters from your counter protesters, this line leads to that holding pen, etc, but this was the first execution in all of New England since 1960. I’m guessing these kids just showed up and kind of got packed in with the rest of us. They kept coming up with slogans that they would have put on signs, if only they had thought them up in advance. “That would be awesome” one of the dudes kept saying anytime they came up with an idea. I admit it was kind of endearing.
I tried, at times, to think about Ross’s victims. The death penalty is an ironic horror; the punishment multiplies the original sin, staining the mechanism of justice with the same blood that set it wheezing into motion. I thought of those terrified women, and I thought of his meaty hands as he strangled them, his pathetic power fantasies animating his sweaty fat frame as he choked the young life out of his defenseless victims, leaving mangled bodies in a ditch, obscenity piled on obscenity. I thought of his sense of satisfaction, however momentary it might have been, and how it rendered the notion of retributive justice so useless and absurd. I tried and failed to put myself in the position of those who thought that there would be some sort of cosmic retribution in strapping Ross to a chair and injecting him with chemicals until he was dead. He was weak and he was frightened and so he crushed young lives and when it was over, we were left with his human garbage in a cell. We then made the choice to climb in there with him.
At some point there was a ripple, a false alarm that it was over and he was dead. There was some sort of delay or complication; practical or legal, to this day I don’t know. A thin old peacenik standing on an embankment, grey beard glinting in artificial light, called out softly to me: “Is it true? Is it over?” I told him I didn’t know. Minutes later, just as vaguely, the word murmured across the procession: he was still alive.
It was long after midnight but physically I felt alert; mentally, I was exhausted. For over three years, I had labored against wars that were, in their own fashion, a kind of death penalty. I was spent, not only by the effort, but by my tangled, dysfunctional attitudes towards that effort, towards the things I knew about my work and could not say. Left-wing organizing is a matter of the greatest moral and political need; it is also, in the main, an object lesson in the worst forms of organizational psychology, a never-ending litany of corrosive and paranoid social practices. There was the splinter groups and the affinity pledges and the secret meetings and the loyalty oaths and the purity tests and…. I witnessed every type of dysfunction you can imagine in those years. One campus group I was in decided to institute a consensus-based decision making policy; they felt democracy was bourgeois and that voting failed to respect minority voices. So they advocated for a system based on universal assent. No decision could be made without perfect unanimity. I argued that this was a mistake. I felt that consensus could never work in groups with true diversity and that this was a tactic for richie liberal arts colleges where everybody was pretty much the same, not a working class commuter campus like ours. But I found myself outvoted, which would have been fine. Unfortunately, they wanted to adopt a consensus decision making process only through consensus itself, which didn’t really make any sense. Since I thought it was a bad idea, I did not consent. After two meetings of a standstill, I was quietly informed I had to leave the group. A change designed explicitly to defend the rights of minority voices had resulted in my expulsion for refusing to conform. Things were like that back then.
But it was the denial of leadership that was worst. Activism is work. It’s other things too, but first it’s work. And work was never remotely evenly shared. Some people took on a lot, spending hours on unglamorous, tiring legwork. Some people came to meetings and sounded off and then never did any of the actual business of organizing. And while I felt and feel that all should have a voice, I found myself increasingly exhausted by the prospect of being lectured to in meetings by people who were doing nothing besides wearing lefty t-shirts in coffee shops. For the big march we had pulled off that March, I had spent endless hours shuffling back and forth from the Hartford Department of Licenses and Inspections to the police department to the mayor’s office, getting Form 21-J signed and then notarized and taking it to some functionary to be told that I first had to get Permit 45 stamped, only that office was only staffed every other Tuesday…. I learned that winter and spring that when state power wants to stop you, it doesn’t always need to send in the thugs. It just smothers you in paperwork. In the end, it took getting the ACLU to shake the tree before the city relented and gave us our permit. I still have it framed in my office. They changed the name of our antiwar march to a “peace rally” on the permit, just one last little fuck you from the system to let us know who was in charge, even in naming our own events. I never blamed the individual bureaucrats, personally. They were caught in it, too.
Throughout all of that, and all of the organizing and bridge building and planning, there had been some who did a lot more and some who did a lot less, and all coming to the meetings. Dozens of people contributed to the effort, and work was not split remotely evenly between them. That would have been fine, if these differences in effort could have been addressed and acknowledged openly. But in those spaces, in that political context, no such recognition was possible.
There was no way to express it in many of the activist spaces I worked within. To assert that some were more responsible for organizing success than others would be seen as to assert ownership, and to assert ownership would be seen as to attempt to dominate and take authoritarian control. Leadership, in so many of these contexts, was perceived as control, and control as the hand of reactionary power, hegemony, colonialism. I once sat in a meeting and had a guy screaming at me, screaming, because I had told the plain truth that he was a leader in our organization. He did lots of work; his voice was listened to and respected; he was inspiring. In every positive sense of the term, he was a leader. But in that context, he took it as a terrible insult. Meanwhile, all around me the antiwar movement seemed to atrophy and rot, precisely because it lacked leaders, because there was no accountability, because anyone could come to any meeting and start to preach, and no one knew what to say when they were disruptive, or undermining, or just useless.
I did not need to be a leader or to be called a leader. I did not want credit. I just wanted it to be acknowledged that there was a difference between a lack of formal hierarchy and equality of commitment; I wanted to speak plainly about the fact that somebody actually has to print the fucking flyers and so somebody has to raise the money to do it and somebody has to be individually responsible, and that as long as the pretense of purely horizontal organizations persisted, there was no way to actually spread the word that desperately needed to be spread. I wanted to say that the myth of pure organizational equality just made us all vulnerable to the worst who showed up. I wanted to say these things and didn’t know how. I knew how it would go over.
It was that condition – knowing from experience that trouble was coming, group-killing, movement-neutering trouble, and knowing at the same time that there was no way to warn others about that trouble without being accused of ideological impurity – that sapped my strength. The resistance to anything resembling leadership or hierarchy turns experience from a strength to a weakness. It makes for a movement perpetually having the same fights and the same setbacks. I was not tired from organizing and failing, given that left-wing organizing will result in failure most of the time. I was tired from watching groups and people I loved fail again and again in the same ways.
On that night at the prison I had ample time to observe the people around me. They struck me, in large majorities, as the kind to spend their time campaigning against nukes and for dolphin-safe tuna — worthwhile endeavors, sure, but not my speed, not my preference. I’m sure there was a hundred things I disagreed with most of them about. But I also had to admire their focus, the directness of their action, their organization. I realized, in the years to come, that behind the scenes of whatever groups had organized these several hundred people, there was most likely roiling dissent of the type that was perpetually tearing up my own groups from the inside. But on that night, all I could see was sober focus. I thought of the fact that it was the Quakers and their American Friends Service Committee that had brought so many of the local events to fruition. That’s not an endorsement of moderation; many of the Quakers were more radical than I was. It’s an endorsement of their willingness to build an organization, to have a hierarchy and call it for what it was. I envied it; I wanted it for all of us. But what kind of voices were quieted, if not silenced, in building the protest that night? In building the organization? The question, then as now, is how to build the organizations without becoming the Department of Licenses and Inspections. How do you make a movement that works to challenge the state without taking on the state’s form? They say you can’t tear down the master’s house with the master’s tools. But then, without the master’s tools, we aren’t exactly tearing anything down these days, either.
Now, many years after I have thought of myself as an activist, I look around at the world of left online politics, and everything seems so familiar to me. I see so many of the same destructive patterns, all of the old problems bubbling up, so dispiriting, so crushing in their inevitability. I see young people, younger than I was that night, making all of the same old mistakes, and all so proud, as they speed themselves towards their own certain burnout and collapse. I find myself more and more playing the role of left scold, pigeonholing myself as a tongue clucking moralist, forever telling younger people that they’re doing activism wrong. But what else am I going to do, when I see so many of the same old problems, when I can tell what’s coming? The perpetual cycle of outrage, incrimination, exhaustion, and surrender does no favors for the left. It takes our best and brightest and runs them through a meat grinder that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. The carnage is then celebrated as some sort of rebuke to establishment power, while actual establishment power can barely contain its laughter. The fact is: this way is not working. I know plenty of people who will defend this tactic or that Twitter storm or this public shaming. I know no one who looks at all of it and thinks it’s healthy, thinks that we stand any chance of winning.
I just want to pull these young people aside, share a little of my own experience. I don’t want to scold them. I just want them to know that some of us have seen this all before, and that it only goes the one way, and that what’s left looks nothing like social justice. I know how people will think that sounds: like I’m trying to be the master, the teacher, the boss. But that’s the last thing I want. I just want to spare them from so many of the ugly moments I went through myself, that I witnessed in others. I don’t want to lecture to them or criticize them or undermine them. I want to save them from a little unnecessary pain. I was changed, by so many things, those days. Everything became so intense. People don’t remember what it was like on September 12th. I felt it changing me, I felt all of those days changing me. It’s left me a stranger to myself.
“You know what would have been the best?” one of the teenage dudes said. “If we had a sign that said ‘We’re not killing in your name. We’re killing in the name of justice.” I laughed out loud. OK, you idiots, OK. That was a good one.
There was another ripple, and this time it came with finality: Ross was dead. He was off to meet his maker, whoever that might be, and in lonely graves the bodies of his victims laid as inert and uncaring as the day they died. Maybe the world got a little more just. Or maybe the state tied a man to a gurney and poisoned him to death. You will view such things as your conscience dictates. For our part, the night was over. Without fanfare, the whole long line of people turned to their cars and went home.
I did not have an epiphany that evening. My frustration and exhaustion seeped in quietly in the night. My father once told me that I was born with fire in my belly. I can’t say that it went out, exactly, but by that point there was more smoke than fire. I did not plan to stop being an activist that night; I never really planned it, at all. But that was the end for me. The green ball cap sat in the trunk of my car until one day it got stained with oil and thrown out. Within a couple of months, I would move to Chicago, where I would sink into a pleasant haze of meaningless work, numb apoliticism, and alcohol. Connecticut would eventually ban the death penalty, though not without grandfathering in two more lives that the state felt compelled to end. On the other side of the globe, the war continued. Day after day, shaming me with their dedication, the real activists pressed on.
Perhaps they press on still; today, the people are in the streets again, demanding justice from a racist and violent police state. I hope they can avoid the terrible infighting that tears such movements apart. I hope they build a movement that endures forever. I hope they get free. One way or another, the future belongs to them, and not to me.