*In this new series, we publish blogs from people with a personal or professional connection to the field of capital punishment. We’re honored to start off with a blog by Marlies van der Wee, who initiated this series and who has been supporting Clinton and the Clinton Young Foundation since 2017.*
Using my voice in favor of justice: why and how I aim to support the Clinton Young Foundation!
I came across Clinton Young’s case while I was on a short break in the Belgian Ardennes in April 2017. While hiking at daytime, evenings were dedicated to good books or a movie. One of these evenings I tuned into Deal with Death [also know as Innocent on Death Row or Deal met de dood, red.], coincidently to be honest, just after Darnell started sharing his version of what happened. By peeling of and fact checking the case, the documentary made crystal clear that official claims about what happened in 2001 needed to be turned upside-down and that for making that happen Clinton, and people in similar circumstances, highly depend on others such as journalists, human rights organizations, lawyers dedicated to fight wrongful convictions and individuals willing to spread the word. And while the documentary needed some sinking-in time, it also encouraged me to support Clinton in his fight for justice, for reasons that go back to my teens.
As a 14 years old secondary school girl and growing-up in the 1980s, I gradually became aware of human rights and the violation of these rights in different places around the world. And although I was still too young to understand the socio-political context and underlying worldviews, I just couldn’t wrap my thoughts around the idea that people were imprisoned because of their political views, or because they were denied access to a fair trial and proper legal representation, or because structural racial and social discrimination predetermined trial outcomes. I knew I wanted to stand up against that. What I didn’t know was where to begin!
And then I found myself in the classroom of Madam Visser, a courageous and little rebellious religion teacher. Instead of forcing my class to work on mandatory topics, she challenged us to put our societal interests on the agenda and organized meetings with guest speakers, documentaries and debates. It was the guest speaker from Amnesty International that helped me answer my own questions about where and how to act in favor of justice. His experience with writing postcards to prisoners of conscience and sending letters to political leaders to plea for their release encouraged me to become a member of Amnesty International, join a local Amnesty group and write such letters myself.
Now, many years later and long after the local group fell apart, I have shifted from the writing of actual letters to signing Amnesties Urgent Actions like the one launched in September 2017 to campaign against Clinton’s planned execution one month later. Inspiration comes from films about people that advocate for a fair, just and trustworthy society and although the films I see deal with a variety of human rights issues – from wrongful convictions to unlawful surveillance practices and corporate crimes – they all tell about individuals – or groups – that stand-up, raise their voice and take action against injustice and unfairness. Deal with Death turned out to be such an inspirational film for me and when I had read a bit more about Clinton’s situation, I chose to financially support the foundation, write Clinton a letter and use my own voice to share Clinton’s story with others.
Raising our voice to share stories is a powerful way to get a message across and to increase possibilities for change. The Clinton Young Foundation uses its voice to share Clinton’s story, advocate for his rights and raise awareness on the inhumane and unjust character of capital punishment. And, together with the work that Clinton’s lawyers do, this turned the tide in ways that nobody had dared to hope for. So, raising our voice makes a difference, especially when it’s done collectively as the louder the voice, the less easy it is to ignore what is being said and the more difficult it becomes to leave things as there are.
For me supporting the Clinton Young Foundation means that I raise my voice with the aim of justice for Clinton in terms of a new and fair trial. At the same time – while looking at the bigger picture – I find it important to address (taken-for-granted) practices that made it possible for Clinton – and many others in similar circumstances – to end up on death row in the first place. Asking questions with (amongst others) the aim to ‘counter bias towards certain socio-economic and racial groups’, ‘shift the idea of incarceration as the best and only response to criminal acts’ or ‘prioritize (crime) preventive social care over penalty and vengeance’, can help us reflect on how society is organized, how people are treated and if we think that is just and fair.
Where questions about the law require expertise in that area, I see my own background in education as an opportunity to approach the challenge of creating a just and fair society from that perspective. Inspired by those who question and counter what we have come to accept as normal, it is my humble opinion that schools should encourage students to develop critical thinking skills and invite them to address societal issues they care about, to question the taken-for-granted way of dealing with them and to come up with more just and fair alternatives. Although issues of concern and critical – de-normalizing – questions largely depend on context and time, it is my belief that – one way or the other – it all comes down to the question how society treats people and to what extend we think that is just and fair. And, whether we are teachers, social workers, nurses, police officers, civil servants, entrepreneurs, city planners, lawyers or prosecutors, we can all choose to speak-up about societal issues that concern us, raise critical questions about how we respond to these issues and decide to deal with them is a different way because we think that is more just and fair.
As an individual I am hopeful that if we keep raising our voice about the injustices Clinton experiences until today, his odds for a fair trial might continue to increase. And, as citizen and teacher it is my belief that if I have the courage to address injustice, inequality and exclusion in my own private and professional life, and if others will have the courage to do the same, a society without wrongful convictions and unlawful practices might be a real possibility.
Marlies van der Wee is an educator and researcher committed to social justice and environmental sustainability. While teaching courses related to these topics at Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences, she also is an external PhD-candidate at Wageningen University & Research on the topic learning for sustainability-oriented transformation. Since May 2017 Marlies writes letters back-&-forth with Clinton and financially supports the foundation in order to raise funds for his defence.