Saturday, May 9, 2009

an execution before Shabbos

Yesterday at 4 p.m., my house was ready for Shabbat. I had invited some friends to help me empty fridge & freezer before the summer, and most of the work was done. The challot were defrosted, ditto the coq au vin, the ice cream was ready (you can't buy parve ice cream here so I make my own), the apartment clean, and flowers graced my kitchen counter. While putting the finishing touches on the qinoa, NPR told me that a man was to be executed at 6 p.m. I first thought I'd misheard but no, there it was: My city. I had somehow overlooked that I am now living in a state that casually murders people. Glancing around the kitchen, I realized I had 2 hours to spare, and instead of heading downstairs to the gym, I hopped into my car and drove to the jail where the execution was going to take place.

It took me a while but I finally found the place, a recently repainted low-rise building, and completely inconspicuous-looking. Some 10 people were walking up and down the street with signs "Execution is not the solution" and "The death penalty is racist" etc. in English and Spanish. I said hi, picked up one of the signs and took my place in the procession. One guy told me he had been to every single executions since the reinstitution of the death penalty our state. Another woman--a German with ties to the Charleston Jewish community--told me about the four short days in 1977 when this country knew no death penalty. In commemoration of this moment, the movement descends on DC every five years for a ceremonial fast before the Supreme Court. She proudly told me how she had accumulated misdemeanors for unfurling the banner in front of the media. There were others, a socialist, some Christians, all sweating under the heat, waving signs... some cars honked in support, others opened their windows to shake their fists and yell at us. An ambulance entered the compound, with some security.

A few minutes before six, we convened in the small enclosed area that was set aside for the protesters. There was a second area, held at a distance, for the supporters, but Thomas Ivey didn't even warrant that. There were some onlookers hanging out on the other side of the road in the shade, enjoying cool drinks and having a good time. We waited. We stood around, some silent, hands folded, in front of a banner telling us that the US had executed 1171 people since 1977. Two women were chatting about movement stuff. At 6:15, a man in white shirt and tie, flanked by 2 others and plenty of security, briskly made his way towards us. He took out a sheet of paper and read that "at 6:15, Thomas Ivey had died." Then he turned around and walked back inside. One woman yelled: "At 6:15, the State of X has murdered another man", one started crying, and we formed a circle to say a prayer for the man who had just died inside, for his victims, the families, and the executors.

We stood around some more after that, and I introduced myself to the protesters I had not talked to yet. Now I had time to look around a little. There were at least three types of security milling around: what looked like prison guards, a sheriff car, and some other uniforms. They had been there all along, of course, joking, chatting (and I now wonder if they offer counseling for police officers on execution duty). After another couple of minutes, I said good bye to my new acquaintances. While I was sitting in my car, trying to calm down enough (ok, I was pretty hysterical by now) so that I'd be able to drive home, the hearse left the compound, accompanied by blinking police cars, not even 40 minutes after the execution.

These were, for sure, the most surreal 2 hours of my life. From the kitchen to lethal injection, in 20 minutes flat. It seemed so normal, every tiniest detail unfolded according to a seemingly familiar plan, with the difference being that there was virtually no press (one camera team), almost no protesters, no supporters, no publicity. This was for real.

I drove home, had a shower, my friends came--I'd postponed the dinner by a half hour--and made Kiddush. Shabbat. A time to rest and regain a resemblance of equilibrium after the craziness of the week. This week I did not quite succeed. I am still shaken by the experience. When I was a kid, every single execution was big news. Now, living a brief car ride from the death chamber, it barely registers.