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Group that shifted opinion on death penalty

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The Bermuda family experienced one of its deepest crises on the weekend of December 2, 1977 — the violent conclusion to a five-year period with ten lives lost. Notwithstanding the tragedy, as documented in Jonathan Smith's latest book, Island Flames, if we reflect mindfully on that period, those “ashes” could nurture a better future for upcoming generations. It would likely require an inclusive, wide-ranging, reverential community conversation over many months.

Jonathan's book does a good job documenting the five days leading up to December 2 — the mobilising of many. This, in contrast, is a first-hand account of how a small group of ordinary residents worked for 12 months before, gradually shifting a key local paradigm regarding commitment to every life — even the “guilty” and furnishing a foundation for wider community involvement during the apex of the crisis.

We are reminded about the potency of small groups, as yesterday was the 60th anniversary of Rosa Parks's spontaneous act of courage in Montgomery, Alabama. It was the foundational work of a small group of ordinary citizens — community activist E.D. Nixon and human rights campaigners Clifford and Virginia Durr, among others — that set the stage and, through collaboration with Parks, got the ball rolling for the African-American Civil Rights Movement.

The period of the Seventies in Bermuda was a complex one, dominated by our racial divide; a focus of Jonathan's book. Other dimensions include class division and our conservative culture, which shaped attitudes regarding the death penalty.

Amnesty International's latest Death Penalty Report notes a positive global trend, but expresses concern about the English-speaking Caribbean. While the region's latest hanging was in St Kitts in 2008, Amnesty found that these 12 island governments remained pro-death penalty in United Nations discussions. Our links with those islands can explain something about local attitudes on capital punishment in the Seventies.

That context helps to explain why, after Erskine “Buck” Burrows and Larry Tacklyn had been sentenced to death and a free vote was held in the House in 1975, MPs from both sides supported retention of hanging. These circumstances led me to start the petition against capital punishment in 1976. While Opposition leader Lois Browne-Evans championed abolition, our cultural norms made it something of a political hot potato. That said, the Progressive Labour Party adopted the campaign, while the reality was that the critical work was left entirely to a small group.

The few of us made slow progress engaging the community in those early months. In spring 1977, anxious to overcome resistance, we organised a rally supported by some musicians. We invited MPs and other leaders, save Tacklyn's lawyer, Dame Lois, but two days before the event, none had accepted. When contacting Julian Hall, a new United Bermuda Party member, who agreed immediately, others joined. The rally gave a boost, but the effort to foster transformation remained with the small group.

Cup Match 1977 became the petition's “last stand” for Eugene “Bobby” Durham (Hasan Durham's dad) and myself. We both planned to complete postgraduate studies that autumn. By late August, we compiled the petitions from our small group, including Lance Furbert and former Olympian Hazard Dill, among a few others. We were satisfied that our work had led to a shift and furnished Party leader Dame Lois with 6,000-odd signatures, which were presented to the Governor.

I took the originals with me to university in London in October, hoping to follow up with a few of Dame Lois's old friends in London, but her contact numbers failed. That added to my sense that we had done enough, leading to a false sense of security. I focused on my studies.

I was shocked when Phil Perinchief called on Friday, November 25 to report that the Premier, David Gibbons, had announced to Parliament that Burrows and Tacklyn would be executed on December 2. I was concerned that no parliamentarian made a response to this announcement at the time. Jonathan Smith was under the misunderstanding that a delegation of MPs from Bermuda had travelled to lobby the British Government after that announcement. I clarified that the work in London was done by a small group of us — one or two new-found friends and a couple of Bermudian students, including Larry Scott. After only two months' residence, our small network was able to get an article about the crisis in The Guardian newspaper; Larry and I visited the Foreign Office to express concerns and I received an urgent invitation while in class from a group of members of the House of Lords to discuss the crisis.

Subsequent to that discussion at Westminster, I received a message that the Parliamentary Labour Party — the caucus of the governing party — had voted against the impending hanging. This was a day or so before the planned execution — something Jonathan's research has not corroborated.

That said, there was an obvious positive momentum at the time and it is arguable that had we moved even days earlier that the efforts of our small group and actions on Island would have stayed the hangman.

The legacy of Rosa reminds us of the importance of small groups. The Progressive Group was a small group of ordinary residents that facilitated the transformation of Bermuda. Our small group was key in shifting the local paradigm on capital punishment.

I include a link to campaigner Peter Block offering some insights into small groups. Take a look at it for some ideas for you to make a difference. For a better Bermuda. For a better world.

Sentenced to death: murderer Erskine “Buck” Burrows was hanged in 1977

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Published December 02, 2015 at 8:00 am (Updated December 02, 2015 at 10:36 am)

Group that shifted opinion on death penalty

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