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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

1997 Bruderhof Children's Crusade


Marching on the Children's Crusade

by C. Clark Kissinger

For over a half mile they stretched along Route 21 in western Pennsylvania's rural Greene County. Children wearing bright yellow T-shirts, girls' heads wreathed in garlands of flowers. Behind them a brightly colored bus with a powerful sound system blasted out one of their anthems written and performed by 12-year-old Leah Arnold.

F.R.E.E.D.O.M. spells freedom!
F.R.E.E.D.O.M. -- we want freedom!

F for the fight we all gotta do,
R for the rights of me and you,
The E's are for everybody
Here and abroad,
Fighting for freedom very hard.
D for the day when peace will reign,
O for the oneness, we'll feel that day,
M for the maybe's,
That might just come;
We got freedom!

J.U.S.T.I.C.E. spells justice!
J.U.S.T.I.C.E. -- we want justice!

J for the judges, racist and fair,
U for the unjustice
that goes on everywhere,
S for system
We live with everyday,
T for the trouble
That comes our way,
I for the inmates
Sitting in their cells,
C for the coldness
In the place they dwell,
E for the everlasting
Hope we feel;
We got justice!

This was the "Children's Crusade to Death Row," a children's march on the Pennsylvania state prison in Greene County that houses over half of Pennsylvania's death row inmates, including political prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal.

The response of prison officials to this awesome display of "kid power" was to freak out. At first the prison superintendent declared that the children's march would not even be allowed to enter the road (mockingly called "Progress Drive") that leads to Pennsylvania's death row. But then after the first day of the three-day march turned out eleven hundred people, prison officials quickly sought to negotiate a compromise: the children could come within sight of the prisons, but that's all!

On the day the march arrived -- menacingly armed with helium balloons and flowers -- all the inmates were put under lock down, the nearby Greene County airport was closed, the FAA closed the airspace over the prison, and mounted state troopers guarded the perimeter. Guards at the prison had apparently been training for weeks in how to scowl at 8-year-olds handing them bouquets of flowers.

Pro-death penalty forces in Pennsylvania had been claiming all week that the children were just unknowing pawns being cynically manipulated by adults. But the genesis of the Children's Crusade was a letter writing campaign by children of the Bruderhof communities to death row inmates. The Bruderhofs are small Christian communities that live communally, sharing their work and worldly assets. The letter writing began with Christmas cards in 1995 and soon resulted in one death row inmate, Reggie Lewis, writing a play that the Bruderhof children performed at Christmas in 1996.

Then in June of 1997, Pennsylvania's Governor Tom Ridge signed a death warrant for Reggie Lewis, and the children felt that they had to act. As so often happens, young people do marvelous things because "they don't know any better." The kids from the Spring Valley Bruderhof in Farmington, PA, badgered their parents to drive them to the prison in nearby Greene County where they piled out of the van and marched up to the prison singing and waving signs. Prison official were taken completely by surprise.

Fortunately Reggie Lewis got a stay of execution, but the Bruderhof kids were elated by their action and decided to call for a march on the prison big time.

Soon endorsements and messages of support were pouring in from people like Jean Bertrand Aristide, the former president of Haiti; former presidential candidate Michael Dukakis; author Jonathan Kozol; Guitarist Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine; Pax Christi of England; author and activist Sr. Helen Prejean; folk singers Pete Seeger and Tom Paxton, and numerous political prisoners including Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier.

Other groups also joined in on all or part of the three-day march from Farmington to Waynesburg where the prison is located. Members of the MOVE family came out and signed the children's T-shirts, Citizens United for Alternative to the Death Penalty brought a bus load of prisoners' families from Philadelphia. Another bus was brought in by Bill Pelke from the Murder Victim's Families for Reconciliation. Refuse & Resist! brought a car load down from New York. The Catholic Worker and a number of local anti-death penalty groups were there, as were the DC Coalition to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal and the Coalition Against Political Imprisonment. A group of Bruderhof children even came in from England.

We spoke with one young woman, only 15 who came down from New York state by herself to join the march. "All my friends thought I was crazy for coming, but they are at home watching TV without a clue, and I'm here with you."

On the second evening as the young marchers were making camp, word suddenly arrived that a TV news helicopter would be overhead in five minutes, and there was frantic running about to get ready. When the news chopper arrived, there below were 400 kids in yellow T-shirts standing on the field spelling out the word "LIFE!" and singing.

Each night the older children, grades 5 through 8, camped out while the younger kids were bussed back to the Farmington area. There were musical performances by the different Bruderhof schools on a portable stage that was set up each night. The first night a band from Morgantown, West Virginia, called Circle Six came in to perform. The Daughters of the Diaspora from Philadelphia performed their choral speaking. And the second night a local musician drove up to sing "Stand by Me" for the marchers.

At every opportunity supporters spoke to and encouraged the young. South African exile poet Dennis Brutus came down from Pittsburgh to talk to the young people. Pam Africa from the International Concerned Family & Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal told the kids, "We cannot thank you enough because you have brought the world's attention to one of the most brutal forms of captivity of people in the United States." Bill Pelke from the Murder Victim's Families for Reconciliation told the story of his forgiveness for the teenage girl who murdered his grandmother. Abe Bonowitz from the Citizens United for Alternative to the Death Penalty added an ecumenical note, ending his talk with a prayer in Hebrew. Clark Kissinger from Refuse & Resist! told the marchers about the Stolen Lives Project, which is gathering names of those killed by cops, and the fight against "the informal death penalty" -- police murder.

There was some opposition from local reactionaries who cruised by -- one pickup sporting a big Confederate flag and yelling "fry 'em." Others gave a thumbs down, or held up signs with verses from the Bible that support the death penalty. But many others honked in support.

Messages of support from around the world -- as well as messages criticizing the march -- were constantly being read over the sound system. One message came from a group of Catholic children in Ireland who said that they loved to listen to the recordings of Mumia Abu-Jamal, and that they would be standing in solidarity that day outside the U.S. Embassy in Dublin.

While the march was still miles away on Monday, a bus load of families of death row inmates arrived at the prison with news of the march. The laughter of children was heard in the sterile visiting booths. Mumia remarked on that day, "There's life on Death Row!" This was in spite of the personal disappointment of prison officials barring his son Mazi from visiting him that day.

The march finally reached the State Correctional Institution at Greene after marching the last four and half miles in the rain. Everyone was wet and muddy, but spirits of the 700 marchers were definitely up. The children carried hand painted signs with the names of death row inmates and were plastered with stickers calling for an end to the death penalty and freedom for Mumia.

A powerful sound system was pulled up to the temporary fence that was erected to keep the kids at bay, and the young participants took turns at the mike calling out messages to inmates they have corresponded with and telling why they had come on the march. With them stood a hundred or more adults, including one older couple with a hand made sign reading "Granpa's and Granma's for Justice with Compassion." The oldest participant, Maureen Burn, was 92 and as a young woman in Edinburgh, Scotland, she had marched in a 1927 protest against the execution in the United States of the political prisoners Sacco and Vanzetti.

In keeping with their belief in Christian reconciliation, the Bruderhof children presented bouquets of flowers to grimacing prison guards. There was a mass release of the helium balloons imprinted with the message "Children's Crusade. Abolish the Death Penalty." People chanted "Free Mumia!" And at the end, one young person warned the guards against retaliating against prisoners because of the march: "We are watching!"

The Children's Crusade received very favorable local press, and were on the front page of local papers almost every day. Their picture was also in USA Today. As the Uniontown Herald-Standard wrote in an editorial:

"While you may not support their stand against the death penalty, you will have to agree that the children of the pacifist Christian community know how to make a statement -- and how to get that message out to readers and viewers throughout the world.

"As they paraded along Uniontown's Main Street and rallied at the Fayette County Courthouse during the midst of a progressing murder trial, cameras clicked, videotape machines whirred and reporters scrawled and droned into microphones, all to the accompaniment of the rotor noise of circling helicopters dispatched by television stations.

"The Associated Press is running stories about the crusade nationally and organizers have fielded inquiries from as far afield as CNN, ABC, NBC and CBS.

"The participation by 17 members of the Bruderhof's contingent from England has garnered attention from the BBC, The London Independent newspaper and SKY-TV in Europe.

"That's not too shabby as a first media outing for a group of kids . . .