A Quiet Voice Against the Death Penalty

Amnesty International's Dr. Daniel Georges-Abeyie coolly argues the case against capital punishment in our hang-'em-high state

Georges-Abeyie's mother wanted her children to be born in the U.S., but the family returned to Tortola shortly after Daniel's birth.

Georges-Abeyie spent the first five years of his life in island paradise, but, as his grandfather told him, "You can't eat sea and sand," so the family moved back to New York, and Daniel's father became a New York Transit Authority police officer.

The family lived in a West Indian enclave in the South Bronx, and Georges-Abeyie remembers seeing vast firestorms from the windows of the family apartment as buildings were burned in rage or for insurance money. He remembers hearing rats moving inside the walls of the apartment and going to sleep with cotton in his ears to keep the roaches out.

"My father would take us every week on a car trip," he recalls. "He would take us downtown to see where the whites and the wealthy lived so that we could see the dramatic difference between the two worlds. He was telling us that we didn't have to live like this, that you didn't have to be an animal."

His mother would go to the A&P each week to get a new volume of Funk & Wagnall's encyclopedia and gather the children in the kitchen so that they could all take turns reading and playing games with the words on the page.

The African Americans in the neighborhood looked down on West Indians, calling their diet of plantains and cassava and rice and mangoes "monkey food."

"Also, we were derided because we had an education orientation instead of a sports orientation," Georges-Abeyie remembers.

Anyone who didn't participate in sports was suspected of being a sissy or worse. For survival, Georges-Abeyie's uncles schooled him in the African-originated martial arts of the islands, usually called Capoeira, but which they called, simply, kickin' butt. The toughs in the neighborhood thought it was dirty fighting because it used kicks and sticks and razors, but it kept them at bay. Georges-Abeyie began studying jujitsu and boxing when he was 12, kempo karate as a young man, and finally hapkido when he was in his 20s. Because he could fight viciously, Georges-Abeyie was afforded respect on the mean streets.

He had three brothers and two sisters. His two oldest brothers were killed in separate incidents and some years apart in South Carolina. "I would just attribute it to greed and jealousy," he says. Neither killer was captured or tried.

"You can kill blacks with impunity," he says.
Tortolan pride, he says, is sometimes excessive, and so he will not talk about the murders except in the abstract.

"The immediate reaction is always the same for a victim's family survivors," he says, "anger and rage. I would have liked to have seen those persons apprehended, tried and executed. But soon after, I opposed that. I would rather see them in prison for life, to take their freedom forever, not their ability to breathe and eat."

Striking out in fear or rage is animal behavior, a murderous but irrational trait we inherited from our unreasoning monkey ancestors.

"Some see homicide as a willful act of evil," Georges-Abeyie continues, "and I don't think that's the case with every individual. There are forces that are psychological and social and biological that are so powerful that they throw people toward certain behaviors."

Georges-Abeyie went to public schools in New York, and did well enough to get a scholarship to Hope College in Holland, Michigan. He studied for his master's degree in sociology at the University of Connecticut and a Ph.D. in urban, social and political geography at Syracuse University. Throughout his university days, he threw himself into civil rights and social justice student activism. Then he went on the academic fast track. By age 23, he was teaching at prestigious Johns Hopkins University, and he bounced through appointments at the University of Texas at Arlington, Penn State University, and California State University at Bakersfield, and finally at Florida State University, where he was an associate dean. He published extensively and earned an extra income as a consultant on everything from terrorism to race relations.

Then in 1992, he was invited to teach at ASU West. Because the university requires that its faculty members participate in community service, he became adviser to the student chapter of Amnesty International--he had, after all, been an AI member since the mid-'60s. The assignment fit his only deeply held philosophical beliefs.

Two years later, at a regional meeting in San Francisco, Cossette Thompson, the western regional director of Amnesty International, couldn't help but recognize the impassioned authority with which Georges-Abeyie spoke about the death penalty. She appointed him to the western regional planning commission, a panel of 14 that sets agendas for AI, and made him Arizona state coordinator for death-penalty abolition.

Last spring, Ann Nichols of SOL:PAE, the Tucson-based anti-death-penalty organization, announced that she wanted to start a state coalition against the death penalty. Georges-Abeyie immediately responded.

"He became very active right away in helping us think through how to start the coalition, what were some of the issues we wanted to address in developing a statement of purpose that could gather people around without excluding any," says Nichols.

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