Protesters vent anger at governor, justice system

Friday, June 23rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HUNTSVILLE, Texas – Several hundred protesters vented their anger at Gov. George W. Bush and the state justice system in an angry, noisy – and sometimes tense – demonstration outside the prison here where Gary Graham was executed Thursday.

A smaller but equally vocal group – including about 20 Ku Klux Klan members – cheered the news that Mr. Graham had been put to death for the 1981 murder of Bobby Lambert outside a Houston grocery store.

To avoid a possible confrontation, prison officials kept the two sides separated by about 200 yards behind signs reading "pro death penalty" and "anti death penalty."

A particularly tense moment came late Thursday afternoon when several Black Panthers armed with shotguns and assault rifles marched past the prison and into the adjacent downtown business district followed by dozens of demonstrators.

Authorities made no effort to confront them. One leader of the group, Quanell X of Houston, hopped atop a van outside the Town Theatre and addressed the cheering crowd.

They later locked their guns up in a vehicle and returned to the prison grounds to join others outside the 19th-century red-brick prison that houses the death chamber.

A handful of protesters burst through police lines outside the prison and were wrestled down by officers.

A heated argument also broke out between death penalty opponents and Ku Klux Klan grand dragon Charles Lee of Cleveland, Texas, as two helicopters circled above.

Mr. Lee was clothed in a white robe and hood, and several of his followers carried Confederate flags and posters with hand-lettered messages for Mr. Graham.

"Good bye Gary. Welcome to hell," read one.

Dozens of reporters, some from Europe, and a fleet of television satellite trucks crowded the parking lots outside the prison.

Three German television stations sent news crews.

"There is a lot of interest in the death penalty in Europe," one of the German reporters explained.

As they awaited word of Mr. Graham's fate, some protesters burned American and Texas flags and made fiery speeches against the death penalty.

Last-minute court filings delayed the execution more than two hours. And by the time word came that Mr. Graham had been put to death at 8:49 p.m. Thursday, the angry air had gone out of the thinning crowd.

Officials debated whether the crowd of protesters on Thursday outnumbered the hundreds who gathered in Huntsville for the Feburary 1998 execution of Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman executed in Texas in 135 years.

The Graham case attracted national attention in part because celebrities embraced him as a victim of injustice. Mr. Bush's run for the presidency has drawn added scrutiny of Texas' criminal justice system.

Mr. Graham's execution witnesses included three nationally known figures – the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Bianca Jagger, representing Amnesty International.

After the execution, they excoriated Mr. Bush and the state's court system.

"We need to send a message back to Mr. Bush, who washed his hands of this" Mr. Sharpton said. "We will wash our hands when it comes time for you, Mr. Bush."

Mr. Jackson commended Mr. Graham for refusing to eat a last meal and for physically resisting his executioners as they carried him to the death chamber.

"He refused to eat today," Mr.Jackson said. "He refused to give in tonight."

Much of the venom through the day was directed at Mr. Bush, a staunch defender of the state's criminal justice system. Amid drum beats, the crowd chanted, "George Bush, you can't hide. We charge you with genocide." Others chanted, "Free Shaka Sankofa," using the name that Mr. Graham has taken since his imprisonment.

One protester, who gave her name only as "Nanna," had a hand-lettered sign saying, "The Burning Bush Burns Black Men."

Roy Muhammad of Fort Worth, a Nation of Islam member, said he and other followers came to Huntsville to pray for Mr. Graham.

"We're here to pray and ask God to spare our brother, "Mr. Muhammad said. "The prayers of the righteous are always answered."