The Vigil at Chessman's Execution
Was it eight times in twelve years or vice versa that they tried to kill Caryl Chessman, for a child-rape that many came to feel was unproved? All the while he lived on Death Row in San Quentin, doggedly compiling the legal briefs that won him stay after stay of execution at the last possible moment, and writing books of some caliber and wide readership, that saved him from an anonymous death. The public spectacle of his being readied for death so many times in indefinite torture roused wide indignation. He became the focus for a world-wide crusade against the barbarity of capital punishment. On the eve of his execution thousands demonstrated in Rio de Janeiro.
Here some were moved to action. At first they were a vanishing few. The action was mostly silent vigils, organized by local Quakers, held during the night of each scheduled execution. Students started coming, the vigils continued, our numbers grew, especially wben Chessman came round again. But our protest remained silent witness, and only flickered toward disobedience in the moment before Chessman's death.
As in tactics, so in spirit our protest was typical of the politics of the time. Our opposition to capital punishment was a pure example of "issue-orientated" activism: an immediate problem seen, an immediate solution sought by some simple act, all running on a pure surge of moral indignation, untroubled by ideology. But I think we were feeling more than simple distaste for society's murder rituals when we stood outside San Quentin's gates and listened to the wind. Our eyes were opening, a mystification was breaking, we were beginning to see the acts of Official America as ugly, wherever we looked. This was a chance to express our growing revulsion, in a quiet way. And as we did, the acts grew uglier.
We reached the prison at nine that night, walking and hitchhiking. There were seven hundred people crowded into a short section of road, held back by a barricade and a dozen guards. A public address system was distorting the middle of a long speech; most of the crowd was gathered about the microphone, listening thoughtfully or talking in small groups in the gathering dusk. To the left of them, a chain-link fence lined with carefully propped-up posters: "PSYCHIATRY, NOT CYANIDE"; "DOES BROWN HAVE CHESSMAN'S COURAGE?" To their right, a steep rocky hill half buried in grass, and on it, silent watchers, huddled in blankets and sleeping bags.
We left our books on the hill and went for coffee. Beyond the crowd a mobile canteen was doing a brisk business, though the night chill was just beginning. The gentlemen of the press relaxed beside it, sipping coffee and watching the demonstrators. Occasionally one would move with his camera to a vantage point, and a bright flash of light would startle the crowd as he shot the current speaker or a "human interest" photo.
We made our way through the line, bought coffee, and scrambled up the hill again. Seeing us shivering, a group of students offered us extra sleeping bags. We scuffed a small part of the slope free from rocks, wrapped ourselves up, and listened as they told us of their protest march.
They started from San Francisco in the morning, crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, passed through Sausalito, and proceeded as directly up the highway to San Quentin as the police allowed, covering almost twenty miles. They spoke of the people met on the way: blank stares, taunts and insults; cameramen driving carefully abreast of them as they crossed the bridge, retiring to bars, and driving to the prison in time to catch their footsore arrival. Except for Sausalito, they added, and their voices lightened as they described how receptive the Sausalitoans had been. It was strange, they said: no one in the march made any reply to the jeers.
Almost a hundred made the march, most of them students. As photographers' bulbs flashed they pointed out marchers sunk in the nearby grass. Twilight gave way to night as they spoke, and the crowd began to dwindle.
The continuing rasp of the loudspeaker hung harsh and brittle in the cold air. Members of the Committee for Chessman spoke, taking turns with other groups and people from the crowd.
They spoke of Chessman and Brown, the Supreme Court, other trials and deaths. A retired guard said haltingly that he didn't believe the death penalty was a deterrent to murders or rapes. The former cellmate of an executed man described the surroundings of the condemned men, and his voice cracked as he said: "God, god . . . twelve years, a man can't take it ... " Committee members called attention to the wastebasket circulating through the crowd, asking for donations to support the life flame burning on a nearby ridge. A student from India assured us of his homeland's support in an earnest, heavily accented voice.
Suddenly all eyes swung to the fence atop the hill: the sound of a portable generator disrupted the air, and two powerful lights bathed everyone present, even those huddled in the grass. A guard preempted the microphone and gave an unintelligible explanation: " ... for security purposes … " We turned our backs to the glare and listened again to the speakers.
The night wind sprang up, sweeping damply off the Bay. Everywhere people offered extra blankets, or took shivering strangers under their own covers. Despite the cold, those who remained standing did not pace about but held their clustered position around the microphone.
After a long delay, Marlon Brando and Professors Burdick and Drinnon arrived, and stepped to the microphone in a blaze of photographers and autograph-hounds. They had lunched and spoken with Governor Brown in Sacramento. Drinnon in particular seemed convinced of Brown's sincere opposition to capital punishment; and when the three finished their accounts the air seemed so freed of tension for a time that we left our warm cocoons and joined the main crowd, anxious to talk more with them.
The night drew on. The curious, the publicity-hunters and the reporters went home to their sleep, driven out by the cold and the monotonous pleas for donations. The stream of cars honking their way through the throng slowed to a trickle, ceased. The guard at the barricade was cut to six men, secure in stiff khaki uniforms and patent-leather holsters. Only the glare of the floodlights broke the darkness. The p.a. system fell silent, and we returned to the slope, waiting for the dawn.
By two A.M. our ranks were reduced to their minimum. A contingent left for Sacramento to picket Brown's mansion, after an impassioned plea over the microphone. Another group departed for the Quaker prayer vigil in Tiburon. Maybe 150 of us were left to stand vigil during the dark hours.
People roamed the hillside, gathering grass for protection from the rocks. Some clustered beside the barrier and the guards: drawn by the sight of the guardhouse just beyond the barricade, with its warm lights and fragrant odor of coffee, or perhaps by some unspoken agreement to be as close as possible to the prison. Some crouched on the roadside singing folksongs, but the cold wind and their tired bodies soon discouraged them.
A family of six huddled around a portable stove. Inspired by their example, a small fire flared on the hill. After a moment a guard came hurrying out of the guard-house, a cup of coffee steaming in his hand, and sidled up the hill through the blanketed bodies. Curtly but politely he told the fire's kindlers that it would have to be extinguished, and, his duty done, turned and slid down the dew-coated grass to his indoor post. Three students tore apart the neat border of rocks and stamped their fire out.
A cold calm held. The only sound, save for the wind whipping off the Bay, was the persistent chug chugging of the generator. Again a guard charged up the hill, this time to threaten two students who tried to change the floodlight's angle so they could get some sleep. He restored the lamps to their full glare and again slid down the damp hill, this time to a chorus of hisses. Stiff from the cold and the rocks, unable to sleep, we abandoned our blankets and went for a stroll.
We crossed the highway and scrambled down to the littered beach. Someone had left a small bonfire, safe from the prowling guards. We stoked it again and sat before the flames, discussing the long vigil and Chessman's chances for reprieve. The speakers had left us hopeful, and we spoke, half in jest, half sadly, of attending the next Chessman "party." The fire blazed high; and one by one other strollers were drawn by its warm beacon to come and sit beside it. But not for long: after a few minutes soaking in its warmth, each rose with a groan and the comment: "I must be getting back . . . ," and returned to the vigil, to stand and shiver against the barricade or sit body-with-body with strangers on the hill, sharing warmth.
A strange crowd, this one that spent the night beside the prison gate. A blonde freshman from a city high school, with blistered feet; a withered old lady with an artificial rose, silent the whole night. A shabby group of beatnix with beards and guitars; three businessmen in grey flannel suits and attache cases. A Negro carpenter with his family, staring silently into the flame of the Coleman stove; a group of Stanford students who had come to watch an hour, and stayed on. How many held through the long hours solely out of curiosity or a desire for publicity? Why were the teacher, the truck driver, the youth with the swastika, the young mother and child here? Sleeping, pacing, whispering, huddling morose and silent, most people did not speak of why they came.
The reporters and photographers began returning, harbingers of dawn. Slowly the watchers bedded on the hill came to life. Soon a buzz of conversation filled the vacancy left by the generator's silence. The mobile canteen returned, causing a general rush for coffee and snails; and soon the entire crowd was astir again.
As the sun rose higher, clouds came, denying us this bit of physical warmth. We crowded around a tinny portable to hear a 7:30 news broadcast: "No change in the Chessman case ... " A guard drove by, his shift finished, and leaned from his car with a smile: "It won't be long now, kids." No one even bothered to curse him.
Stiff and grubby after the long night, we came to life slowly. We waited anxiously for word from the Supreme Court, set to convene at 8:00. Another broadcast came over a car radio, and we drifted over. "Brown says the decision is out of his hands," someone relayed, and a sudden gust of cold wind made us shiver again. Someone else said, speaking to no one in particular, "I want to see the guy who pushes the button." No one answered him, but one by one we began to pick up signs and trudge in a slow circle along our section of the road.
New arrivals swelled our ranks, and the line grew longer. A strange tension hovered in the air: nobody spoke, not even to hound the guards. The hillside crowd grew thicker, and for the first time since midnight a sizable proportion of people were there for the sole purpose of watching us. Cars honked through our line, disgorging photographers and cameras on trolleys, sound equipment and reporters with eager notebooks. Only the European press treated the marchers with deference.
The chill lessened and our pace increased. Someone announced the hour of nine with a shout: "One hour left," and we began winding in and out of the oncoming line of cars, led by several high-school students, holding our signs before the windows. People came down from the hill to stand beside the road. One by one marchers took them by the elbows and brought them in. A band of thirty youngsters climbed the hill, hurling catcalls, snickers, and shouts of "communists." Someone struck up a song, new words to an old tune; "Brown, where is your conscience? It has been removed . . . The papers are against us, they should be improved ... " and for a time the sound of off-key but earnest voices filled the air.
At nine the guards at the barricade and along the road were increased to twenty or thirty. They stood in silent groups of two or three, watching the demonstrators. Cars pressed past in increasing numbers; a guard would halt our line for each one until its papers could be checked and the barricade removed and replaced. The long march went on, slowly, and just as slowly the feeling grew that we were marching not for Chessman alone, nor even against capital punishment, but for something much more important, something transcending politics and laws. A student who had marched from the city said, "I keep feeling that what we're doing is helping each one of us more than it can possibly help Chessman." No one disagreed.
Minute by minute the tension grew, and each time a radio picked up a broadcast hasty shouts relayed the news. Suddenly the loudspeaker erupted into sound for the first time in hours. "May I have your attention, please? The State Supreme Court has voted four to three to refuse to recommend clemency …"
A long moment of silence hung like a clock-stroke above us all, guards and marchers and spectators alike. Then, as a large press car started down the road toward our stunned circle, the cry went up: "Sit down! Sit down!" Once started, it was echoed again and again: "Keep your hands in your pockets! Put down the signs, keep your hands in your pockets, sit down!"
Immediately marchers and spectators sprang to the center of the road and sat down. The car tried to edge past on the side, but a dozen seated figures appeared before it. Thirty of us sat there, acting in unison, without leadership, as if by instinct. Then the guards came charging from behind the barricade, shouting and cursing. They picked us up one by one and tried to carry us off the road; but as soon as a sitter was released he walked back onto the road and sat down again. Frustrated by twenty hours without incident, the guards grew angrier and angrier and finally discovered a way out: they began to kick several of the seated demonstrators, kick them in the legs, groin and kidneys. One man lost consciousness. We gathered around the guards, who jostled him and another limp figure to a squad car down the road. The press car pulled hastily past, somehow neglecting to take pictures, as we ran after them. A marcher lay down before the squad car, blocking its passage; the guards jerked him up and threw him in the back scat. The squad car pulled away with a squeal of rubber amid cries of reassurance for the imprisoned demonstrators.
Chaos. A young girl sobbing uncontrollably, helpless with fright and anger: "They did it. They did it. With their big fancy guns and their boots. We didn't do anything. We didn't do anything." Cries of shock and outrage in the air, mingling with curses and warnings from the guards. Hearst photographers fiddling nonchalantly with the lens-covers of their cameras. A KPFA reporter scurrying around, trying to find where the men had been taken.
We stood shaking with rage and frustration, looking silently at the guards, unable to find words; or comforting the crying women. Suddenly the amplifier blared again: the sheriff of Marin County was speaking, "Now listen. I want everyone to listen to me. We've had no trouble here before … we agreed that you could come here as long as you weren't violent ... we're here to protect you … let's try to keep it orderly … "
Immediately words came, and bitter replies rang through the air: "See how the fascists protect us!" "Violence? Violence? Who's violent?!" "Police brutality … go on, kill Chessman, you bastards!"
Suddenly a calm fell on us again, and with hands trembling beyond control, we picked up our signs and began to march again, slowly, on shaky legs, in the same circle. The watchers on the hill came down to join us, and the guards stepped back to let us pass. Ahead of me a sobbing girl was walking, the arms of a Negro marcher and a white marcher clasped behind her back, one saying softly and intensely to her: "Don't cry. Don't cry. Tears won't do any good. Look at this and remember it. Remember it, and don't ever forget it. Stop crying and look at them, and remember what they looked like when they were doing it." Someone started a song, and slowly our shaken voices picked it up and carried it to the silent catcallers on the hill. Around and around we marched, in silence save for the song, until the girls stopped sobbing and our legs stopped threatening to collapse.
A quiet voice came over the P.A. system: "Please form in ranks by the south side of the road. It is ten minutes to ten. Please keep calm; this is a tense moment for us all ... "
We lined the side of the road in silence, faces set, holding our signs tightly, as the photographers balanced atop cars to catch us at the proper angle. A woman crying on her husband's shoulder choked: "Don't let them take pictures of me, don't let them ... " A photographer shoved a marcher aside and knelt to focus on her; another marcher blocked the lens wordlessly with his sign, glaring at him until he left. Someone held the microphone to a car radio, and KABL's syrupy voice rose and hung above us: "We are at San Quentin, waiting for Caryl Chessman to be executed, just outside the main walls. It is a clear day; there are wild flowers in the grass. The sun is shining brightly now, the prisoners are at their jobs, totally indifferent to the tense drama being enacted here today. In just a few minutes Chessman will take the famous thirteen steps to the gas chamber and receive his cyanide before sixty witnesses. Across the bay lies the great concrete block of San Francisco, forming a backdrop to this scene; most of its people are totally unaware of the spectacle at hand ... "
We stood without words, too numbed by what had already happened to protest against this. The microphone was pulled away from the radio, and a high voice rang out: "Leave it on, let us hear, let us hear and remember what the bastards say ... " No one moved. Six minutes passed, completely silent.
Suddenly there was motion in the center of the crowd around the car, and half a dozen marchers came walking slowly out, their faces contorted and hardened into masks, crying unashamedly. More drifted out. A student laid his sign down in the middle of the road and walked away without a backward look; the sharp slap of the wooden handle on asphalt echoed interminably. More and more people began to leave, still in silence, their heads bowed, and a voice near breaking came ovcr the amplifier: "The meeting of the Citizens for Chessman is over …"
We walked to the car in silence, drove home in silence. By the time we reached Berkeley, the first papers were already on the newsstands, their headlines three inches tall.
3 May 1960
How do we judge what is in vain, or learn what is won by our presence, beyond one chance to be together in despair? No one bas been executed in California since 1964, nor condemned to death since 1967. The custom lingers in disuse. Yet the laws bave not changed, and public temper is growing more passionate. Right now our attention is off the subject of formal murder by the State -- no one expects the My Lai defendants to be executed, and the pigs kill Panthers on an informal basis. But ritual murder is traditional in the theater of Amerikan politics. As with Sacco and Vanzetti, and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, it comes into practice in times of heavy repression, every twenty years or so. We should expect it. When the next act begins, the principal victim may well be a woman or gay, if not black, and the action of protest much more complex.
[A month after this paragraph was written, in March 1971, Charles Manson and three women companions were sentenced to death in California. Whatever their crime and guilt, clearly the politics of cultural repression had much to do with the sentence.]