Texas Alternative Spring Break
by Sarah Samuel
March 7, 2007

MTV is coming to Austin next week to cover students as they give up their spring break to participate in a week long program concerning the death penalty.

Created in 2004 by Texas Moratorium Network, Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break will commence March 12.

“Alternative Spring Break is an excellent tool for creating awareness,” said
20-year-old Jackson Smith who attended last year’s event. “It impacts students so
they will go back with a thorough knowledge and personal understanding about the
death penalty.”

From March 12 to March 16, students will participate in media training, attend a
lobby day, engage in panel discussions, and listen to speakers such as Shujaa
Graham, an exonerated death row inmate.

After the event’s first year, Texas Moratorium Network handed over the
organization of Alternative Spring Break to Texas Students Against the Death
Penalty, a University of Texas student organization.

According to Hooman Hedayati, president of Texas Students Against the Death Penalty, the goal of the event is to educate students enough so they will not forget the issues and will go back home and affect other people.

The 24-hour college network, mtvU, covered the anti-death penalty spring break in its prior years, but this year MTV decided to include the event in its spring break series “The Amazing Break.” Ian Rowe, senior vice president of public affairs at MTV, said this decision came when they began hearing from young people and realized this cause was a grassroots movement in colleges across the country.

About 50 students from all over Texas and across the country have registered for this year’s anti-death penalty spring break, which is more than the past two-year’s attendance combined. Because the event is open to the public, many more Austin community members are expected to attend.

Registration is free, except for out-of-town students who must pay $25 for housing. Texas Students Against the Death Penalty arranged for those who need housing to stay in the Goodall Wooten dormitory near the University of Texas campus, and because of the increase in attendance, some students will stay in a hotel.

The rally on Tuesday will be on the South steps of the Capitol and the protest on Thursday will be conducted at the governor’s mansion. Students will attend workshops held at the University of Texas campus and the Texas State Travis Building. There will also be panel discussions in the Capitol’s committee rooms and a book-signing panel at UT on Wednesday.

“Students will learn life skills needed as young people to help shape a better world,” said Renny Cushing, a second-year speaker and founder of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights.

Last year’s students rode a bus to Huntsville, Texas to protest the execution of Tommie Hughes for the murder of two Dallas women during a robbery. This protest was described by several participators as the most significant part of Alternative Spring Break last year.

“It was surreal to be present at the execution,” said Smith. “The whole experience was really emotional and personal.”

“It was rewarding to see them become engaged and try to solve a problem,” said Scott Cobb, coordinator at the Texas Moratorium Network. “The bus ride to Huntsville provided a bonding experience for the students, because it opened up many conversations about the effects of the death penalty.”

Alternative Spring Break hopes to have an impact on death penalty legislation in Texas, but according to many participants, its main impact will be on the students.

“There is no other human rights oriented spring break event that I am aware of where young people are invited to come, participate, and be trained,” said Cobb.

“Alternative Spring Break has already made an impact,” said Christina Lawson, a 29-year-old woman whose husband was executed in 2005. “It informs and encourages the next generation who will influence many others.”

The Austin Alternative Spring Break 2007 episode will air March 22 as an MTV news special during the network’s show “Total Request Live.” It will then air as the first of five segments in “The Amazing Break” on Sunday, March 25.

“This was a call to action that was different and intertwined with many emotions,” said MTV producer Megan Desales. “MTV likes to show ordinary students doing amazing things that will prompt other people in the future.”

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