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Renny Cushing, a Precious Friend

I wrote this column for InDepthNH, where it was published on March 10, 2022.

My first memory of Renny Cushing is probably a photograph.  In it, Renny is carrying a suitcase with “Seabrook or Bust” painted in big letters.  Since Renny was on his way to a Clamshell Alliance demonstration at the Seabrook nuclear power plant construction site, where he expected to get arrested, the double meaning struck me as clever.  It was classic Renny.

Renny Cushing pictured with the suitcase years later.

Only later did something else occur to me.  Most of the Seabrook protesters, myself included, were college kids or recent graduates, hailing from places like Amherst, Cambridge, and Durham.  We marched onto the site carrying our changes of clothes and jars of peanut butter in backpacks.

But Renny wasn’t a college kid, he was a local kid, from Hampton, where he grew up just a few miles from the site where Public Service Company of New Hampshire (PSCo, as it was then called) wanted to build the “nuke.”  Renny brought his change of clothes in a suitcase, the gear that at the time was still more typical for working- and middle-class people going on a trip.  For Renny, the campaign to stop the nuke was first and foremost the defense of his own community from a threat imposed by big corporations with the backing of the state and federal governments.  For Renny the adage that “all politics is local” was a way of life.

My first close collaboration with him came a bit later.  Renny’s father, Robert R. Cushing, Sr., had purchased shares of PSCo stock for each of his children.  The shares gave them admission to the company’s annual meetings of stockholders.  Since my grandmother also owned stock in the company, I was able to attend as well with her proxy. 

Even without dissension, a corporate annual meeting is an act of theatre, carefully staged by the management to impress investors.  When stockholders publicly object to the management, the show takes on a different character.  If I correctly recall with 45 years or so of hindsight, Renny nominated his brother Kevin to serve on the company’s board of directors.  His nominating speech explained the hazards of nuclear power, both for the community’s and the company’s health.  It was classic Renny, an unexpected message in the right place at the right time to the right audience.

Renny did it again in 1998, by which time he was a member of the NH House of Representatives.  Following a spate of gruesome murders the previous fall, the House was debating legislation to expand use of the death penalty.  Renny took the speakers platform and told a sobering story about his father’s murder ten years earlier. 

Robert Cushing, Sr. was watching the Celtics on TV when he answered a knock at the front door. “Two shotgun blasts were fired through the screen, lifting him up and hurling him backwards, the shrapnel lifting the life out of him before my mother’s eyes,” Renny told the assembled lawmakers.  “The most difficult thing I have ever had to ask anyone was for help in getting my father’s blood cleaned off the floor and walls,” he explained.

With his infant daughter, Grace, in her mother’s lap in the House Gallery, Renny told a rapt audience of lawmakers, “If we let those who murder turn us to murder, it gives over more power to those who do evil. We become what we say we abhor. I do not want the state of New Hampshire to do to the man who murdered my father what that man did to my family.”

What survivors want, he went on, is to know the truth about

what happened, to have some form of justice, and to have the opportunity to heal. Killing the killer does none of those things, Renny explained.

It was an unexpected message in the right place at the right time to the right audience and it turned the debate over the death penalty upside down.  The expansion bill went down to defeat, and a campaign to repeal the state’s death penalty was soon launched. 

The death penalty repeal campaign was a team effort, but Renny’s moral and political leadership was essential.  As we went from year to year, governor to governor, defeat to defeat, Renny always made sure we left the door open for opponents to become allies.  It took us twenty years. 

Read more about the campaign to repeal New Hampshire’s death penalty here.

It may not have been his intent, and surely was not when he first ran for office, but over those years Renny became a master of legislative procedure and honed his principled ability to forge alliances in unexpected places.  As he transitioned from young upstart to respected veteran, Renny plunged into a wide range of policy debates, including victims’ rights, creation of a forensic psychiatric hospital, and medical cannabis.  When the death penalty was finally repealed, I thought Renny would give himself permission to retire.  But he still had items on his legislative to-do list, including marijuana legalization and acknowledgment of New Hampshire’s indigenous heritage.

 It was after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer that Renny put himself forward to be his party’s leader in the NH House.  That he used “RepRennyCushing” as his email address is an indication of how much his identity as a lawmaker meant to him.

But I remember, too, when email became common enough that lots of people were getting accounts and choosing their first email identities. Renny’s was “PapaCush,” a nod to his three daughters.  Whether he was traveling the world for human rights, waging procedural struggles in the halls of the State House, or joining progressive candidates for president on the campaign trail, Renny cherished his family above all.  He died on March 7, 2022 in the home where he grew up.  He never stopped being a kid from Hampton. 

As Renny entered his final days, lyrics of a Pete Seeger song came to mind.

“I’ll keep pluggin’ on,

Your face will shine through all of our tears.

And when we sing another victory song,

Precious friend you will be there.”

Read or listen to an obituary contributed by Renny’s family here.

Katherine Seelye wrote an obituary about Renny for the New York Times, posted on March 13, 2022.  Read it here.

The Death Penalty Information Center offered a reflection on Renny’s legacy on March 9, 2022.

Emily Langer wrote an obituary about Renny for the Washington Post.  Read or listen to it here.

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NH Abolishes the Death Penalty

This was first published in the Concord Monitor on May 31, 2019, the day after New Hampshire’s state Senate overturned the governor’s veto of a death penalty repeal bill.

Oddly enough, it was a series of murders in 1997 that launched the campaign to abolish New Hampshire’s death penalty.

The killings of three police officers, the rape and murder of a 6-year-old girl, and the murder of a judge and a journalist, all within a two-month period, created political conditions that made death penalty expansion politically popular, regardless of the fact that the recent murders were largely covered already by the state’s capital murder statute.

When the 1998 legislative session opened, Republican leaders of the state House and Senate teamed up with Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen to introduce a bill greatly expanding the list of crimes punishable by execution. Passage appeared likely.

But two young legislators had another idea.

Reps. Renny Cushing of Hampton and Clifton Below of Lebanon already knew each other through the anti-nuclear Clamshell Alliance when they won election to the Legislature. Instead of simply arguing against the expansion bill, they introduced a floor amendment that would abolish it altogether.

Renny Cushing at death penalty repeal vigil in Hampton, 2014

Below, then 42 years old but already a veteran legislator, was the son of a Protestant minister and brought a preacher’s touch to his speech on the House floor. “When possible,” he said, “we should choose life over death, good over evil, the possibility of redemption over destruction, of healing over revenge, love over hate.”

Speaking about the potential of every human being, even those who have committed brutal violence, to repent and gain redemption, Below lifted up the example of John Newton, a slave ship captain who was responsible for the death of scores of men, women and children. Seeking redemption from such evil, Newton became an activist in the movement to abolish the slave trade and wrote the great hymn, “Amazing Grace.”

“Who are we to deny the possibility of redemption, true change and healing?” Below asked.

“Our desire for justice, retribution, and even revenge comes to us naturally,” he continued. “But why let murderers debase our values and diminish our love for life? Why allow murderers to make us participants in perpetuating cycles of violence and revenge? Why drag all of us down by placing the blood of unnecessary killing on all of our hands?”

Renny Cushing followed, addressing the 350 House members from his perspective as the son of a homicide victim. Ten years earlier, he recalled, his father was watching the Celtics on TV when he answered a knock at the front door. “Two shotgun blasts were fired through the screen, lifting him up and hurling him backwards, the shrapnel lifting the life out of him before my mother’s eyes.”

“The most difficult thing I have ever had to ask anyone was for help in getting my father’s blood cleaned off the floor and walls,” he explained.

With his infant daughter, Grace, in her mother’s lap in the House Gallery, Cushing told a rapt audience of lawmakers: “If we let those who murder turn us to murder, it gives over more power to those who do evil. We become what we say we abhor. I do not want the state of New Hampshire to do to the man who murdered my father what that man did to my family.”

What survivors want, said Cushing, is to know the truth about what happened, to have some form of justice, and to have the opportunity to heal. Killing the killer does none of those things, he said.

When the votes were counted, the Below-Cushing amendment failed, 155-195. But the impact was powerful, and the death penalty expansion measure was voted down, too, by an even larger margin, 137-215.

The ad hoc group of death penalty opponents who worked with Reps. Cushing and Below to defeat the expansion bill soon became the N.H. Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. The coalition continued to make the case that killing those who have killed violates the moral principles of most religious traditions, that it does not deter murder or protect public safety, and that the resources spent on prosecutions in cases where execution is possible could be better spent on any number of socially useful purposes, such as giving actual aid to crime victims.

Over time, the coalition devoted additional attention to the documented cases of prosecutorial and judicial errors which placed innocent people on death row, and to the death penalty system’s demonstrated racial bias.

Speaking on the House floor this past March 8, Rep. Cushing, now the gray-haired chairman of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, once more told his fellow lawmakers about his father’s murder, stating, “If we let people who kill turn us into killers, then evil triumphs and we all lose.”

The 2019 repeal measure passed the House by a vote of 279 to 88, and later cleared the Senate 17 to 6. The bill was later vetoed by Gov. Chris Sununu.

Rep. Cushing took to the House floor again last week to call for members to override the governor’s veto. “The death penalty doesn’t work,” he said. “It doesn’t work for victims. It doesn’t work for society.”

Like his colleague 21 years earlier, Cushing invoked the memory of John Newton and the words of “Amazing Grace.” “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see,” a lyric that speaks to the potential we all have to atone, to change and to act in accord with deeply held values.

“New Hampshire can live without the death penalty,” he concluded. The House and Senate agreed.

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Don Booth

Don Booth Marched Off to Peace

This article was first published in the Concord Sunday Monitor on February 6, 2011.

Don Booth

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, millions of young American men went off to war. Don Booth went off to peace.

An introspective young man when he received his draft notice, Don thought that some aspects of military life sounded appealing but concluded that he could not bring himself to kill another person. “I’ve seen too much of the present turning of energies both national and personal to killing, and I don’t think the waste is justified,” he wrote in his journal. Instead, he wanted to devote himself to “constructive service.”

Booth, who died last month at 94, later became a well-recognized figured in Concord, standing vigil outside the State House bearing witness to his belief that peace is possible. His beliefs – and actions – had their roots in his own wartime experience decades earlier.

Don applied to be a conscientious objector, a legally recognized status enabling men who refused military service based on religious beliefs to serve instead in noncombatant roles in the armed forces or civilian projects. After two denials, Don was granted CO status and joined the Civilian Public Service.

CPS was created by the National Religious Service Board for Religious Objectors, led by members of three pacifist religious groups (Quakers, Mennonites and Church of the Brethren), and the Selective Service. Under their negotiated plan, the church groups would fund and supervise projects in which the COs would perform stateside work of “national importance,” without pay, while their peers went off to the European and Pacific wars. During the course of World War II, 12,000 of the 12 million men drafted by the Selective Service went into CPS. A smaller group of pacifists, who believed even applying for CO status to be a compromise with war, were sent to federal prison.

Don started his CPS experience at a camp in Royalston, Mass., run by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization which assumed much of the leadership for CPS administration. A few months later he transferred to another AFSC-run camp in Gorham. By the end of the war, Don had worked at a logging camp in Oregon, a public health project near Orlando, Florida., and a school for people with disabilities in Delaware.

Richard Anderson, a CPS vet and author of Peace Was In Their Hearts, based on a survey of more than 1,000 CPSers, wrote, “It is reasonable to assume that government negotiators were not much concerned about the significance of the CO’s work. Their interest was in keeping COs out of public view, and the fact that someone else would feed and house them was an unbelievable bonanza.”

A bad joke

The COs soon realized that “national importance” was somewhere between exaggeration and a bad joke. “Using a pick and shovel gets pretty wearisome, especially when we hear that the holes aren’t considered important,” Don wrote. “But,” he added, “we like working together, and can discuss history or psychology or ethics of camp problems and still keep the pick swinging.”

It was through those endless discussions with other COs and with visitors to their camps that groundwork was laid for postwar work on behalf of peace, civil rights, and the environment that proved to be of tremendous historical significance.

Imagine the setting: A small group of young men, each one bristling with idealism and willing to take a lonely stand, are sent off to live and work together, out of public view but in accord with their principles. For Don, “his four years in CPS was like going to a graduate school in issues of pacifism, peace and justice and community living,” observes Bob Henninge, who edited Don and his wife Lois’s papers for a 2009 book, Finding Our Way: A Quest for Peace & Community.

“They are a peculiar kind of people,” wrote Gen. Lewis Hershey, the director of the Selective Service.

“We all shared an aversion to war, but on everything else there was a wide range of beliefs and attitudes,” wrote Anderson. “Everyone knew what it meant to be strange,” he reported. But in the “unfamiliar luxury of being with so many like-minded people,” the young COs put their ideals into practice as best they could.

For example, when Don decided he wanted to learn about building construction, he joined a CPS crew building sanitary facilities in rural Florida to reduce incidence of hookworm. After manufacturing privies, they turned their attention to maintenance of a school for black children in what was still the segregated South.

At the end of the school year, the CPS group, all white, organized a party at the school. Don led circle dances and games. “But the Ku Klux Klan,” Don wrote in a letter, “learned that eight white CPS men had even eaten and played games with those colored boys and girls and teachers, and we were invited to leave town as soon as we could go.”

Similar acts of desegregation took place in other CPS camps, and even in federal prisons. “Our convictions took us to CPS, but from CPS we gained the vision of a better life for ourselves and our world,” wrote Anderson.

Multiple influences

Don’s generation of pacifists did not come to their convictions all on their own. In his journals, Don described the influence of such elders as Norman Thomas, leader of the Socialist Party; A.J. Muste, who headed the Fellowship of Reconciliation; Scott Nearing, a radical economist and pioneer of simple living; and Arthur Morgan, an advocate for intentional communities and the president of Antioch College.

Bayard Rustin passed through one of Don’s CPS camps. “He’s been denied many civil rights, but insists on them still, even at the cost of some beatings (by police usually) and much humiliating indignity,” Don wrote. “He’s done a great deal on at least a small scale to get Negroes the equal rights they should have.”

After the war, Rustin and other pacifists would stage the first integrated “Freedom Ride,” the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation. Later Rustin advised Martin Luther King Jr. on nonviolent tactics in Montgomery and organized the 1963 March on Washington. Don was in the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial, listening to King describe his dream.

Some World War II pacifists took their experience into postwar movements for peace, nuclear disarmament and reform of mental health facilities, or applied their tested principles to education, human services and business. As Anderson put it, “After CPS we found it easier to stake out positions and to speak out on other unpopular issues” and become involved in community affairs. “We became lifetime activists in the causes of human dignity and peaceful coexistence,” he noted. The movements of the 1950s and ’60s were their descendants.

Don found his life partner, Lois, in postwar pacifist circles and together they too k their values into building a family. They moved to Canterbury, where fellow COs Bill Meeh, with his wife Mildred, and David Curtis had already settled, and joined the local Quaker meeting. An idealistic man with practical talents, it’s really no surprise that Don applied his passion and considerable intellect to building passive solar homes. It was only after his retirement that Don was able to devote himself to the peace vigils that made him such a visible figure in Concord.

As the war was wound down in the summer of 1945, Don wrote home that “the ideals which brought me to CPS are deeper and stronger and broader than they were four years ago.” Those ideals never wavered.

As a young man, Don Booth went off to peace. He never came back.

Don Booth’s record of Civilian Public Service as a conscientious objector can be read at https://civilianpublicservice.org/workers/908.

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Lois Booth

Radical Idealism and Extreme Practicality Came Together in the Life of Lois Booth

This article was first published on November 8, 2019 in the Concord Monitor.

Reflecting on the life of her mother, Barbara Berwick says, “It seemed she would consider first what she thought was right. Then she would think about how reality might arrange itself around what was right.”

It was that spirit that made Barbara’s mom, Lois Booth, at once the most idealistic and the most practical person I’ve ever known.

Her study of the horrors of the first world war turned Lois into a pacifist by her high school days. With her husband Don, Lois joined a sprawling community of conscientious objectors and social reformers who tried to organize their lives around creation of a world free from war and violence. It was a vision they took seriously and applied to daily life as well as political causes from the 1940s to the twenty-first century.

For Lois, much of her idealism was applied to the matter of raising a family. As she put it in a letter, written around 1960, “We continue to be fully occupied with the basic problems of making a living and caring for our children.” (She had six) That meant attention to food, cooking, education, and complementing Don’s home construction business by becoming a realtor.

Years before the Woodstock generation was “going back to the land,” Lois was studying the methods of organic food production. “She read everything she could about it, and she had legendary success. At the height she had at least a couple acres of amazing gardens, and all sorts of natural tricks to grow beautiful vegetables and fruits,” says Barbara.

It wasn’t just food production that put Lois ahead of her times, Barbara recalls. “I always felt she sort of ‘invented’ things that now are commonplace,” things like health foods, natural childbirth, and recycling.” Don later became the Concord area’s premiere builder of passive solar houses, pioneering designs to minimize the use of fossil fuels and nuclear-derived electricity.

But Lois always felt the tension between attention to family and attention to the world. “I often question whether it is right to spend so much time and energy on our personal problems with the world almost on fire around us,” she wrote in the early 1960s.

Although she was part of a Women for Peace group in Concord that protested atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, led a study group on Vietnam in 1965, and leafletted high school students about the draft in 1968, Lois’ career as a peace activist didn’t take off until her kids were grown and gone from her Canterbury home. But even there, her focus was as practical as it was visionary.

In 1975, Lois was one of several New Hampshire Quakers who turned their attention to establishment of a local branch of the American Friends Service Committee, which at the time had staffed offices in the other five New England states but no such presence in New Hampshire. When Marge Swann, the AFSC’s regional director, suggested that local fundraising would help make it possible, Lois turned her attention to that most practical and under-appreciated of volunteer activities.

Devoted to public education, it was Lois who started up a local AFSC newsletter, Quaker Witness. If people only knew the dangers posed by nuclear weapons, she believed, surely they would want to take action to control and eliminate them. When others, including her husband Don after he retired from building solar houses, spent hours on the street holding signs and banners, Lois was more likely to be found at a desk producing leaflets, writing newsletters, and organizing conferences, without neglecting the importance of those fundraising appeals.

Not only was Lois central to the birth of the New Hampshire AFSC office, she played an equally important role in the birth of the organization now known as NH Peace Action, which grew out of the “Nuclear Freeze” movement of the early 1980s. As the anchor of the Peace Action board and a nearly full-time volunteer in its Concord office, Lois helped keep the peace movement on course through several presidential administrations, a number of military misadventures, and a succession of young staff members.

While she also served on Peace Action’s national board and regional AFSC committees, Lois never lost her focus on educating and organizing Canterbury neighbors. Neither did she fail to give attention to individuals who needed a warm place to stay, needed a good meal, and needed her love.

Lois Booth, who died on September 13 at the age of 97, opened her home and her heart to those who yearned for peace. She believed that if something was right, it must be possible. In a world that’s still on fire, her spirit lives on.

For more about Lois Booth, go to http://www.loisbooth.wordpress.com.