When Steve Earle came to Louisville in January for NCADP’s annual conference, I sat down with the musician, actor, activist, author, poet and playwright for a wide-ranging interview. Here’s the part where the 2010 winner of NCADP’s Shining Star of Abolition award shares his thoughts about the death penalty. (To read the rest of this interview, check out BlackBook’s “Steve Earle lays it down.”)
Why would you dedicate yourself to the death penalty right now when there are so many causes out there?
Well, part of it is frustration because everybody’s got to have an area of activism. If everybody concentrates on the same thing, not a lot gets done. And this was always mine and I got drawn into a larger piece in justice because of the war. But, I think Barack Obama, who I voted for, I think his actions of the last six months sort of proves that this country is sort of determined to be in a war somewhere. Activism isn’t about me trying to prove that I’m right. I think maybe that my image is to be better extended working on the issue that I concentrated on originally. I don’t even think Barack Obama intended to be involved in the Afghanistan War because to the point that he is when we started. But, I also think there were just forces at work. I think there were forces that are much more powerful than any elected official in this country that really, really, really wants to be at war and that probably.
Sometimes, I just think that maybe right now I’m better off working on what I originally worked on because, like I said, I think it does make a difference. Basically very powerful people had wanted to attack Iraq for a long time anyway. The opportunity was provided by us by most people just feeling so angry and so that somebody had to be attacked, that somebody had to pay. That’s retribution. That’s what we’re up against here. Retribution is what the death penalty is all about. So, I sort of come back around full circle to thinking that working against the death penalty is working at the root of the problem.
My opposition to the death penalty – I’ve said it a thousand times – is about trying to keep me from going to hell. It’s not that I’m trying to save anybody else. It’s about this is a democracy and I still believe that it nominally is, then if the government kills people, then I’m killing people and I object to the damage that does to my soul. I think it diminishes us as a people, and as a nation and I’m opposed to it on those grounds.
Do you think abolition is achievable in the near future?
Absolutely. We’re almost there. The death penalty was dying of natural causes in this country. No one had been executed in a long time. There was a death penalty in place in every state in the union and no one had been executed. Like four or five people were executed between like 1951 and ’52 in the mid 60s. We just became less willing to kill. I think, overall, people are getting more civilized. I know it’s hard to tell sometimes, but we are. We’re much more civilized than the Romans were. It’s one of those things.
But, there are steps sideways and backwards along the way. The same things make people powerful and if people are more interested in power than they are in justice, then that’s a problem and power is corrupting in and of itself. Those are things that we’ve been up against from day one. Not everybody that is in the position to be powerful is corrupt and is cruel. I don’t think most people even are. But, I do think a lot of people are sort of tacitly – people that have money, and power and position sometimes just don’t do anything and tell themselves that they’re not hurting anything.
And the reason that they are is not because they’re mean. The reason that they are is because they can’t get elected. It’s just like you hire the guy that tells you what you’re supposed to be for and against. The stuff that you don’t already have an opinion about – well, you can’t be against the death penalty. I know of a handful of politicians that are against the death penalty. They’re against the death penalty because they can afford to be. They’re in states that don’t have the death penalty or they’re in jobs. I won’t even name their names out loud. I’ve done it before, but I stopped doing it like a decade ago. I’m afraid of hurting them and hurting their effectiveness. I think they’re better off in this climate being allowed to operate quietly. You have people that are morally opposed to the death penalty.
I believe we’re closer to abolition than we’ve ever been and I think the reason for it’s wrongful convictions. Nobody can accuse me for one minute about being opposed to the death penalty on moral grounds. I just think in any issue where people are dying, especially people other than you, lives are at stake. It’s irresponsible to say, “Wait, wait. No. We have to do this for the right reasons and it has to be pure.” I’ve never bought that. I’ve gone back and forth with people in the movement about that for years.
Well, I’ve found from managing Kentucky’s coalition’s website, the argument that gives us the best traction is the cost.
I’ve been a huge proponent of that argument for years and years and years. If that’s what gets you to my side, hey, I’m fine with it.
I don’t know what to say to people when they say, “Well, what about abortion?” Do I think abortion is something we shouldn’t do? Yeah. But, I’m still not comfortable with a bunch of men deciding what women do with their bodies.
I am a socialist. I cut my teeth on Emma Goldman. I’m really genuinely radical when it comes to that [stuff] and unapologetically so. But, that doesn’t mean I have an argument for a fundamentalist Christian or a Catholic that comes to me — and I have had it in this movement standing outside of prisons holding somebody’s hand when somebody was being killed on the other side. I don’t have an argument for that. I just know there are two separate issues for me.
This is about life, but it’s not about the life – and I hate to say this – but, it’s not about the life on the table or in the electric chair. It’s about my life and our life. It’s about what it does to us. And this is the part of this whole thing that’s the most foreign to Americans. It’s about the fact that retribution is toxic in and of itself, that foregoing retribution is what this is all about for me. But, whatever saves lives. Wrongful convictions, if that convinces people. The costs: that’s a really, really good reason. And wrongful convictions–I don’t think anybody could possibly argue that wrongful convictions aren’t the thing that got the most traction the fastest and brought the movement the fastest and furthest. And it did it in a matter of about five or six years. And everybody thought it was going to go away. It hasn’t. We’re executing less people. Executions had accelerated in a couple of states. But sentencing has gone way, way down. It’s plummeting. That’s the proof to me that what we’re doing is not wasting time.
We haven’t had one death penalty sentence here in two years. I think 108 cases were death penalty eligible in 2007 and not one death sentence was handed down.
I think cost is huge in that side of the ledge.
Kentucky is broke. It can’t afford all the requirements of a capital case.
Jacksonville, Texas and Palestine, Texas are 35 miles apart. One’s in Anderson County one’s in Cherokee County. If you kill in Anderson County, you drag him into Cherokee County because Cherokee County has never prosecuted a death penalty case because they can’t and Anderson County’s fairly racist…You can track the counties that send people to death row in Texas. They’re the counties that can afford it. All the big cities do and then there’s the big churchy, wealthy black areas like Lubbock, Tyler. If they have a city of 20,000 people, a big glorified county, city, town with a lot of church steeples, then that’s a lot of money. That’s the places that they send people – that aren’t big cities – they send people to death row in Texas.
What songs are you performing tonight?
I’ll do probably two of the three songs. I’m sort of conflicted about getting up in front of any audience and doing nothing but songs about the death penalty. I don’t know. So, I don’t know what I’ll do. Nnobody’s told me specifically what I’m going to do. So, I was glad to be invited. It happened at a time, like I said, when I was trying to reconnect myself to all this.