Why I am a monthly sustainer

Interview with Louise Kaegi

By: Randi Jones Hensley

The Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP) stays afloat financially in part through our monthly sustainer program. 

This program makes it easy for everyone to help support the fight to abolish the death penalty, no matter where you are or how limited your time is. Once a month, funds are automatically taken out of your account or charged to your credit card, and donated to the CEDP. These funds are used for publishing the New Abolitionist, taking prisoner phone calls, putting on national CEDP tours, sending out mailings and sustaining the work at our national office.

To join this important program, contact Lily Hughes at lily@nodeathpenalty.org or visit our website at nodeathpenalty.org and download the form to mail in. You can donate as little as $5 a month, more if you are able.

Last issue, we began our series on “Why I am a monthly sustainer” to pay tribute to those individuals who sustain our organization. This month, we are talking to Louise Kaegi, a member of the Chicago chapter of the CEDP since 2005, who has been a part of some pretty exciting moments in CEDP history, including the release of Mark Clements, Marvin Reeves and Ronnie Kitchen—and most recently, the abolition of the Illinois death penalty.

How did you get involved with the fight to abolish the death penalty? 

All my life I have been against the death penalty. I thought I was a freak and that everyone was in favor of capital punishment. In 2005, I saw a flyer for a CEDP meeting. I went and was tremendously impressed. People weren’t being used as cannon fodder for other causes. I was impressed by how much people cared about the individuals on death row.

The first case I worked on was Stan Tookie Williams. It was a horrendous shock for me. I just couldn’t believe that they would execute him. And the horrific instructions that went along with the people witnessing his execution—they weren’t allowed to cry. Stan’s case was baptism by fire for me.

Being involved in Chicago, you have seen innocent men freed after decades of wrongful imprisonment. What is that experience like?

I have seen the results of the work we do. Stan Tookie Williams was executed, but we put up a hard fight. Kenneth Foster was a long shot, but we beat all odds.

Here in Chicago, we’ve been working around these cases for years. I’ve been going to the hearings for Burge torture victims. I was in the courtroom when they said there was evidence that Marvin Reeves had been tortured. And then the prosecutors said they didn’t have any evidence, so they would drop the charges. Then I saw Marvin pick up his granddaughter and kiss her in the courtroom. These are the rewards you get if you stick it out through all the hard work.

I also saw Mark Clements come out. Virginia, Mark’s mother, would tell us of nightmares she would have about her son. At chapter meetings, Mark would call in, and now he’s sitting there in person at all of them. These guys go to prison, and you know it’s so awful, but they come out looking great and ready to help other people. That speaks volumes of the importance of grassroots movements.

Why is the Campaign to End the Death Penalty so important?

There is a genuine heartfelt concern for the individuals in prison. We look at prisoners as whole people with stories to share. Regarding the death penalty, there’s so much debate and statistics and back and forth. But there’s no substitute for firsthand testimony from people who have lived the death penalty. After you’ve heard someone like Marvin Reeves say, “You are my family now,” that can’t be let go of. Other people need to see it. It cuts through statistics and makes the issue real.

We see ourselves as part of a movement, not as a political platform. Other groups emphasize the cost of the death penalty, but we stick to our principles, which is why we oppose life without the possibility of parole.

Why did you become a monthly sustainer?

I just recognized that our organization really needs the money.  It’s a necessary part of our work. And the monthly sustainer program is easier than remembering to mail in a donation each month. It gives stability to our offerings.

You have worked with the Chicago chapter for many years, so have seen firsthand why finances are necessary. What are some of the ways donations are used? 

We use money to support production of the New Abolitionist and to underwrite convention.  Our convention is important because we have call-ins from people currently incarcerated, former prisoners who share their stories, family members of prisoners, all of the chapters from across the country, people who have been there since the get-go.

Now that the death penalty is off the table in Illinois, you still remain committed to the fight. Can you tell us why?

Because it is still a problem in other places. And because I have discovered how flawed our system is. Doing this work has brought me to other issues—torture, long sentences, maximum security prisons. The message is we must not be bystanders to injustice.