Don’t Mourn, Organize

     In Salt Lake City, Utah, two men were executed by firing squad about a century apart, each leaving behind a philanthropic mission for family, friends and supporters. One was fighting for a classless society, and the other wanted to build an organic farm.
     The first man was Joe Hill, who was shot and killed on Nov. 15, 1915. The second was Ronnie Lee Gardner, who died the same way on June 18, 2010.
     In each instance, the man was charged with armed robbery and shooting innocents in cold blood. His supporters pleaded with the parole board for his sentence to be commuted, saying the death row prisoner was an artist working for social change. But popular opinion opposed the “dangerous killer,” and the court denied the protests.
     On the morning of the execution, each man sat strapped to a chair with a paper target pinned over his heart. In newspaper accounts of each execution, journalists reported the condemned man was at peace with his fate when five gunmen aimed at their target and fired. Each requested his remains be cremated and shipped out of state.
     A labor organizer and songwriter, Joe Hill became a folk legend and union martyr immortalized in poetry, novels, plays, a film and most famously, in the song “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill, Last Night” sung by Paul Robeson, by Joan Baez at Woodstock and on picket lines throughout America.
     Ronnie Lee Gardner passed to much less fanfare. Some people were shocked that capital punishment could still look so barbaric in the age of the lethal injection, but fewer paid much attention to the man. As it had done with Joe Hill almost a century ago, Salt Lake City’s Deseret News called for his death in an editorial opined, “If there is such a thing as a death penalty on the books, it ought to be used in the case of Ronnie Lee Gardner.” Predictably, the op-ed discussed only the day of his brutal murders rather than his life as a whole. Articles that bothered to cover his horrific childhood abuse or his philanthropic aspirations used the details as human-interest space-filler, or portrayed them as excuses and stunts to evade the ultimate sentence.
     Before they were executed, both men wanted their supporters to carry out projects that they would no longer be able to realize in their lives. Hill, a member of an unabashedly socialist union called the IWW, urged his supporters, “Don’t waste any time on mourning. Organize.” In a separate letter, he expanded that to tell workers around the globe to “organize our class and march to victory.”
     Gardner’s instructions to his fewer advocates were much more modest. He wanted family and friends to realize his decade-long vision to open a 160-acre organic farm near Salt Lake City for underprivileged youth.
     Hill addressed the letter, which contains the message folklore remembered as “Don’t mourn, organize,” to two friends in his Defense Committee.
     Gardner addressed his letter, which was read in full during his commutation hearing on June 11, to Oprah Winfrey.
     He began the letter with well-wishes from the “great state of Utah,” a few words of introduction, an explanation of how he got to death row and the greeting “Dear Oprah.”
     As if addressing an old friend, Gardner wrote, “I want to tell you about a dream that I’ve had for over ten years now. My dream is to start up a program for at-risk youth.” He told her that he would name the program “Back to Basics” because it would teach “these children to love our environment and to work with nature instead of against it.”
     He explained that he purchased large farmland about 150 miles away from Salt Lake City, the children would be invited with live on-site on the farm for four months at a time, and he had already raised $1,000 for the project by selling prison art.
     “Between you and I, it’s possible to attract a lot more donations from others, I believe, if a sorry-ass death-row prisoner can put up a thousand dollars, the two of us can come up with enough to get in program up and going,” he joked to her, adding that the children would grow their own food and the farm would be “self-sustainable,” run on solar energy, rainwater gathering, and proceeds from eggs, produce and poultry.
     Gardner insisted in the letter that it was not a scheme to get out of death row, saying “I’ve accepted my fate and have come to terms with my punishment.”
     He said he was “anxiously waiting your response” before signing off, “With love and respect, Ronnie Lee Gardner.”
     He added in the postscript that he was enclosing baby booties made out of used chip bags for her and her best friend Gayle King. Since his arthritis prevented him from making more, his letter said they were a limited commodity, “So please accept these as a gift made with love.”
     Oprah and Gail never became the farm’s big sponsors, but a lawyer from a popular local television show in Utah responded more favorably to a different inquiry from the Gardner family.
     In a phone interview, lawyer Tyler Ayres told me that Ronnie Lee Gardner’s brother Randy originally called him because he represented a TV program called Ultimate Combat Experience, a show that has been known to make juvenile offenders take their aggression into a sports ring.
     “Randy saw it as sponsoring young men. They have a lot of tattoos, and they’re fighters. I try to help the kids out,” Ayres said.
     He said he has been working with the Gardner family on the farm since the initial contact.
     On the day after the Friday execution, Ayres said his family was spending the weekend to mourn, but they would go to his office on Monday to start planning the “Back to Basics” program, which they hope to open within the next two years.
     He said that Randy Gardner already bought the land, but he needs to step up fundraising over next six months because securing water rights is a difficult and expensive proposition in Utah, which can cost between $200,000 and $300,000.
     Only then can the basic infrastructure be installed.
     He envisions it to be volunteer-run by the Gardner family, local philanthropists, and the kids who graduated from the program. They plan eventually to seek state accreditation so they can get the kids from the juvenile justice system.
     “If this were available to Ronnie at an early enough stage, he may not have ended up in prison,” he said, adding that the participants in the program “don’t have to be juvenile delinquents. They just have to be in sort of a struggle.”
     “The farm was very important to Mr. Gardner,” his attorney Megan Moriarty wrote me in an email almost one week after his execution.
     Ronnie Lee Gardner’s story does not have the same aura of folklore as Joe Hill’s. For one, Ronnie admitted he was guilty. Joe Hill always maintained his innocence, and there’s strong evidence that he was not the killer.
     Since Oprah never came through, Gardner never had a high-profile advocate. Hill’s case was championed by Helen Keller, who got President Woodrow Wilson to pressure Utah (unsuccessfully) to give him a new trial.
     Hill was a self-proclaimed rebel and revolutionary, who condemned the justice system that had him killed and had his ashes carried across state lines because he “didn’t want to be caught dead in Utah.” According to legend, his ashes were spread in every state in the continental U.S. except the one that had him executed.
     In many ways, Gardner became conservative on death row, as a practicing Mormon who surprised many at his commutation hearing by saying that he supported the death penalty when it was deserved. He portrayed himself as a “sorry-ass,” penitent man driven into crime through horrendous childhood physical, sexual and emotional abuse, neglect, and said he got started as a robber as a lookout for his step-father. He had his ashes taken to Idaho, not to protest Utah justice, but to be taken to his family.
     One last difference between the two men is that Hill’s goal has been unrealized for over a century, while Gardner’s vision has practical benchmarks to make it come into fruition in two years.

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