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 Day 19

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Killing a Voice for Peace

The Race to Execute Tookie Williams

by PHIL GASPER

The State of California is attempting to silence the voice of death-row inmate Stanley Tookie Williams as quickly as it can.

On October 24, less than two weeks after the US Supreme Court refused to hear Stan’s final appeal, a Superior Court in Los Angeles agreed to set his execution for one minute past midnight on December 13, ahead of two other cases whose final appeals had been turned down earlier.

Judge William Pounders refused even to push the execution date back one week, to allow Williams’ lawyers more time to prepare a clemency petition to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. "This case has taken over 24 years to get to this point," Pounders said with a smile. "That is a long delay in itself and I would hate to add to that."

Now, to add further insult to injury, Stan has already been moved by the San Quentin authorities to the secured area where death-row prisoners are placed in preparation for execution, nearly three weeks ahead of the usual schedule.

Why such haste? It is hard to escape the conclusion that the purpose is to silence his voice as quickly possible. For the time being, Stan has lost telephone access and is unable to call friends and supporters, or media outlets covering his case. He cannot speak in person to "Live From Death Row" events, which are being organized across the country in a last-ditch effort to save his life. And he can no longer speak to school children and young people in classrooms and community centers around the country, even though his voice has encouraged thousands of them to stay away from gangs and violence over the past several years.

The details of Williams’ case are familiar, so I won’t repeat them here. Suffice to say that the co-founder of the Crips street gang was framed for four murders in 1979, but has since renounced his past and in his nine-by-four-foot cell, written nine books for children attempting to deromanticize gangs, crime and prison. One of them, Life in Prison, has received two national book honors, including an award from the American Library Association. It has been used in schools, libraries, juvenile correctional facilities and prisons throughout the United States and around the world, including Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town’s South Africa. Williams has also recorded two anti-gang public service announcements for radio that have aired on stations across the United States.

More than 70,000 people have sent emails to Stan’s web site expressing appreciation for his work, many saying they have opted not to join gangs or have withdrawn from gang membership as a result of reading his books. Messages like this one are typical:

My name is J______ and I was a member of a Los Angeles street gang. I would just like to let you know how big of an impact your story had on my life. Your works have made me realize the self-destruction that my involvement in a gang was causing. I love you for that. I pray for you every night. I wish you the best of luck on any further works. Thank you for saving my life.

In 2001, Williams began providing live mentoring sessions via the telephone to incarcerated youths – teenage boys and girls – in California juvenile correctional facilities. He has also writes on a quarterly basis one- to two-page positive communiqués of encouragement to these same jailed youths. His written messages have such potency and influence that juvenile correctional officers have started using them as an official part of their exit-interview process for young people who have served their time and are allowed to go home.

Last year, gang members in Newark, New Jersey who had learned about Stan by seeing Redemption-the TV movie about his life starring Jamie Foxx-negotiated a truce based on the "Tookie Protocol for Peace: A Local Street Peace Initiative," posted on his web site. Before signing the peace treaty, the gangs had been responsible for 34 murders in the first four months of 2004 alone. After signing the treaty in May, gang-related killing in Newark stopped, and the truce has held ever since.

The Observer newspaper in London reported last November that Williams’ anti-gang initiatives have now been extended to Britain. In London, where there is a significant street gang problem, the hip-hop music industry is featuring Stan in an anti-gang advertising campaign in magazines, and his autobiography (Blue Rage, Black Redemption) is being sold in music stores alongside hip-hop CDs.

Stan’s work has been positively cited by several authors, including the psychologist Linda Goldman in Raising Our Children to be Resilient: A Guide to Helping Children Cope with Trauma in Today’s World, the criminologist Lewis Yablonsky in his book Gangsters, and social activist and former-California State Senator Tom Hayden in Street Wars: Gangs and the Future of Violence. According to Yablonsky, emeritus Professor of Criminology at California State University, Northridge, "Williams is the only person I know of-gangster or criminologist-who has come up with any kind of articulate insight into black-on-black violence."

Since 2001, he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times. Last year he won the 2004 Season for Nonviolence Award.

At a conservative estimate, Stan has probably saved hundreds of lives over the past few years. It ought to be obvious that he should be allowed to continue this work as long as possible. But his life has become a challenge to one of the basic assumptions of our barbaric death-penalty system-namely, that those on death rows around the country are the worst of the worst, incapable of making a positive contribution to society and utterly irredeemable. For that reason his right-wing critics are incapable of recognizing that his transformation is for real, and the State of California is eager to silence him as quickly as it can.

Time is running out for Stan Williams. For information about what you can do to help save his life, visit http://www.savetookie.org.

PHIL GASPER is Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame de Namur University in California and a member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. He can be reached at pgasper@ndnu.edu.