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Sanley Tookie Williams, co-founder of the Crips street gang in Los Angeles over 30 years ago, is facing execution on December 13. Over the past 12 years, Williams has publicly apologized for his past, written a series of award-winning children’s books to keep kids out of gangs, initiated a Peace Protocol that has led to gang truces in cities such as Newark, New Jersey, and been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. (For more details see "Saving Tookie Williams".)
On November 25, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that he will hold a hearing on December 8 to consider clemency for Williams. Earlier that day I spoke to Williams by telephone.
SOME PROSECUTORS, police and prison officials have been trying to discredit you by saying that you are still an active gang member. What’s your response?
IT’S QUITE a spurious allegation that these people are putting out. The fact of the matter is that I have a report from the San Quentin Institutional Classification Committee from 2004, which quotes a lieutenant saying that he hadn’t observed anything that was gang-related about me for the past 10 years. It also commended me for 10 years of a positive program.
So it’s quite contradictory for a San Quentin spokesperson-or anyone else, for that matter-to state that I’m still involved in gang activity, when that same person’s superiors say I’ve been programming positively for over 10 years.
SOME OF the same people say that if you were serious about opposing gang violence, you would allow the authorities to "debrief" you on what you know about the Crips. Do you have any inside information that could be used to weaken the Crips or other gangs, and why have you refused to be debriefed?
THE FACT of the matter is that "debriefing" is a euphemism for snitching-telling on people. In my redemptive transition, I vowed to myself not to participate in any kind of violence, or anything that would harm other people, and for me to tell on another person is, in my opinion, harming another individual.
But first and foremost, I have no information.
Secondly, there’s another contradiction with these individuals who continuously promote this claim about me. As it stands, the Departmental Operations Manual clearly states that the only gangs or individuals who will be debriefed are prison gangs. The Crips and the Bloods are not considered prison gangs. Prison gangs are those that were formed and created in the prison.
If I were a gang member, and if there was any iota of data that showed this, I would never have left the hole. I was in there in solitary confinement for close to seven years. And if debriefing was necessary-if it was legal for a street gang-then they would have done that to me then.
THE MEDIA has made much of the fact that you have never apologized to the murder victims’ families in your case-you’ve said that you would rather die than lie about something you didn’t do. Do you have anything you would like to say to the victims’ families?
IF I had the opportunity to talk to talk to any victims’ family members, I would say that I can empathize and I sympathize with their loss of a loved one. I would say the same thing to anyone who has lost a loved one.
However, in regards to me apologizing, it would be wrong of me to apologize for something I didn’t do. I didn’t commit those crimes. I’ve been averring my innocence since day one, and it is the truth. So I cannot apologize for something I didn’t do.
It would be wrong of me. It would be a coward’s act. I would be craven to proclaim guilt for something I didn’t do. And that’s why I say that I’d rather just go on and die than to lie about something that is so untrue.
WHAT MADE you decide to redirect your life and dedicate yourself to helping kids?
I’VE LIVED a pathetic life, and I believe it was education that helped me to change. It was through education that I was able to create common sense and use reasoning. And it was through this that I developed a conscience that led to my redemption.
This is something I feel I was obligated to do as a man, period-to do something that would help youth out there. I feel obligated to try to convince them that the life that they wanted to live or are thinking about living-the so-called thug life, or the gang life, or the criminal life, or the drug life-will ruin their lives forever. I was motivated to do something in my small way-to make a contribution.
SOME PEOPLE out there want to blame you as an individual for pretty much all the gang violence that exists. What do you think are the underlying causes that result in gangs and street crime and violence?
FIRST AND foremost, it’s an impossibility to blame one person for the ills of society. That’s just like Black people trying to blame one white person for slavery and what followed. That would be ridiculous.
But I believe the center of the problem is self-hate, which is a very destructive mechanism that people pick up, because of the conditions not only of society but the morbid mindset of how they look at things.
I believe that this is the motivating factor of gangs. It was to me. That’s why I had no qualms about initiating aggression toward people who looked like me-in other words, toward Black folks. It was a sense of trying to erase or obliterate that which reminded me of myself, in the negative.
WHERE DO you think that self-hate comes from?
IT COMES from conditioning. And when I say conditioning, we’re talking about conditioning that’s propagated not only on television and on the radio, but through encounters with the police department, with people in economic positions and in almost any institution-the prisons, the juvenile halls, the police stations, the youth authorities, etc.
There’s an inveterate form of racialism that exists, and it perpetuates a negative stereotype. These things are out there.
As a youngster growing up, I had the unenviable experience of digesting the most negative stereotypes about Black folks being illiterate, being criminals, being violent, being promiscuous, being indolent, etc. When you’re spoon-fed these things on an incessant basis, you eventually morph into those negative stereotypes, unwittingly. That’s what happened to me. I became the stereotypes that I was spoon-fed.
As far as amending the problems, I believe that education is the key. I know I consistently talk about this, but I believe it, because it’s what woke me up. It was my form of an awakening-though over a period of time, because I’ve never had an epiphany or anything like that. I had to undergo years of battling my demons.
What I did was I picked up parts of the most negative aspects of society, and I built my character, I built my persona. And I became what I built-a monster. That became my identity.
WHAT ACHIEVEMENT in your life are you most proud of?
MY REDEMPTIVE transition-being able to alter myself from one extreme to the other.
If you would have told me 15 years ago that I was going to change my life, that I would write children’s books, that I would be helping thousands upon thousands of children, that I would eventually be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and that they would eventually make a movie about me, I would have looked at you as if you had lost your mind.
The reason is because, being a Crip, so-called "cripping" was all that I knew. I felt that would be what I would do for the rest of my life. It was all I knew. I felt that was my reason to exist.
So quite naturally, I thought that was how I would die. I would live until a bullet to the back of the brain, or what have you. I never expected to do anything else, because that was my raison d’etre. There was nothing that could penetrate that armor of the gang life at that time.
That’s what I thought-until, to my amazement, something did. What happened was that I was slowly but surely becoming human.
MANY OF the people who are campaigning around your case are opposed to the death penalty in general and are fighting to end it. I wonder if there’s anything you’d like to say to the anti-death penalty movement in this country?
I’M VERY grateful that they exist, for one thing-because as you and I both know, there wasn’t any type of anti-anything for many years.
I’m very grateful that there are people out there who possess the goodness to be willing to help save the lives of many of us they don’t even know. They know nothing about our backgrounds, but yet they know that killing is wrong, and that the death penalty isn’t a deterrent, and it’s not solving any problems.
Throughout this nation, the death penalty population and the overall population within prisons are getting larger and larger. If there were a deterrent effect, then prisons would be empty. We’re talking about over 600 on death row in California alone. If a person can deduce from this that the death penalty is working, then something is wrong with their reasoning.
But the death penalty has become a pawn that politicians use all the time. You have politicians who didn’t used to be supporters of the death penalty, but once they get into the political arena, they alter their position. They become proponents of the death penalty, because that is the zeitgeist of the moment-the politically correct way to be.
Some people can do it. I couldn’t do it. What they’re doing is what many people expect me to do in regards to apologizing for crimes I didn’t commit-just to save my life. Of course I want to live, but not by having to lie.
A longer version of this interview will appear on Socialist Worker Online. To support clemency for Stan, visit http://www.savetookie.org. Educators can sign the "Educators for Tookie" letter at http://www.nodeathpenalty.org/EducatorsTookie.html.
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 has nominated Stanley Williams for the Nobel Peace Prize four times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.