THE STATE of California rewarded redemption with cold-blooded murder–justified with a press release and carried out in the dead of night.
Stan Tookie Williams was put to death in the execution chamber at San Quentin Prison just past midnight on December 13.
The former leader of the Crips in Los Angeles has spent the last decade of his life as one of the most powerful and articulate voices warning youth against violence, crime and prison. Gang truces negotiated along the lines of his “Protocol for Peace” have saved lives across the U.S.
But it didn’t matter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who refused Stan’s plea for clemency. Or to the state and federal judges, who turned a blind eye to the evidence of racism and bigotry in Stan’s capital murder trial two-and-a-half decades ago. Or all the pro-death penalty politicians and media blowhards who calculated that Stan’s death was in their interests.
They claimed that Stan’s redemption couldn’t be real. But it’s their death penalty system that is irredeemably barbaric and unjust. This was the legal lynching of a Black man to advance political careers–an age-old tradition in American politics.
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EVEN AS Schwarzenegger put off announcing his decision on clemency until the day of execution, Stan’s supporters held out hope that he would acknowledge the evidence that Stan was sent to death row for crimes he didn’t commit–and hear the voices of people testifying that this gang leader-turned-peacemaker changed their lives.
But the statement Schwarzenegger issued to justify his denial of clemency shows that he and the right-wing Neanderthals that feed him his lines in the governor’s mansion never seriously considered the value of sparing Stan’s life–and that all the talk of “facing a difficult decision” was a lie.
The five-page document rejected Stan’s transformation from gang leader to peacemaker as a fake. “Williams’ perennial nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize and Nobel Prize in Literature from 2001-2005 and the receipt of the President’s Call to Service Award in 2005 do not have persuasive weight in this clemency request,” reads a footnote in the document.
Stan’s anti-gang efforts were dismissed as “hard to assess the effect of such efforts in concrete terms, but the continued pervasiveness of gang violence leads one to question the efficacy of Williams’ message,” the statement said. “In other words,” said Elizabeth Terzakis, an organizer with the Bay Area Save Tookie Committee, “Schwarzenegger went further than the jury and even the prosecutors did. He found Stan guilty of any and all acts of gang violence, anytime and everywhere.”
Schwarzenegger–or, more precisely, the author(s) of the statement put out in his name–took special issue with Williams’ dedication in his 1998 book Life in Prison.
“Specifically,” read the governor’s statement, “the book is dedicated to ‘Nelson Mandela, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt, Ramona Africa, John Africa, Leonard Peltier, Dhoruba Al-Mujahid, George Jackson, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and the countless other men, women, and youths who have to endure the hellish oppression of living behind bars. The mix of individuals on this list is curious. Most have violent pasts, and some have been convicted of committing heinous murders.”
Of course, the “curious” mix of individuals is a list of heroes in the struggles of people of color against oppression. The smearing of them is a grotesque insult added to the ultimate injury.
The statement singles out George Jackson, the Black Panther and prison activist who was murdered by guards in the prison yard at San Quentin in 1971–rewriting history to accuse Jackson of being responsible for that day of violence. It continues: “[T]he inclusion of George Jackson on this list defies reason and is a significant indicator that Williams is not reformed and that he still sees violence and lawlessness as a legitimate means to address societal problems.”
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STAN’S EXECUTION was met with protests across the U.S.
Crowds of people gathered in the darkness outside San Quentin prison, clogging the narrow street that leads to the east gate–estimates of the size went as high as 5,000. People kept flooding into the demonstration late into the night, as the midnight hour approached when poison would be pumped into Stan’s veins.
“Stanley Tookie Williams is a light that can never go out,” said Christopher Muhammad of the Nation of Islam. “If Stanley Tookie Williams can’t be redeemed, what hope do you hold for America?” Derrel Myers of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights told the crowd, “If we want peace on our streets, we need justice in the schools and in the cities.”
In Los Angeles, Stan’s supporters gathered at four vigils and protests across the city. At the largest, 250 people turned out to the Westwood Federal Building, and then marched down Wilshire Boulevard to St. Paul the Apostle church, chanting the whole way.
The mood was naturally sad–but angry, too. “My hope is that we continue the fight to end the death penalty,” said Stan Muhammad, speaking for the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and the LA Save Tookie Committee. “Schwarzenegger has made a big mistake,” he said to cheers. “His decision will make us fight like never before.”
Tom Goldstein, an innocent man who spent 24 years in jail before being exonerated, told the crowd, “I was arrested in 1979, the same year as Tookie Williams, and I can attest with firsthand knowledge that our judicial system is flawed. I believe that Tookie Williams’ trial was also flawed, as his conviction was based on the testimony of an reliable jailhouse informants, questionable forensic evidence, and the testimony of self-serving co-defendants.”
Hours before, in Washington, D.C., a protest for Stan outside the Justice Department headquarters led the local evening news. Some 40 people delivered a petition calling for emergency federal intervention to stop the execution. The petition had gathered hundreds of signers in just a half a day, and people around the U.S. and internationally faxed the statement to the Justice Department’s civil rights division.
From San Diego to New York City to Chicago to Seattle and many other cities, dozens of people came out to protests, vigils and forums–to express their grief and anger at Stan’s execution.
These protests were the culmination of a struggle that mobilized people across California and around the country. “The media focused on the celebrity involvement–people like Jamie Foxx and Snoop Dogg–which has been very welcome, but the key has been the grassroots organizing,” said Phil Gasper, a philosophy professor who has nominated Stan for the Nobel Prize and who co-founded Educators for Tookie.
Many diverse organizations and individuals came together around the struggle to save Stan–anti-death penalty groups; the Nation of Islam and other religious organizations; community activists in Stan’s hometown of Los Angeles and other cities; liberal civil rights organizations such as the NAACP; school students moved by Stan’s books; and groups like the Bay Area’s United Playaz that offer positive activities for at-risk youth.
“This was the biggest campaign to stop a California execution that there has ever been,” Gasper said. “There has been nothing like it since the campaign to save Mumia Abu-Jamal in 1995.”
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FROM THE governor’s office to the fanatical prosecutors to the largely silent Democrats at both the state and local levels, the authorities wanted to keep the discussion of Stan’s case limited to sensationalized accounts of the 1979 murders that he was convicted of.
Right-wingers filled the airwaves with calls for blood–for example, the daily “Kill Tookie Hour” on AM radio in LA. Among those demanding execution the loudest was a deputy district attorney in San Bernardino County, John Monaghan–who himself faces a civil lawsuit for shooting and killing an unarmed driver he pulled over while working as a county sheriff’s reserve deputy.
But the hypocrites on the right couldn’t hide the fact that Stan’s case shows so much of what’s wrong with the death penalty system.
His trial was a racist circus, starting with the jury selection–no Blacks allowed. “If American courts ever attempt to be fair, no Black person would ever stand trial in front of 12 non-Black Americans,” wrote Donna Warren, an LA activist and former Green Party candidate for California lieutenant governor, wrote in the San Francisco Bay View newspaper.
During closing arguments at the trial, the prosecutor compared Stan in the courtroom to a caged animal in the zoo–and said that in his “natural habitat” of South Central LA, he would act like a “Bengel tiger.”
None of the physical evidence found at the crime scenes was tied to Stan. Instead, the case against him was built around snitch testimony.
In fact, even as Stan’s supporters awaited word from Schwarzenegger, further evidence of state misconduct emerged. In a sworn affidavit, posted at the www.savetookie.org Web site, a former prisoner, Gordon Von Ellerman says that he shared a cell with a prosecution witness in Stan’s case, and that Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department personnel delivered copies of documents related to different criminal cases, including Stan’s. The witness told Von Ellerman that he would use the information in the files to create his testimony against Stan.
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AT THE same time, Stan represented another argument against the death penalty that the media never talk about–that a human being is more than their worst acts.
While Stan steadfastly maintained his innocence in the four murders that sent him to death row, he acknowledged his personal role in furthering the gang violence that plagued South Central Los Angeles.
And he did something about it. From behind bars in San Quentin–in a cell no bigger than most people’s bathroom–he transformed himself into a writer and speaker, warning youth against gangs, crime and prison. His children’s books and mentoring sessions with incarcerated youth and students won him the respect and love of uncounted young people around the country.
Stan outlined a “Protocol for Peace” that has been used to negotiate truces between rival gangs.
One incident last week underlined the importance of these efforts. As a blogger on a Web site dedicated to the life of hip hop star Tupac Shakur described it, a segment on the BET cable station showed several members of the Bloods gang–arch-rivals to the Crips that Stan co-founded–turning over weapons to a BET reporter, as a gesture of “good faith.”
“The mainstream press can put headlines out about how the community leaders in LA are asking for calm, and that they are afraid of violence when the governor’s decision comes down,” wrote the blogger. “Why are the other sides of this story not reported, especially the BET and the Bloods story?”
Schwarzenegger’s predecessor as governor, Gray Davis, was a lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key Democrat who watched the state budget for prison construction swell under his reign. By comparison, Schwarzenegger has been better, promoting parole for prisoners and last year adding the word “rehabilitation” to the name of the Department of Corrections.
If any single person represents “rehabilitation”–in the worst of circumstances–it is Stan Tookie Williams. Granting clemency would have been the perfect opportunity for Schwarzenegger to prove that he was serious about his rhetoric.
It was an opportunity he failed. “This raises the question: Just what do people have to do to show to the criminal justice system that they’ve rehabilitated themselves,” said Marlene Martin, of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. “Stan has spent the last decade of his life devoted to steering youth away from gang violence, and he was far more successful at it than any politician. In killing Stan, the justice system showed that it will use its ultimate power in the most vicious and uncaring ways.”
Elizabeth Terzakis agrees. “What the governor and the courts and the government made clear today is that justice doesn’t matter, that redemption doesn’t matter, that the voices of young people don’t matter to them,” she said. “It doesn’t matter to them if a poor person or a person of color can’t get a fair trial. It doesn’t matter to them that people can change. And it doesn’t matter to them whether young people growing up in impoverished cities with crumbling schools have any hope.”
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IN THE weeks before the execution, a remarkable groundswell of organizing to save Stan spread around the U.S.
In Los Angeles, when the execution date was first set, activists from the Campaign to End the Death Penalty organized a meeting in South Central LA. In an area ravaged by gang violence, so many people turned out to the first meeting that another was called for the next night. A diverse coalition kept up a steady pace of rallies, vigils, town-hall forums and other events to add to the pressure on Schwarzenegger.
In the Bay Area, where Stan’s longtime advocate, journalist Barbara Becnel, had convened the Save Tookie Committee, activists organized a 1,000-strong rally November 19 featuring hip hop star Snoop Dogg. The movie Redemption–made about Stan’s life and starring Jamie Foxx–was shown to big audiences in San Francisco and Berkeley, introduced by powerful speeches from actor and activist Danny Glover and others.
In New York City, as many as 150 people attended a December 6 forum in Harlem, featuring speakers from anti-racist and criminal justice groups, as well as spoken word and hip-hop performances from local artists. Newark, N.J., Deputy Mayor Ras Baraka and former members of rival gangs who organized a truce based on Stan’s “Protocols for Peace” were among the speakers.
“How in the hell does this country, which is torturing and decimating Iraq, think it has the right to take Tookie’s life,” said Sundiata Sadiq from the Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition and the Ossining, N.Y., chapter of the NAACP. “We leave here believing that we will save Tookie’s life. But we also have a greater responsibility, because there are many more Tookies waiting to die.”
When Schwarzenegger agreed to hold a private hearing December 8 on Stan’s petition for clemency with only lawyers present, the Bay Area Save Tookie Committee, along with the Nation of Islam, the NAACP and the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, organized a “People’s Clemency Hearing” on the steps of the California state capitol building.
The diversity of the crowd showed how much Stan means to people–and how his case has come to represent everything that is wrong with the death penalty. As seventh-grader Zachary Williams from Richmond, Calif., put it, “Stan stands up for me.”
Nation of Islam Western Regional Minister Tony Muhammad pointed out that “Stan isn’t the only one who needs clemency. America needs clemency, George Bush needs clemency. If God can forgive America for her negative beginnings, for her crimes against Black people, then America can forgive Stanley Tookie Williams for his negative beginnings.”
The high point of the event came in the form of a written statement of support from Linda Owens, the wife of one of the 1979 victims Stan was accused of killing. “I, Linda Owens, want to build upon Mr. Williams’ peace initiative,” her statement read. “I invite Mr. Williams to join me in sending a message to all communities that we should all unite in peace. This position of peace would honor my husband’s memory and Mr. Williams’ work.”
The movement to save Stan stretched far and wide. In Watsonville, Calif., south of the Bay Area, 40 high school students walked out of classes a few days before the execution date to hold a protest calling for clemency.
The students had planned a speakout on campus during a morning break in classes, but when administrators called one of the leaders of the protest to the office to delay its start, the students left campus and marched through Watsonville’s downtown, chanting “No more blood”–with school officials trailing them.
“I’ll probably get suspended for this,” 17-year-old senior Zeltzin Sanchez told a local newspaper. “But it’s worth it, of course. Every life is worth it.” “I lost two cousins to gang violence, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to kill,” she said. “We shouldn’t kill. No more blood for blood.”
Everywhere, activists recognized that the struggle to save Stan has created new alliances and strengthened the fight against the racist execution machine in the U.S. “Even if this goes badly, I think it’s the beginning of a movement against the death penalty,” a Sacramento grandmother, Sherri Johnson, said as the “People’s Clemency Hearing” took place behind her.
Later, as the execution loomed, Bonnie Williams, Stan’s ex-wife and the main spokesperson for his family, said she wanted to thank “everyone who has been supporting us from the bottom of my heart.” “Tell everyone that I’m getting on board with the movement,” she said. “I don’t want this to happen to anyone else. I will not stop now–this is only the beginning. We’re going to speak out against this death penalty, and everything else the system does.”
Petrino DiLeo, Phil Gasper, Sarah Knopp, David McCarthy, Jessie Muldoon, Elizabeth Schulte, Karl Swinehart and David Thurston contributed to this article.