“The dedication of Williams’ book ‘Life in Prison’ casts significant doubt on his personal redemption…Specifically, 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, including the killing of law enforcement.”
So reads the statement of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in denying clemency for Stan Tookie Williams. Twelve hours after the statement was issued, Stan was brought into the execution chamber at San Quentin Prison, and the former gang leader-turned-internationally renown peacemaker was put to death.
Schwarzenegger claimed the dedication of Stan’s Life in Prison autobiography showed that his record of turning his life around was a fraud.
But the men and women on Stan’s list aren’t “criminals.” They are revolutionaries–African Americans and Native Americans who were subjected to the dehumanizing conditions of U.S. prisons, but who refused to submit, and dedicated their lives to the struggle against racism and oppression.
By singling out this dedication, Schwarzenegger and his aides showed that Stan Tookie Williams died most of all because of the political challenge he represented to the status quo of racism and repression in the U.S. today.
* * *
Williams’s supporters continued to hold out hope that Schwarzenegger would grant clemency even as the December 13 execution date approached. During his two years in office, Schwarzenegger had seemed less hard-line on law-and-order issues than his predecessor, Democrat Grey Davis, and the governor claimed to reporters that he was struggling over the decision.
But the statement released by Schwarzenegger to justify denying clemency proved that he never had any intention of stopping the execution. As University of Southern California law professor Jody Armour told a reporter, “There is nothing in the tone of the governor’s decision that suggests it was a close call or agonized over.”
The statement condemns Stan for refusing to admit to his role in the four murders he was convicted of.
But Stan always proclaimed his innocence in these cases. In demanding that Stan do “the one thing Williams will not do” and confess, Schwarzenegger and his aides ignored the strong evidence that Stan was wrongfully convicted–and the climate of racist hysteria that accompanied his original trial, in which the prosecutor compared Stan in the courtroom to a “Bengel tiger” caged at the zoo.
As for Stan’s decade-long campaign to warn young people against gangs, crime and prisons, the statement dismissed them out of hand. “[T]he continued pervasiveness of gang violence leads one to question the efficacy of Williams’ message,” it smugly concluded–effectively holding Stan responsible for all gang-related crime.
But the most despicable passage in the statement came at the end, when it smeared the revolutionaries to whom Stan dedicated his autobiography.
“[I]t seems to me that we saw a very intentional politicization of this process, namely the equation of what Schwarzenegger would call lawlessness and criminality with radical political activism,” said Angela Davis when asked about being singled out in the statement. “It is revealing, it seems to me, that every single name he evoked by quoting the dedication from Tookie’s autobiography–every single name is the name of a person of color, a black person or a Native person.”
Befitting the California setting, the statement gives special treatment to George Jackson, a former California prisoner who became a leader of the Black liberation struggle while incarcerated in San Quentin, and who was gunned down by prison guards in 1971. In a further passage and a footnote, the statement shamelessly repeats the discredited pack of lies–a wild story about an escape attempt and a handgun concealed in Jackson’s hair–told by San Quentin officials to justify the assassination.
The venom of this and other parts of the Schwarzenegger statement is worthy of the most right wing of Republican prosecutors, or maybe the head of the politically influential prison guards’ union–someone still angry that George Jackson’s book Soledad Brother became a best seller.
But that’s not who wrote it. According to the Los Angeles Times, “the statement was largely drafted by Andrea Hoch, Schwarzenegger’s legal affairs secretary, and her predecessor, Peter Siggins.”
Before working for Schwarzenegger, both Hoch and Siggins served in the attorney general’s office under Democrat Bill Lockyer–who is considered a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination to run against Schwarzenegger. Their role in authoring the governator’s political hit job underlines how little difference there is in either wing of the California political establishment over the crimes of the racist injustice system.
But for the thousands of people who took action to stop Stan’s execution, we will remember the struggle against racism and oppression that Stan–and the revolutionaries he dedicated his autobiography to–stood for.
* * *
Nelson Mandela was the best-known leader of the struggle to overturn South Africa’s racist apartheid system–under which a small white minority held power and denied all rights to the Black majority.
Mandela became politically active as a student, joining the African National Congress (ANC) in 1942 and co-founding its youth organization in 1944. The ANC’s nonviolent campaigns of the 1950s had mass support, but were brutally suppressed. Mandela led the organization in adopting a strategy of armed struggle. He was arrested in 1962, and spent almost three decades behind bars in the notorious Robbin Island prison.
Mandela and the ANC were denounced as “terrorists” not only by the regime, but by the U.S. government and multinational corporations that wanted to do business in South Africa. But an international solidarity campaign exposed the truth about apartheid, and Mandela became a hero around the world.
With the struggle–led increasingly by Black workers–growing ever more powerful, Mandela was released in 1990, and the ban on the ANC was lifted. Following negotiations led by Mandela, the ANC won the country’s first democratic elections in 1994, and Mandela became president.
Though the new government’s policies frustrated the hopes of most Blacks that the ANC would bring material improvements in their lives, Mandela remains an internationally known symbol of resistance to tyranny.
Angela Davis grew up in the segregated South, attending Black-only schools until she was accepted into an American Friends Service Committee program that brought her north to attend high school in New York City. Her further studies took her to Brandeis University in Boston, and later to the Sorbonne in Paris and the University of Frankfurt in Germany.
Returning to the U.S., Davis immersed herself in the Black liberation and women’s liberation struggles. In 1969, then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan fired Davis from her job as a lecturer at the University of California-Los Angeles because of her membership in the Communist Party. Following an outburst of opposition, she was later rehired.
The next year, Davis was charged with conspiracy and murder for her supposed participation in a plan to help radical Black prisoner George Jackson escape. After 18 months behind bars, Davis was acquitted of all charges.
Davis has continued a life of activism since, especially as an outspoken opponent of what she calls the “prison-industrial complex.” She was active in the campaign to save Stan Tookie Williams and was one of the speakers at the huge rally outside San Quentin Prison on the night of Stan’s state-sponsored killing.
Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in 1925. He endured a childhood of racist violence that claimed his father’s life and made his mother mentally ill. After moving from Michigan to New York and later Boston, he was arrested and sent to prison for burglary in 1946.
While behind bars, he converted to the Nation of Islam, and began using “X” to stand in for a name that was stolen during slavery. A brilliant speaker and debater, after his release, Malcolm became the Nation’s most effective organizer and spokesperson.
With the civil rights movement in motion in the South, Malcolm came to represent the more militant face of Black anger at racism in the U.S. He was harshly critical of movement leaders for insisting on nonviolent civil obedience and limiting the struggle to Southern voting rights. His outspoken support of the right of self-defense against racist attacks won growing support among the new generation of young civil rights activists.
In late 1963, following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, tensions within the Nation came to a head, leading Malcolm to break politically. Following a trip to Africa and the Middle East, Malcolm concluded that the Black struggle in the U.S. was bound up with anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggles around the world. He formed a new organization independent of the Nation and began building ties with other activists.
On February 21, 1965, he was assassinated during a speech in Harlem in a plot that is thought to have involved the FBI. But his influence was deeply felt in the Black Power movement to come, and continues to be to this day.
Assata Shakur was one of many revolutionaries in the U.S. driven into exile in the 1960s and ’70s. She has been living in Cuba since 1984 and is also the godmother of the late Tupac Shakur.
During the 1960s, Assata participated in the Black liberation movement, the student movement and the struggle against the Vietnam War. She became a member of the Black Panther Party in New Jersey.
On May 2, 1973, Assata and fellow Panther members were pulled over by the New Jersey state police. An unarmed Assata was shot twice–and then charged with murder of a white police officer. She was convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to life plus 33 years in prison. She spent six-and-a-half years behind bars before escaping from the Clinton Correctional Facitlity for Women in 1979.
“[F]earing that I would be murdered in prison, and knowing that I would never receive any justice, I was liberated from prison, aided by committed comrades who understood the depths of the injustices in my case, and who were also extremely fearful for my life,” she said.
The federal government continues to pursue Assata. Last May, Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez authorized a $1 million bounty “for information leading to the return” of Assata Shakur.
Geronimo ji Jaga Pratt
Geronimo ji Jaga Pratt was a decorated Vietnam veteran and prominent member of the Black Panther Party in California in the late 1960s. He would spend 27 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit–one of the highest-profile victims of the FBI’s COINTELPRO operation.
After serving in Vietnam, Geronimo relocated from Louisiana to Los Angeles, where his enormous talents as a political organizer were quickly recognized. He became a leader of the Panthers in LA after the FBI-sponsored murder of Bunchy Carter and John Huggins in the fall of 1969.
Soon after, the FBI targeted Geronimo for “neutralization.” In 1970, he was charged with the murder of a Santa Monica schoolteacher, Caroline Olsen. From the start, Geronimo maintained his innocence, saying that he was in San Francisco attending a national meeting of the Panthers at the time that Olsen was killed.
The FBI could have proved that Geronimo was in San Francisco at the time of the murder because it was monitoring phone calls at the Panthers’ headquarters in Oakland. But this information was suppressed. The chief witness at Geronimo’s trial was a paid informant of the FBI, Los Angeles police and the LA District Attorney’s office.
Geronimo was falsely convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Amnesty International designated him “a prisoner of conscience,” and many well-known people, including his lawyer, the late Johnny Cochrane, campaigned for his release. He was turned down for parole 16 times.
Geronimo’s conviction was overturned in 1997, and he was finally released from prison.
John Africa, born Vincent Leaphart, co-founded the radical, mainly Black organization MOVE in Philadelphia in 1972. The group immediately faced harassment from police and city officials.
In 1978, Philadelphia Mayor Frank “Super-cop” Rizzo ordered a blockade of MOVE’s headquarters in a West Philadelphia neighborhood. An attempt to force out those occupying the building preceded a “shootout” in which MOVE members say they didn’t fire a shot. One officer was fatally wounded, almost certainly by a police bullet, but 10 members of the MOVE group were convicted of his murder.
Later, John Africa helped establish a new MOVE headquarters on Osage Avenue in Philadelphia. On May 13, 1985, police–allegedly responding to complaints from neighbors–surrounded the new MOVE home.
During the siege, a police helicopter dropped an explosive charge on the roof of the building, causing a fire that leveled the surrounding city block, destroying a total of 62 homes. John Africa was one of the 11 victims–five of them children–of the explosion and resulting fire.
Ramona Africa was the only adult in the MOVE building to survive the police bombing in May 1985. Yet she, not the cops, was arrested on riot and conspiracy charges, and sent to jail for seven years.
On her release, her civil lawsuit pinned the blame for the bombing on city officials. Since then, Ramona Africa has continued the struggle to win freedom for MOVE members–and is a leader in the campaign in support of journalist and MOVE supporter Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was framed and sent to death row after helping to expose the truth about the first siege of the MOVE home in 1978.
Leonard Peltier is one of America’s longest-serving political prisoners. He has spent almost half his life–some 30 years–in prison for a crime he didn’t commit: the murder of two of FBI agents on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota in June 1975.
Peltier was an active member of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the late 1960s and ’70s. AIM was subject to vicious government persecution. From 1973 to 1976, during the FBI’s “reign of terror” on the Pine Ridge reservation, more 60 AIM members and supporters were killed. Across the country, AIM leaders were murdered or jailed on trumped-up charges.
On February 6, 1976, Peltier was extradited from Canada to the U.S. based on coerced and fraudulent testimony. Federal prosecutors presented similar testimony during his subsequent trial in 1977–while suppressing evidence beneficial to Peltier. Years later, Peltier’s supporters learned through the Freedom of Information Act that a critical ballistics test on the rifle Peltier supposedly used was negative. As Lynn Crooks, the lead prosecutor in the Peltier, later admitted: “We can’t prove who shot those agents.”
In 2000, at the end of the Clinton administration, Amnesty International called on the president “to free a prisoner whose guilt has long been in question.” But as in past such efforts, FBI personnel mobilized a bitter opposition, and Clinton did nothing.
Dhoruba Bin Wahad
Dhoruba al-Mujahid Bin Wahad is the adopted name of Richard Moore. He joined the Black Panther Party in New York in 1968.
Bin Wahad was first arrested in 1969 as part of the Panther 21 conspiracy case, in which leaders of the group were charged in a conspiracy to blow up New York City department stores, subway stations and police stations. This nakedly political trial was an effort to destroy the East Coast leadership of the Black Panther Party.
But on May 13, 1971, after the longest political trial in state history, all 21 Panthers were acquitted of all charges after the jury deliberated for just 45 minutes.
While free on bail before the trial, Bin Wahad had fled to Algeria, but he returned to the U.S. following the acquittal. Shortly afterward, he was charged in the deaths of several police officers in New York. It took three trials to convict him, and he was sentenced to 25 years to life.
In 1988, Bin Wahad appealed his conviction, based on uncovered FBI COINTELPRO documents revealing the prosecutors’ suppression of evidence beneficial to the defense. His conviction was overturned in March 1990.
George Jackson was one of the most prominent figures of the radical movement of the 1960s, and his prison writings, published in a book called Soledad Brother, touched the lives of millions when they came out in the early 1970s. But since his assassination in 1971, he has been almost forgotten by the general public.
Jackson was sentenced to prison in 1958 for his part in a $70 gas station robbery. He was given a 1-year-to-life sentence under California’s then “indeterminate” sentencing guidelines–which meant that he had no fixed sentence and was at the mercy of prison officials, who could keep extending his jail term if they chose to.
While Jackson was in prison, the civil rights and Black Power movements were sweeping the country. They had a huge impact on him, and he turned his life around. Jackson read voraciously and became an outspoken activist and writer. The Black Panther Party was so impressed by Jackson that it gave him the rank of field marshal.
After Jackson and two other inmates were charged with the murder of a prison guard in 1970, support committees sprang up across the country. Before he could stand trial, Jackson was killed by San Quentin prison guards on August 21, 1971–allegedly because he was trying to escape.
Prison officials spun a fantastical story claiming that Jackson’s lawyer, Stephen Bingham, smuggled a gun into San Quentin–past an array of metal detectors–and handed it to Jackson, who then hid it in his Afro before the shooting began. Bingham fled the country following Jackson’s assassination. He returned to the U.S. in 1984, and in 1986, he was tried and acquitted of all charges related to the alleged “escape attempt.”
There can be little doubt that George Jackson was targeted by the authorities because of his prominence as an articulate Black revolutionary, speaking out from within prison walls.
His assassination has never been seriously investigated, but Jackson’s writings remain a powerful indictment of racism in the criminal justice system and U.S. society at large–which is undoubtedly why Schwarzenegger singled him out for special attention.
Mumia Abu-Jamal became probably the best-known death row political prisoner in the U.S.
Growing up in Philadelphia, Mumia joined the Black Panthers as a teenager, becoming Minister for Information of the Philadelphia chapter. During the 1970s, he turned to broadcasting and became one of the top names in local radio. His journalism helped to expose police misconduct and brutality, earning him the lasting hatred of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP).
On December 9, 1981, while he was driving a cab, Mumia saw his brother being beaten by police officer Daniel Faulkner, and intervened. Both he and Faulkner were shot in the ensuing confrontation. Despite witnesses who reported a shooter fleeing the scene, Mumia–who nearly died from his wounds–was arrested and charged with Faulkner’s murder.
The case against him was full of holes, but prosecutors succeeded in sending Mumia to death row–thanks especially to the misconduct of trial judge Albert Sabo, a life member of the FOP who handed out more death sentences than any other judge in the modern era of the death penalty.
Mumia didn’t remain silent on death row–on the contrary, he became the “voice of the voiceless,” penning several books and numerous articles from his tiny cell. National Public Radio offered to air his radio commentaries, but censored them at the last minute after a campaign by the FOP.
With Stan Tookie Williams’ execution only days away, Mumia won a new federal appeal that could lead to a new trial–and hopefully his freedom.
Alan Maass is the editor of the Socialist Worker. Joe Allen writes for the Socialist Worker and CounterPunch.
They can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org