Why are They Rounding Up Tookie Williams’ Friends?

On December 9, 2005, four days before Tookie Williams’ execution, ten of his fellow inmates were dislodged from their cells by guards in full riot gear and put in solitary confinement in the San Quentin Adjustment Center, where they remain as of this writing (January 15).

According to two of these men, Steve Champion and Anthony Ross, all are under investigation on charges that they conspired to incite a riot and harm guards if Tookie were executed.

Family and friends of Steve and Anthony are deeply concerned about their status and welfare while being investigated for participating in a conspiracy that each explicitly disavows and that would, at this time in their lives, be entirely out of character.

Both Steve and Anthony have requested polygraph tests to prove their innocence of the charge under investigation, and both have adamantly protested their innocence to family and friends.

For many years, Tookie Williams participated in a study and writing group with Steve Champion and Anthony Ross, both men also former Crip gang members awaiting execution on San Quentin’s Death Row. All were, and the latter two continue to be, passionately dedicated to their own and others’ education, creative expression, and peaceful self-transformation.

As the editor of Steve Champion’s still-unpublished prison memoir, I have over the last three years corresponded extensively with him. In the spring of 2005, I spent three and a half hours with him at San Quentin. I have also recently edited other work-an inmate self-help pamphlet and a chapbook of philosophical aphorisms-co-authored by Tookie, Steve, and Anthony. This work emphasizes non-violence as a necessary pre-condition to personal and social change of any kind.

It was therefore shocking for me to learn in a December 21 letter that Steve had been “peremptorily uprooted from East Block and put in solitary confinement at the Adjustment Center” on grounds that he may have been involved in a conspiracy to retaliate violently for the loss of his friend. “Nothing,” he tells me in the correspondence, “could be further from the truth.”

Steve reports that on December 16th he appeared in front of the Institutional Classification Committee (ICC), at which time the warden informed him that the “incident is pending investigation” and that he would be placed on “property control for 90 days.” This means he has no access to his personal belongings, including books and writings, which are precious to him.

In his letter Steve explains that his official status in Adjustment Center is “walk alone-meaning I go to a Guantanamo Bay type cage with a toilet and sink combo.” And based on his experience, this 90 days of administrative segregation may, at the discretion of prison officials, be prolonged indefinitely. “Last time I was here,” he writes, “I did over a year.”

A family member who visited Anthony Ross at the end of December reports that, as a result of his being held isolation on property control, he has lost weight and his health is steadily deteriorating.

Steve’s actual response to the loss of his friend and co-author, a response in keeping with the man I know, is reflected in excerpts from the poem wrote in the hole, awake with grief in the middle of the night, several days after Tookie’s death:
My Brother Is Gone

for Stanley “Tookie” Williams, 1953-2005

I want the world to know
I walked, lived and blossomed
during the time of his presence.
My emotions are too raw,
my senses too frayed
to tell them,
tell anyone–
for 20 brass-knuckled years
we struggled together,
forging a bond
cemented by our
faith, love, and brotherhood.

Our way was not always as smooth
as a well-manicured lawn;
We blazed the path as warriors,
knowing in the end
the highest form of bravery
is laying down the sword. . . .

My brother is gone.
No longer will I
gaze upon his glistening,
mahogany colored skin,
look into his gentle eyes, or
grip his Hulk-shaped hands.
No longer will we greet
with a brotherly hug, or
bump fists.
No longer will I
hear his soft-spoken voice,
see his warm smile,
or bask in his charisma. . . .

My brother was murdered
At San Quentin Prison,
December 13, 2005, 12:36 a.m.
My brother is gone.

I curse those who rejoiced
upon hearing the news of his death,
now that they are spared from
the muscle of his mind.
Though my heart aches,
and my rage festers,
no revenge of bullets, blades or bloodshed
will bring my brother back.
My brother is gone.

I watched him shed the shackles
of his wild image,
become reborn
in a new spirit.
I named him Ajamu,
“He who fights for what he wants.”
He fought against all odds,
against all naysayers who
sought to pigeon-hole and fossilize
him in his lowest state.
He rose above it to build
a peaceful legacy
that will be talked about
for years to come. . .

The explicit rejection of violence expressed in these excerpts is noteworthy. Not only is the rejection consistent with the body of Steve’s own work, it is also consistent with the campaign for non-violence mounted by Williams himself in the final quarter of his life.
In San Quentin’s response to my email query concerning Steve and Anthony’s status, the prison ombudsman promptly sent me the following email:
“I have contacted staff at SQ. Due to safety and security reasons I am
unable to provide you with information. I can tell you that he is being seen by the Classification Committees as required.”

Needless to say, such a standard official response is woefully inadequate, rendering administrative conduct at San Quentin effectively inscrutable to American citizens, friends, and family of inmates.

Let us assume that prison administrators and guards are acting in perfectly good faith with respect to the human and legal rights of Steve, Anthony, and others associated with Williams. How would we know? How do we see inside San Quentin? How do we see inside any of America’s prisons? Where’s the transparency democracies value? If friends and family can’t get specific information about official actions that carry tremendous consequences for prisoners, who can?

American prisons supposedly act on American citizens’ behalf. We need continually to remind prison administrators, especially those who administer the death penalty, that a lot of us-not just family and friends–pay attention to the way our fellow Americans, our fellow human beings, are treated when in their custody.

Please write or call San Quentin (see contact information below) and express your civic interest in the fair and humane treatment of Steve Champion, Anthony Ross, and the other eight men currently being held under investigation in solitary confinement concerning an alleged conspiracy to incite a riot on the occasion of Tookie Williams’ execution.
San Quentin Contact Information:

Mr. Steven Ornoski, Warden
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, CA 94964

Phone: (415) 454-1460.

Ombudsman’s Email: Ralyn.Conner@cdcr.ca.gov

TOM KERR teaches writing and rhetoric at Ithaca College. He may be reached at tkerr@ithaca.edu.