and ANTHONY ROSS
Death Row, San Quentin
In the sacred tradition of warriors it is said that the source of courage is willingness to die, to lose everything not because one doesn’t value life, but because one has entered so fully into his own center that he knows his convictions will hold through death.
On December 13, 2007, we commemorate the second anniversary of the stat-sanctioned killing of our brother and colleague, Stanley Tookie Williams III, whose convictions held through death and who lives on in our struggle and unshakable determination.
Tookie’s journey may have begun on the streets of Los Angeles, but it would be on death row where he defined the terms of his odyssey. His personal evolution started in the early 1980s in the midst of the perennial violence that was the hallmark of San Quentin prison. At that time, we began to notice a monumental shift in how he approached prison politics and how he began to put into context the contradictions that had dominated his life. He came to understand that our most dangerous enemy was ignorance, and he resolved to vanquish it. Together, we would challenge each other to move beyond our own blindness; to accomplish this, we knew had to embrace education, and Tookie soon wanted to master every subject he took up. We used to jest with him about staying up until sunrise going over a single chapter. He’d say, “Bro, we’re playing catch up. We can’t afford to mess around.” He was right.
The three of us felt a sense of urgency, as if the learning process were a tangible, living thing, full of texture and motion. Tookie wanted to wake up everybody, and he was a natural teacher. His soft-spoken voice and patience made people feel at ease, and he possessed the remarkable ability to interact with all different kinds of personalities and ethnic groups (which is not easy in prison). This quality made many guys on the row seek him out for advice. We teased him by telling him he’d make an excellent priest or psychiatrist because of his capacity to listen solemnly. Even back then we could see he was preparing himself for something, whether he was conscious of the scope or not. It was as if he’d had a dream or premonition about the work he would ultimately commit his life to. His sense of mission was evident. There were many occasions when during conversations we were having, or in the middle of exercising, Tookie would suddenly stop and start talking about how the collective consciousness of gang members needed to be transformed into a positive dynamic, how a new paradigm had to be created to keep kids out of gangs, and how gang members needed to be active participants in resolving their conflicts. These ideas pre-date his “Protocol for Peace” and children’s books by at least ten years.
Tookie was a visionary, his foresight uncanny. Whenever elements within the prison administration plotted against him to discredit his work, he was always prepared to counter their propaganda proactively, constructively. The French chemist Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Tookie lived this axiom. It was at the heart of everything he did. He didn’t let death row hinder him or prevent him from bringing to fruition things he wanted to accomplish. One of the qualities we admired most about him was that he never made excuses for himself. He knew no one was infallible, so when he was wrong he’d be the first to point out and correct his mistake. The expectations and discipline he imposed on himself were high, but he always let guys know that mistakes are lessons, not the end of the world, or the sum of who we are.
Commitment for Tookie was never about his words alone, but also about the impact his actions had. He met everyday with the conscious intent of making a difference. It was this level of sincerity and dedication that motivated others. Even when he dealt with reconciling with his past and reconnecting with his two sons, he did it with brutal honesty. In 2002, he and his son, Stanley Tookie Williams IV, would come face to face as men, as father and son, for the first time in young Tookie’s life. We know that for Tookie it was an emotional meeting because he truly regretted not being there when his son was growing up. He told us that seeing and talking to little Tookie was the first time he felt like a father. The proud smile on his face said it all. Later, as we walked on the yard, Tookie would wistfully remark, “Man, I still have so much to say to li’l Took.”
He understood he might never get another chance to talk to his son, so in his own redemption he offered a powerful example and lesson to him, and to gang members, of what self-transformation and sincere individual effort can achieve. He wanted to give his son and others tangible proof that there were other options-that no matter how far they had gone down the wrong road it was never too late to turn back.
Tookie restored the sacred within himself, not in an extraordinary way, but in a very ordinary way-one step forward at a time. It was not his Herculean size, his sharp intellect, or his fearlessness that defined him, but rather his humility, his pragmatism and his profound connection to what the ancient Khemetians called the “ka” (indwelling spirit). The maturity of his spiritual mind allowed him to live in the moment-to-moment experience. Thus he not only discovered his purpose, and passionately pursued it, but in the process found his authentic self. His connection to the ka is reflected in his writing, his activism, and in the relationships he forged with others.
Despite the concrete walls, armed guards, and constant campaign against him, launched by people seeking their two-minutes of fame by vilifying another, Tookie showed that a caged man is not a defeated man, nor an animal. His calm dignity illuminated the truth that the dehumanization of prison cannot extinguish the light which exists within all of us, nor beat back the inner revolutions that silently ignite on their own.
His voice, his presence, emerged to articulate the feelings and ideas of many, and with clarity he grasped the larger meaning of his formidable responsibility. Often, and in a fairly decent Muhammad Ali impression, he would humorously say, “This is our rumble in the jungle.” What he meant was, not merely the fight for our lives, but more broadly, the fight to help initiate a new consciousness among our peers. Our co-authored book, The Sacred Eye of the Falcon: Lessons in Life from Death Row, written by the two of us and Tookie, is our collective contribution to this effort (the book is available on lulu.com).
Long before Tookie gained a public presence he knew the difference between symbolism and substance. So it was not unusual to see him sitting at the table on the yard personally answering letters he had received from young people around the world who had been inspired by his books. This accessibility was completely in concert with his character and something he enjoyed giving. In our last conversation with him, we talked about creating an institute of learning, building a think tank, the Iraq war, revitalizing the prison movement inside, and about our families: not once did he focus on concern for himself. This was Tookie.
On any given day he could be seen in his cell meditating or kneeling in prayer. It was his daily ritual, one he observed religiously. Thus, it didn’t surprise us at all that in his final hours he was described as “sitting on his bed as if it were a throne.” Yet, knowing Tookie, we know this had nothing to do with projecting some regal demeanor, but rather with the depth of his spiritual attitude and consciousness. He had entered his center so completely that such things as food and water were insignificant. From a non-dualist perspective, Tookie was as close to his own divinity as a human can come while still alive. It was this aura that, in his final hours, radiated from him. In the face of death he remained consistent with how he lived-with great courage and great conviction.
We honor our fallen brother, Tookie, also known to us by his African name, Ajamu Kamara. With eternal solidarity, we remember his life. We are our brother’s keeper.
You can write to either writer at the addresses below:
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, California 94974
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, California 94974