Farewell to Tookie

Photos by Ted Soqui
Thousands of Crips

— Rollin’ 60s, Grape Street, East Coast, Hoovers, Nine-0s, Eight Trey Gangsters — have had their praises sung in mournful tones at churches throughout Los Angeles. Most of them never made the papers. And none of them had the stately farewell that was orchestrated Tuesday afternoon at the Bethel AME church on 79th Street and Western Avenue for Stanley Tookie Williams. Throngs gathered for the funeral of the once-mighty leader of the Westside Crips, who was put to death December 13 at San Quentin State Prison.

For the most part, the solemn memorial spoke not of the life Williams had as a gang leader who helped bring tragedy to so many South-Central households, but rather the last dozen years of his turbulent life, when he began writing children’s books and speaking against the thug life from his San Quentin cell. For that, Williams was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize six times.

“This is not about how his life started, but how he finished his life,” said Minister Tony Muhammad of the Nation of Islam, who was at the forefront of the effort to persuade Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to grant Williams clemency. “Now people need to become acquainted with the life Stanley Tookie Williams led in his redemption. One of the founders of the Crips turned for the good. Let’s remember his last days, not his first.”

The church was packed. A large screen was set up outside for the overflowing crowd of hundreds to see the service. Los Angeles Police Department officers were out in force, lining the streets and blocking off a long stretch of Western Avenue. (There were no reports of violence.)

Inside the church, the Rev. Lewis Logan II called for silence — “The body is coming in, can we respect the body and the spirit?” The white casket bearing Williams was brought in. For more than two minutes there was no noise among the hundreds, some of whom had gangbanged with Williams in the 1970s. Then a loud, unplanned burst sounding like a gunshot came from one of the speakers and the congregation — after a stunned moment — erupted in laughter.

“Let’s make some noise for a transformed personality,” said Logan. “Do you believe it’s possible to have a second chance in life?”

Several speakers, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, called for a celebration of Williams’ redemption and urged the community to continue his fight against gang violence.

“We need to end this chaos, this madness,” said Jackson.

Perhaps the most intense moment came from a recorded message by Tookie himself. “Greetings to all of you. My name is Stanley Tookie Williams,” the message began to the hushed crowd. “I used to be my own worst enemy.”

Williams went on to urge others to “look within one’s self” and to rebuild neighborhoods he and others “helped destroy.”

A community activist and major supporter of Williams said she felt the funeral brought a sense of closure to many in the community, much like Williams’ execution may have brought some ending of grief to the families of the victims he was convicted of killing.

“But, I am critical of the masses of people that showed up today,” said Jasmyne Cannick as she looked at the hordes of media in the church’s second-floor balcony. “Where were all these people when we were trying to save Tookie’s life?”

For much of the morning, hundreds of people were standing on Western Avenue hoping to be allowed into the church.

Albert Owens wasn’t there. Neither was Yen-I Yang, Tsai-Shai Chen Yang and their daughter Yu Chin Yang Lin. They were the four people Williams was convicted of killing by shotgun during a robbery spree in 1979. To his end, Williams never admitted to the crimes, saying he would rather die than admit to murders he did not commit.

Some familiar with the history of the Crips street gang were unmoved by Williams’ death and his grand funeral.

“People keep asking me if I am going to come to the funeral and represent,” said Derard Barton, younger brother of Raymond Washington, the founder of the Crips. “I’m not going. Tookie wasn’t a mentor to me. My brother was. They’re trying to make Tookie out to be the founder or co-founder of the Crips, but we on the Eastside know the truth.”

Thousands of people showed up Monday evening at the House of Winston Mortuary on Vermont Avenue near 95th Street to view Williams’ body. It was a bizarre scene. People hawked Tookie-related T-shirts such as one reading “Fuck the Terminator.” Retired and new gang members from many different Crip sets mingled peacefully. Older women brought their grandchildren to see Tookie’s body. A young woman kept yelling, “They hung an innocent black man.” A few blocks on Vermont took on a carnival-like atmosphere with crowds of people laughing, greeting old friends, smoking marijuana.

One man leaning against his car looked at the multitudes and shook his head.

“It’s kind of a shame the most popular thing to do in Los Angeles on a Monday night is not watching NFL football but going to a mortuary,” said Malik Spellman, a writer and community activist who knew Williams.

Most of the gathering had never known Tookie Williams back in the days when his frighteningly large biceps intimidated people and he was well-known as a knockout artist. They came rather to see the man who had become, to many at least, a symbol of nonviolence and the tragedy of street gangs.

“Tookie in his young life helped start a terrible thing,” said Cardella Brown, who grew up in a rival Athens Park Bloods neighborhood. “But, maybe the young people, by young I mean like 9 or 10, can see this is not the way to live your life. He was a bad symbol, and he is now a positive symbol.”

Toward the end of his opening remarks at Tuesday’s funeral, the Rev. Logan called out, “Somebody shout 'Redemption’” — the name of a movie about Williams’ life and part of the title of his autobiography. “God, do for us what a governor didn’t have the courage to do.”

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