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Tookie’s Saving Grace

Photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

I would have risked my life for them, but I lacked the humanity to mourn their deaths — even as I recognized that death would one day visit us all.

—Stanley “Tookie” Williams, talking about fallen Crips gang members in his autobiography, Blue Rage, Black Redemption

In what appear to be the last days of his turbulent life, with death set to visit him December 13 in San Quentin Prison, Stanley “Tookie” Williams, the musclebound founder of the West Side Crips, is hoping that another former bodybuilder will have the humanity he once lacked. On December 8, five days before he is set to be lethally injected, Williams’ attorneys will meet with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the only person who can spare him. Schwarzenegger is said to be agonizing over the decision to spare or spare not, though his press secretary, Margita Thompson, said the governor’s decision to meet with the attorneys does not mean that he is leaning toward granting clemency. Williams’ supporters, of whom there are many, and his lawyers are hoping it is. “I think Governor Schwarzenegger believes in rehabilitation, and we believe he is going to review that matter very closely,” said Jonathan Harris, a New York City attorney working on behalf of Williams. “The argument for Stanley is the good work he has done since 1993.” Harris was referring to the children’s books, which preach against gang violence, that Williams has written while on death row. Williams, 51, was convicted of the killing of Albert Owens, during a robbery at a 7-Eleven store, and of motel owners Yen-I Yang and Tsai-Shai Chen Yang and their daughter Yu-Chin Yang Lin, at the Brookhaven Motel in South-Central Los Angeles, on February 27, 1979. Williams has never admitted to the shotgun killings, saying he would not express sorrow for a crime he did not commit, even if it was to save his life. Several gang members in Los Angeles, some known for statements of braggadocio, said they are going to riot if the scheduled execution takes place. “Took die, the city fry,” said Raymond “The Hatchet Man” Locket, a member of the West Side Harlem Crips, who says he knew Tookie back in the day. “That’s the word on the streets.” Several other gang members, who would not give their names, concurred with Locket’s statement. Williams and his lawyers, however, are not basing their hope for clemency on the threat but rather on Tookie’s redemption, which was the subject of a cable-television movie starring Jamie Foxx. The attorneys and others say the strongest argument against Williams’ death comes not from gang members but from the children who say Tookie’s books have helped them stay out of gangs. Williams’ children’s books imploring against the dangers of joining a street gang earned him a nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2001. “Based on his apparent rehabilitation and insights into the gang problem after his years on the streets and then on death row, Williams has something positive to offer criminology and society,” said Lewis Yablonsky, emeritus professor of criminology at Cal State Northridge. Part of the ammo that Williams’ lawyers will bring into the meeting with the governor is 167 pages of e-mails that have been sent to the imprisoned West Side Crips founder. Among them is one from a former Rollin’ 60’s Crips that states, “You changed me. You know about the gang life just too deep to make the strongest man cry.” Another one reads, “My name is Genesis and I am 13 years old. I have read up on you for about 2-3 years and I have to say that because of you I have tried to stay away from gangs and violence. Because of your books and your action my life has changed.” Perhaps never before has there been such a movement to stop an execution in California. Last week at San Quentin, more than 1,000 people gathered to protest against Williams’ scheduled execution. The crowd was racially mixed and united in its belief that Tookie’s good works should be rewarded with a stay of execution. “He’s done some shit. Let’s face it,” said Gerald Miller, 49, who served 12 years in Folsom, San Quentin and Soledad for drug offenses. The Harlem-raised Miller, who now works at a nonprofit San Francisco organization devoted to keeping youth out of gangs, believes Williams has won the right to clemency. “There’s some guys in San Quentin who should jump into the chamber, but Stanley Williams has helped a lot of people. Lot of young people, and I don’t think the state has the right to kill him. Whatever he was then, he is now a benefit to society.” Another man, who grew up in the Imperial Courts housing project in Watts, agreed with Miller. “If he can be a greater good to the country being alive, it’s hard to say kill him,” said Dewayne “Snipe” Holmes, who was instrumental in the Watts housing-project gang peace treaty. “I understand it’s hard to say to the families of the victims of his alleged crimes, but maybe you can save his life and still give them respect.” Protests were staged Wednesday in 12 cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, West Hollywood, Berkeley, San Jose and San Diego. The event, organized by the ACLU, the Save Tookie Committee, the NAACP, Amnesty International USA, Death Penalty Focus and other groups, attracted thousands of people. Lora Owens, the stepmother of one of the victims, Albert Owens, has said she is in favor of the execution because Williams has never admitted responsibility or regret for the killings. “To be redeemed means to accept responsibility or assume it personally and not use it as a means of getting out of just punishment,” said Owens. “He chose to be judge, jury and executioner in a matter of seconds, and yet it has taken years for him to come to justice.” Williams is often referred to as the co-founder of the Crips, the notorious street gang that has spread throughout the United States and even into other countries. In the early 1970s, Raymond Washington founded a street gang on the black Eastside of Los Angeles, which is generally considered to be the neighborhoods east of the Harbor Freeway. Washington, having heard of the powerfully built Williams on the west side of the freeway, approached him to unite in a movement that, legend has it, would rid the area of hoodlums. Washington and Williams were a powerful force, and many young men and boys joined the group known as the Crips. Eventually the idealistic plans of keeping peace in the hood morphed into a criminal element never seen before in Los Angeles. Washington was killed in 1979. By the time Williams was sent to San Quentin in 1981, the once Eastside and Westside Crips had evolved into hundreds of smaller but deadly gangs, such as the Rollin’ 60’s Crips, Grape Street Crips, East Coast Crips, Hoover Crips and Eight Trey Gangster Crips, who often killed each other. In his book, Williams writes, “I believe the core of it is an embedded sense of self-hate. What I mean by that is, an individual who has been spoon-fed so many derogatory images of his race will, after a period of time, start to believe those images. The images I’m talking about are stereotypes that depict the majority of blacks as being buffoons, functional illiterates, violent and promiscuous, welfare recipients, indolent criminals. Unfortunately, too many black people have been brainwashed into believing these stereotypes . . . So you end up lashing out at the individuals [gang members] that you consider to be part of those stereotypes. In desperation, you’re trying to obliterate that negative image to rid yourself of this self-hate monster that subconsciously stalks you.” We will see soon if Governor Schwarzenegger will approve the obliteration of the negative image of Stanley Williams.