"The potential to change"

Interview with Nobel Prize nominee and death row inmate Stanley Williams


Late last year, Stanley "Tookie" Williams, a San Quentin death row inmate and cofounder of the Crips gang, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The nomination is in recognition for two book series that Williams co-authored with journalist Barbara Becnel, as well as an Internet project that connects at-risk youths from around the globe. The project uses both sets of Williams' books as readers -- the 1996 Tookie Speaks series and Life in Prison, published in 1998 -- to deglamorize prison life and encourage kids to stay out of gangs and off the streets.

Campaign member Elizabeth Terzakis recently interviewed Williams for the New Abolitionist.

How do you feel about getting the Nobel Prize nomination?

Having been nominated is an exalting feeling. I'm overwhelmed. It's an honor.

What inspired you to begin writing books for children?

I did it as an act of atonement, of redemption. I wanted to tell the story of what gang life is like without using the blood and gore, as some people do. My objective was to de-glamorize the gang lifestyle, to help thousands and thousands of children. I know that may seem naive.

Other reporters have said that you started the Crips as a way of protecting people in your community.

People -- not me -- have a tendency to hyperbolize my past, particularly around the issue of starting the Crips. We wanted to protect one another, for sure, but we were no angels, make no doubt about it. We were looking out for one another, but we were not freedom fighters. We were not the good guys.

What do you hope your case and the Nobel nomination will teach people on the outside?

I hope that my situation depicts the potential of an individual behind bars -- shows how an individual can change and can do something that is beneficial not only to himself and his peers, but to people outside as well.

I am not the only one who has made this kind of change, you know. There are people in prisons all over the United States who have changed and have the potential to change.

What could have happened differently on the outside, so that that change could have happened without your having been incarcerated to begin with?

I needed a variety of things. There is no one elixir that would have helped me to transform my life. I needed a father at home, which I didn't have, a more ethnic-conscious base to teach me who I am and what my potential could be. I needed encouragement, just like these kids need now.

I grew up spoon-fed with negative stereotypes, and the problem with that is that if you're fed them long enough, and you digest them long enough, you start believing them and living them out.

Do you feel that public opinion around the death penalty has changed recently?

There seems to be a mounting effort to abolish [the death penalty]. I pray that they will. Something has to touch individuals so they can have a change of heart. They have to realize -- I mean, how can you expect murder to solve murder? That's an oxymoron.

Individuals in prison are excited about any type of positive action outside the prison against the death penalty. For the majority of individuals in here, it's a beacon of hope.

Is there anything that you think activists against the death penalty should do differently, or do better?

The death penalty is a prime example of a drive for vengeance, not justice.

I think it would help if we could initiate some kind of panel to address each and every case individually -- find constitutional errors, rights violations based on race, prosecutorial misconduct, the exclusion of black jurors. A clear examination will show a dereliction of justice.

We need an independent board, not just in other states, but here in California as well. People in California try to say that the death penalty is foolproof, incapable of making an error, infallible. Once they delve in, they will find out that there are plenty of errors and misconduct.

Letters in support of Williams' nomination for the Nobel prize can be sent to: Gunnar Berge, Chair, Norwegian Nobel Committee, Drammensveien 19 N-0255 Oslo. The deadline is February 1, 2001.

Williams' eight-book series Tookie Speaks Out Against Gang Violence can be purchased by calling the publisher at 212-777-3017 (hardback) or 651-213-4071 (paperback). Life In Prison will be reissued in paperback in February 2001 and for sale in bookstores. The publisher's phone number is 212-706-4545.