A new movie about Stanley “Tookie” Williams

Making change from death row

By: Phil Gasper and Gillian Russom

California death row inmate and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Stanley “Tookie” Williams spoke to a multiracial crowd of 60 people at a “Live From Death Row” meeting in Los Angeles on April 23 that helped to launch the new LA chapter of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. Also speaking were Barbara Becnel, Williams’ long-time friend and advocate, and Todd Chretien of the Free Kevin Cooper Committee for a California Moratorium and the International Socialist Organization.

Williams is probably the best-known inmate sitting on California’s death row. More than 30 years ago, at the age of 17, he co-founded the Crips, an African-American street gang in South Central Los Angeles. While the original purpose was self-defense, the Crips were soon involved in a bloody feud with the rival Bloods, which left scores of Black youth dead over the next few years.

In 1979, eager to get him off the streets, the notoriously racist Los Angeles Police Department charged Williams with four murders connected with two robberies. Although there was little evidence against him, Tookie was convicted on the basis of dubious testimony from a jailhouse informant, who claimed that Williams had confessed to him. The jury wasn’t told that the informant received favorable treatment in exchange for his testimony, which should have been considered highly suspect.

For the past 23 years, Williams has been incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison, appealing his conviction. Tookie soon became a leading figure in the prison’s gang culture, but after several years in solitary confinement, he went through a remarkable transformation.

At some risk to his own safety, Williams rejected gang violence and decided to find a way to send a message to inner-city youth that would de-romanticize gang and prison life. He persuaded journalist Barbara Becnel, who was writing a book on the history of the Crips, to help him find a publisher for a series of books about the reality of gang life aimed at elementary school children.

At first, no one would touch the idea, but through Becnel’s perseverance, Tookie’s books were eventually published and were used successfully in schools and community programs around the world.

From his prison cell, Williams urged rival gangs to negotiate peace agreements and set up a Web site (www.tookie.com). In late 2000, after Tookie’s Internet Project for Street Peace helped defuse gang tensions in Zurich, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Mario Fehr, a member of the Swiss parliament. Since then he has also been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In March, Williams published his autobiography Blue Rage, Black Redemption. Now the FX cable TV channel has made Redemption, a powerful docudrama about his life, starring Jamie Foxx as Tookie and Lynne Whitfield as Barbara Becnel. Redemption gained FX much higher ratings than expected when it aired on April 11–meaning that millions of viewers learned Williams’s story.

The film alternates between Williams’ life in prison, his growing friendship with Becnel, his growing influence outside prison and flashbacks to his youth. It presents the insanity of a system that is planning to kill a man whose life is now having such a positive impact.

In one of the most touching scenes, Williams’ elderly mother recalls how the young Tookie didn’t want to leave Louisiana and move to California in the early 1960s. She wonders whether she made the right decision. She had hoped for a better life outside the segregationist South–only to encounter the equally brutal racism of inner-city Los Angeles.

Williams is coming to the end of his long appeals process. He is on a short list of people whose execution dates may be announced any time in the near future. But there is still hope. While rejecting his last appeal in 2002, the Ninth Circuit Court took the unprecedented step of urging the governor to grant clemency.

Speaking at the “Live From Death Row” meeting in Los Angeles, Williams described the brutality of the death penalty system and the need for a new movement. When one audience member asked him what a normal day on death row was like, Williams replied, “It’s a living hell. There’s nothing here to sustain you. You have to create it yourself.”

Two community leaders from South Central LA also asked Williams for advice on how to discourage black youth from getting involved in gangs. He explained, “You can’t stop gangs without a social agenda.” He argued that improved jobs, education, and social services are needed in poor communities in order to provide youth with real alternatives to gangs.

Don’t let California execute Stan “Tookie” Williams

By: Phil Gasper

The case of Stan “Tookie” Williams–the most famous inmate on San Quentin’s death row–has reached a crucial stage, with the state of California more eager than ever to execute him as quickly as possible.  On February 2, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals turned down Stan’s request for a new hearing by a vote of 15 to 9. His appeal of this decision will arrive at the U.S. Supreme Court in early May. If this is also turned down, he could face an execution date as early as this summer.

In 1971, at the age of 17, Stan Williams co-founded the Crips in Los Angeles, which rapidly became the city’s most notorious street gang, spawning imitators around the country and eventually the world. Eight years later, with the Los Angeles Police Department eager to find any pretext for getting him off the street, Williams was charged with four murders. In 1981, he was convicted and sent to San Quentin.

In prison, Williams faced hostility and racism from the authorities and eventually served several years in solitary confinement. During this time, he began to rehabilitate himself and made the decision to leave the Crips and speak out against gang violence.

During the 1990s, with the assistance of journalist Barbara Becnel, Stan wrote a series of award-winning books for school children, warning them against gangs, crime, and prison. He also set up the Internet Project for Street Peace, which encourages street gangs to stop fighting each other. Stan’s work has had an enormous impact. Last year, for instance, gang members in Newark, N.J. negotiated a truce based on the “Tookie Protocol for Peace,” which has remained in effect ever since.

This work has earned Stan a series of Nobel Prize nominations since 2001. (I myself am proud to have nominated him for the Peace Prize four times since 2002.) It also led a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit to make the unprecedented statement in 2002 that his anti-gang initiatives made Stan a strong candidate for clemency from the governor.

Since Jamie Foxx played Stan in last year’s acclaimed made-for-TV movie Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story, many people have heard about his amazing anti-gang work. But the movie steered clear of seriously addressing Stan’s original conviction, and so far fewer people are aware that he was framed for crimes that he has always maintained that he did not commit.

The main evidence against Stan was the testimony of jailhouse informants who claimed that he had confessed to them. All of these “witnesses” were facing serious felony charges and had strong motivations to make a deal with the police to reduce their own sentences. In fact, in its 2002 ruling, the Ninth Circuit admitted that these informants had “less-than-clean backgrounds and incentives to lie in order to obtain leniency from the state in either charging or sentencing.”

Since the original trial, another prisoner has come forward to say that he witnessed one of the informants being given the file on Stan’s case by members of the sheriff’s department so that he could learn details about the murders. None of the physical evidence found at the two crime scenes, including fingerprints and a boot print, matched Stan. A shotgun shell supposedly matched a weapon he had bought several years earlier, but that gun was in the possession of a couple that was also facing serious felony charges. After they claimed that Stan had confessed to them, however, the investigation against them was dropped.

To get the charges to stick, the prosecutor in the case, Robert Martin, used blatant racism. The trial was moved from Los Angeles to Torrance, a predominantly white, conservative area. All the African Americans in the jury pool were dismissed, and Stan’s case was heard by an all-white jury. In his closing argument, Martin compared Stan in the courtroom to a Bengal tiger in the zoo, and said that “in his environment” (i.e. South Central LA), he would behave like the tiger would in its “habitat.”

Despite the fact that Martin was later censured twice by the California Supreme Court for his racist practices–and despite the fact that the ACLU, the NAACP, the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund and numerous other groups filed an amicus brief on Stan’s behalf–the Ninth Circuit has twice rejected the claim that his constitutional rights were violated. The only positive aspect of last February’s ruling was that there was a strong dissent from nine judges, who condemned the “blatant, race-based jury selection” in Stan’s case.

No one can have much confidence that the Supreme Court will do the right thing, so it is absolutely crucial to build a movement opposed to Stan’s execution. Everyone can help. For ideas about what you can do, visit www.savetookie.org.

A tribute to Stanley Tookie Williams

Alice Kim speaks with Barbara Becnel

You produced and directed a new documentary honoring Stan’s life. What can you tell us about this new film?

This new documentary called Tribute: Stanley Tookie Williams 1953–2005 was premiered on December 13, 2007, the two year anniversary of his torture-murder by the state of California. It’s part of a three-part documentary, and the other two parts will be unveiled in the coming anniversaries of his execution. What is intended with this Tribute film was to re-introduce the nation, if not the world, to the real Stanley Tookie Williams. In the last two months of his life especially–the media misrepresented him to excoriate who he was.

Last year, with my friend and Stan’s friend, Shirley Neal, we staged a play that was a reenactment of the execution. We filmed the re-enactment and that becomes a part of Tribute because we want people to see what the state of California does in the middle of the night with only a few witnesses. We spend time at the memorial service where an extraordinary group of people came to talk about what they knew about Stan and what their experiences had been. There is also never before seen footage of the trip to Soweto, South Africa that Shirley and I took to spread Stan’s ashes in a small lake in Thokoza Park. It’s a very moving film about 93 minutes long.

The second part of the series is called Bear Witness: The Execution of Stanley Tookie Williams–and will tell the story of the clemency fight to save his life. The last part will be called Justice Deferred, named after an essay Stan wrote about six weeks before he was killed, when he still had hope that justice would be served, and is going to explore the criminal justice system as it relates to Stan’s case.

In the epilogue of the re-release of Stan’s memoir, Blue Rage, Black Redemption, you vividly recount witnessing Stan’s execution. Later, it was revealed that Stan’s execution was botched. What do you think about the ongoing debate about lethal injection and the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent hearing on the issue?

Stan paid the most horrible price–what happened to him and the way they botched his execution–but what the facts have shown about how he was tortured to death has led to the temporary moratorium on executions in this country. Because he was such a high profile death row inmate, when we learned how horribly he died, it got noticed. We learned how negligent San Quentin and other states are with their lethal injection protocol, that it’s pretty ugly and frightening. Some prisoners, if not all, wake up during the process. But they’re paralyzed and can’t move. So they die the most painful, excruciating deaths. I’m still dismayed–absolutely outraged–that Stan was tortured to death. But my feelings are bittersweet…as a consequence of Stan’s botched execution and the attention that it got–others haven’t died. Regarding the U.S Supreme Court’s hearing on the issue….I’m concerned about us getting the right ruling. They’re requiring that the lawyers demonstrate that there’s another method of killing a human being that would be less cruel and unusual. And if they can’t give a replacement method, then they’ll stick with what we’ve got. So we’ve got a sliding scale of ethics in terms of how the U.S. Supreme Court appears to be willing to interpret the constitution and its ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The reasonable response would be that if lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment, then we shouldn’t have the death penalty.

All of the presidential candidates are steering clear of any discussion about the death penalty. Why do you think that’s the case?

The presidential candidates of the main two parties are cowards–that’s why they’re avoiding this issue. The one time I know about when the death penalty was mentioned was in a Republican debate and Huckabee came up with some explanation of why he believed in it. When the media asked him what Jesus would do, Huckabee made a joke and said that Jesus would have enough sense not to run for office. It shows that the candidates don’t have the courage to tackle this issue and the media isn’t interested either. So they don’t even ask or press the candidates about the issue and on the rare occasion that they do, they let the candidate make a joke and move on. For the candidates I see it as cowardice. For the media I see it as callousness that they don’t care about certain classes of people in this country….The way I see it, the fight to end the death penalty is a fight to win back the soul of America.

For more information about the efforts to keep Stan’s legacy alive and how you can help, visit www.stwlegacy.net.