The Story of the Struggle from San Francisco

By: Crystal Bybee and Cameron Sturdevant

Credit: Jessica Hansen-Weaver

The fight to save Stanley Tookie Williams reached its peak in the weeks before his scheduled murder by the state of California, with press conferences and protests, celebrity support and newspaper ads. But it was a struggle years in the making.

First, at the heart of the movement was Stan himself, who made his own decision to leave the Crips and embarked on his remarkable journey of redemption.

Second, his work for peace--which included 10 books, the peace protocol to negotiate gang truces, the Internet Project for Street Peace, and countless audio and written messages--would not have been possible without the support of friend, advocate and co-author Barbara Becnel. For 13 years they dedicated themselves to the mission, leading to such accomplishments as the Nobel Peace Prize nominations and the movie Redemption. But what always meant most to Stan were the thousands of lives that he touched.

After the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied Stan in February 2005, activists knew that an execution date was possibly looming. Sure enough, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, a Democrat, set an execution date of December 13. Save Tookie Committees were formed in Richmond, San Francisco and Los Angeles. They later spread to other cities.

The Campaign to End the Death Penalty was proud to be a part of this movement, having worked with Barbara and Stan for years through various Live From Death Row events and protests at San Quentin Prison. The Committee worked through the year--holding book events around Stan’s memoir Blue Rage Black Redemption, hosting movie screenings and reaching out to individuals and organizations.

While we hoped that the U.S. Supreme Court would take his appeal, we knew that we had to be prepared for a denial, which in turn would mean an execution date. Indeed, the Supreme Court turned Stan down, and shortly afterward, a judge in California smiled while he set December 13th as the execution date. Shocked at how little time we had to build the movement to save Stan’s life, activists sprung into action.

Traditional anti-death penalty organizations joined in the Save Tookie struggle along with community activists, gang-interventionists, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Nation of Islam, youth and others who were affected by the power of Stan’s work.

Credit: Jessica Hansen-Weaver
Snoop Dogg speaks at the San Quentin protest, alongside Barbara Becnel

Some of the key events were the rally with Snoop Dogg at San Quentin Prison on November 19 (more than 1,000 people came, the biggest rally at the prison before an execution in memory); the national day of action on November 30; the screening of Redemption at the Victoria Theatre with Danny Glover and Boots Riley on December 5; and the press conference announcing the renomination of Stan for the Nobel Peace Prize and delivery of “Educators for Tookie” signatures to the governor.

The governor called for a private hearing to meet with attorneys for both sides before making his decision on clemency. The hearing was scheduled for December 8, just five days before the scheduled execution. Knowing that activists would not be able to attend the hearing, a Save Tookie Committee member from LEGAI (Lesbian and Gay Insurrection, a longtime group in the anti-death penalty movement) proposed that we hold a “Peoples’ Clemency Hearing” on the steps of the State Capitol in Sacramento.

We did, and 150 people took time off from work and school, including several youth groups, to make the journey to Sacramento. Even though we were expecting significant media coverage, no one was prepared to see TV trucks lined up along one long block in front of the Capitol. We set up shop on the front steps and got to hear from a range of speakers, including young people who had read Stan’s books and representative of groups in the Save Tookie Committee.

A newspaper signature ad that got out our message about Stan’s good works ran in the San Francisco Bayview, a San Francisco-based African-American newspaper with national circulation. Other signature ads also ran in the Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee. Newspaper editorials in the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle called on the governor to grant clemency.

All this was truly significant. They brought a new layer of people into the movement--new activists who will now join us in fighting to stop all executions. But despite the strength and size of the movement, despite the pleas from youth around the world, despite the broad support for clemency, Schwarzenegger denied clemency. Even as thousands of people began to arrive at San Quentin Prison on the night of December 12, many still hoped that something would stop the execution. And there were plenty of reasons to hope--several new witnesses had come forward corroborating Stan’s innocence claim.

But the courts and Schwarzenegger denied him again, and he was executed. Barbara Becnel, along with two other supporters, witnessed the execution and would later describe it as a 35-minue torture.

Credit: Jeff Patterson, Not In Our Name
Some 1,000 people came to a demonstration for Stan on November 19, a month before the execution

Barbara made powerful statements that night, first by raising her fist in a black power salute during the execution, and then while leaving by chanting with the other supporters. The 4–5,000 who came to protest the murder that night, plus thousands more around the state, nation, and world, were devastated by the loss. But we know that we must continue to fight in his name.

We also must look back and realize that the significance of the movement, while unable to save his life, will mean new strength and allies for the struggle against the death penalty. After all, Stan always said that we should not fight just for him--that would save only one life, but winning a moratorium would save everyone.

“Stan’s life was lost--or taken, because lost is too benign a description,” Barbara Becnel said in a recent interview. “But because there was so much focus, and because of his history and what he had accomplished, it allowed people to focus on the value of humanity and the horror of state-sponsored murder and the role it plays in devaluing humanity. So we’ve seen something positive come out of this. The world has recoiled because of what the state of California and Arnold Schwarzenegger did to Stanley Tookie Williams.”