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.