Witness to an execution

An Interview with Barbara Becnel

Barbara Becnel spearheaded the fight to stop the execution of Stan Tookie Williams. She was an advocate for and close collaborator with Stan, having co-authored a series of anti-gang books with him. Barbara was present in the witness room when Stan was executed in December of last year. In this interview, Barbara recounts this experience and reflects on the political motivations of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in denying clemency for Stan.

You were a witness to Stan’s murder in the execution chamber. What would you like people to know about that experience?

Witnessing the state-sponsored murder of Stanley Tookie Williams was the most horrific experience of my life. San Quentin State prison guards, assigned to control my whereabouts as I awaited the killing of Stan, told me that “the whole thing”—the execution of Stan—would only take a few minutes.

It took a total of 35 minutes, during which Stan was tortured virtually every second, before he stopped breathing.

Stan’s so-called quick and painless death was first botched when it took 25 minutes and many needle “probes” into Stan’s arm to find a viable vein for the insertion of a lethal cocktail of three different drugs.  

His death process was botched again when Stan most certainly awakened after being put to sleep by the first drug. I say that because I saw Stan’s body writhe in pain and desperation—though he wasn’t supposed to be able to move at all after the second drug, a paralyzing agent, was administered. That drug did prevent him from crying out, opening his eyes and flailing his arms so that we, the witnesses to his death, would not be made uncomfortable by the discomfort of a dying man in terrible pain.

But during the “humane” execution, as advertised by the state, Stan’s stomach heaved so mightily, it distorted itself, as he apparently awakened to the terror of slowly suffocating to death from lungs that could no longer move and to excruciating pain caused by a third drug that induced a heart attack.

This killing debacle inspired me to protest in the death chamber. I had already been warned by prison guards assigned to watch me and two friends who accompanied me into the death chamber that we had to abide by the primary rules of death witnesses: we could not speak above a whisper or “sob loudly.” Breaking either one of those rules meant immediate ejection from the chamber.

I decided to break the rules anyway and quietly encouraged my friends to join me.

We raised our right arms, clenched our fists in the black power salute and yelled, “The State of California just killed an innocent man!”

I don’t regret the decision to have been in the death chamber with Stan during his last moments on earth because I was a witness to the truth of Stan’s torturous murder by the state of California—the murder of an innocent man. And though I could not stop his execution, I was, for a moment, able to defile the “civil” ritual of state-sponsored killing that occurred at San Quentin on the morning of December 13, 2005, a real horror story I intend to recount for every audience I face for the rest of my life.

Why wasn’t the extraordinary rehabilitation of Stanley Tookie Williams enough to secure clemency from Arnold Schwarzenegger?

Foremost, rehabilitation is not a desired endgame by authorities for a death row prisoner. To justify capital punishment, the criminal justice system must maintain the fiction that the men and women on death row are incapable of changing themselves into compassionate human beings. But Stan rehabilitated himself, creating a peacemaker legacy from the confines of a 9-by-4 foot cell.

Stan did not, however, adhere to San Quentin’s sole definition of rehabilitation: prisoners willing to inform on—or mostly lie about—other prisoners to curry favor with guards to better their personal circumstances within the prison. So Schwarzenegger’s calculus for granting clemency could not allow Stan’s self-rehabilitation to be seen as meaningful or even authentic.

Schwarzenegger made a political point of discrediting Stan’s redemption by pointing to the list of Black revolutionaries Stan listed in the dedication of one of his books. Why?

The particular tactic Schwarzenegger used to “prove” Stan was not truly redeemed was to ridicule the people to whom Stan dedicated a 1998 children’s book, Life in Prison, which he had authored. Life in Prison is an award-winning book—honored by the American Library Association—that de-romanticizes prison life and the violent culture spawned by long-term incarceration.

In bad-mouthing the people listed in the “Dedication”—Nelson Mandela, Angela Davis, Malcolm X and Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt, among others—Schwarzenegger politicized his reason for doubting Stan’s redemption by arrogantly redefining numerous heroes of the Black community as unrepentant criminals.

Schwarzenegger’s written justification for killing Stan was targeted to a voting audience of mostly white middle-class Californians. He counted on their reading of his argument against Stan’s redemption being influenced by a historical perspective infected with racism: the Black-folks-as-inherent-criminals theme that has for many centuries been linked to the politics of fear and race in this country. Therefore, Schwarzenegger’s presentation was insidiously crafted to appeal to the basest instincts of the California mainstream electorate.

Schwarzenegger was betting that Stan and the people he listed in the dedication—all of whom were either currently incarcerated or had at one time been imprisoned—would evoke for that mainstream public the specter of Willie Horton-type images of dangerous Black people who should never be forgiven and who deserve to remain society’s outcasts.

Schwarzenegger’s argument led to the following conclusion: that Stan’s positive acknowledgment of these so-called “criminals” meant that Stan admired felonious villains—not courageous rebels, as the list is viewed by many minorities—and, thus, could not possibly be redeemed.

What arrogance Schwarzenegger displayed in signing an opposition-to-clemency document that boldly and publicly devalued the lives and contributions of certain Black folks. One would have to assume that Schwarzenegger did not give a damn about what the average Black person thought of him. Certainly, Schwarzenegger’s brazenly racist tactics for politicizing his justification for the state-sponsored murder of Stan demonstrated that he was prepared to make trade-offs: the Black vote for white mainstream approval.

Tookie had a powerful message in his books to children about not joining gangs, and a pointed message to society that we devote more money and resources towards preventing crime—more money for schools, social programs and better education. Do you think in killing Stan, they were trying to kill that message?

In February 2006, shortly after Stanley Tookie Williams was killed by the state of California, Z Magazine published a political cartoon about Stan that was quite revelatory.

The cartoon depicted a bespectacled Black male prisoner standing on one side of a room, wrists shackled in the front of him. This prisoner sported a white beard and the name “Tookie” written in block letters across the left side of his gray shirt—part of a drab prison uniform.

On the other side of the room stood Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had his right arm outstretched and a weapon of some kind in his hand that was pointed at Stan. Next to Schwarzenegger was another older unidentified white man in a suit, urging Schwarzenegger to kill Stan: “He is a Black man with organizing power and he has dedicated his life to peace…What are you waiting on?”

I believe that Z Magazine cartoon accurately reflected the dilemma Schwarzenegger faced in choosing whether to grant clemency or to kill Stan. To allow Stan to live and continue his work that was saving the lives of mostly low-income minority youths, Schwarzenegger would have had to care more about the survival of those young people than the votes of the white middle-class electorate. It was another significant trade-off for Schwarzenegger—and the children lost.

Further, if Stan, as an internationally known and respected peacemaker, had been allowed to live the rest of his life in prison to continue his work, he would have become a very powerful Black man—his incarcerated status notwithstanding. That, too, was an intolerable outcome to mainstream America and, thus, could not be permitted by Schwarzenegger, who valued reelection more than the resurrection of troubled minority communities.

You ran for governor of California after Stan’s execution. What was the biggest lesson you learned from your campaign?

My recent run for governor of the state of California made history because I was the first Black woman gubernatorial candidate who ever ran on the state’s Democratic ticket. I placed third among a field of eight candidates. So I did not do badly, yet I did not have a good experience.

My campaign taught me that this country’s two-party political system is really a one-party behemoth with two barely distinguishable factions: Democrats and Republicans. I also learned that neither the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party support significant ideas or honorable ideals. Instead, money and multimillionaires—as candidates and as donors—both fuel and command our nation’s political system.

To illustrate, two of the eight candidates whom I competed against in my race for governor were wealthy men. They spent $60 million between them—mostly for television commercials—and at least $40 million of that total was from their own fortunes. Their combined personal worth was more than one-quarter of a billion dollars.

As the two men spent their millions, they instantaneously became the “leading candidates.” The media covered them—and only them. Their political party fêted them—and only them—ignoring me and five other non-multimillionaire candidates. One of the multimillionaires won the election because he was able to buy the election. Is that democracy? I don’t think so.

You worked closely with Stan over the last decade. What is it like now that he is gone, and how are you continuing to keep his fight alive? And what can others do?

I still have difficulty accepting that Stan is not here. Nevertheless, I continue to be inspired by him, so I intend to keep his multifaceted legacy alive.

My focus has been to: fund an investigation to prove his innocence as well as stay active in the anti-death penalty movement by, for example, using Stan’s exoneration report to demonstrate the fallibility of the death penalty; continue publishing Stan’s extraordinary memoir, Blue Rage, Black Redemption, as well as to republish his children’s books; and to raise money to establish a Stanley Tookie Williams Foundation that would provide ongoing support to communities and projects that promote street peace wherever needed in the world.

People who supported Stan can help to keep his legacy alive by joining the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and becoming active in one of its chapters—or starting a new chapter.

Stan’s supporters can also help by making tax-deductible donations for the exoneration and street peace foundation projects mentioned earlier by going to www.savetookie.org and using a credit card or by mailing donations to:

The Exoneration Project
(or The STW Street Peace Foundation Project)
820 23rd Street Richmond, CA 94804  

In addition, purchasing Blue Rage, Black Redemption and Stan’s children’s books as they become available will help in the effort to exonerate Stan as well as to establish a foundation in his honor, because a portion of book sale proceeds will be set aside to fund those two projects.

This interview was adapted from the book Eyewitness: The True Story Behind the Execution of Stanley Tookie Williams, by Barbara Becnel, to be released this winter by Damamli Publishing LLC. Copyright 2006. All rights reserved.