Commentary: And Then There Was Tookie By MARC SAPIR

Friday December 09, 2005

A small but vocal minority twists logic into a pretzel in its clamor for the death of Tookie Williams on Dec. 12. In contrast, the opposition to the execution stands upon a hierarchy of values and logic that digs deep into the positive side of America and repudiates the murderous side of our history. At the abolitionist base are folks, many of them religious, who believe that taking life, except in self-defense, is egregiously abhorrent. Because this view underpins the declared moral principles of civilization, when a cop kills someone who turns out to not have a weapon, the police plea is often that the officer thought the suspect was armed. That becomes the only acceptable public justification.  

Beyond religious values opposing the death penalty, stand those who believe that killing by the State can only create or worsen a culture of violence, for the act of execution suggests that murder in circumstances other than self-defense can have a clear and useful social purpose. Which godlike figures get to determine those approved circumstances? Of course, it’s the politicians whom the public largely despises and mistrusts. Go figure. Included among death penalty opponents are people who recognize, as Michael Moore pointed out in Bowling for Columbine, that the murder rate in the U.S. is 10-200 times that in the many nations that have outlawed the death penalty. What? Executions preventing murder? The facts don’t jibe.  

Up in the third tier of the opposition stand folks like Democratic Governor Warner of Virginia and former Republican Governor Ryan of Illinois who looked at the statistics and got sick realizing their role. For every 6.5 people executed in the U.S. in the past 30+ years one person on death row has been proven to be innocent of the murder for which he/she was convicted and sentenced to die. That’s scary and means that we are probably executing innocent people and will surely execute many more if we speed up executions. Supporters of the death penalty seem to be incapable of imaging themselves sitting, convicted, on death row, having not committed a crime. But it’s the fact. Our criminal justice system is far more fallible than its defenders are willing to own up to.  

Currently at the pinnacle of this pyramid is the Tookie Williams story. Williams claims he is innocent, and will eventually prove it. Ironically, that appears to be why some people want him killed. Death proponents say that people should be executed who show no remorse and don’t apologize. That is exactly what was done in the Salem Witch Trials. Confess and we’ll let you live. Obviously the rationale here is retribution and intimidation by the State. The early Greeks recognized that they couldn’t advance civilized society unless they tore down retributive justice and had the outcome of trials be based upon the general interests of society rather than the feelings of victims, their loved ones, or anyone else.  

In order to twist the retributive justice theme into some logical framework one writer argued that Tookie has been faking his transformation. Try to write a book and see what kind of effort that takes. It isn’t hard for me to appreciate the social value of a man who has published 9 books read by thousands of young people, hundreds of whom, as a result, then shunned gangs and violence. The movement to end the gang violence throughout California owes much to Tookie Williams. Folks who would negate that fact and not want him to be around to continue to help us reduce violence among youth pretend that the world divides easily into us—the God-fearing saved—and them—the condemned, like Tookie. But that thinking, often based upon puritanical teachings, doesn’t fit with their Bible either. In the origin myth God could have killed Satan, but whomever wrote the story knew that without having Satan around to define evil there would be no way to contrast what is righteous. Satan was cast down to Hell and Earth (In the current storyline San Quentin is a good stand in for Hell).  

Without Tookie, the gang war-lord responsible for much violence and conflict, there is no Tookie whose reconciliation theme proves to youth that we are all capable of being positive socially useful beings. It doesn’t really matter if Tookie Williams has been “reformed” in some abstract world of the self-righteous. His work stands for itself, and for all of us. Arnold: Killing Stan Williams would be, like invading Iraq, another act of collective self destruction for our nation and culture. Collectively we get what we work for, so we’d better save this man’s life if we intend to end gang violence.  


Marc Sapir is an East Bay physician, writer and co-convenor of the April, 2005 UC Berkeley Teach-In on Torture.