So I took a little break. I needed not to read anymore about the war in Iraq, global warming, white collar, blue collar or government fraud, spousal murders, kidnappings or everyday racism, sexism, ageism and any other isms you want to throw in there.
I needed not to hear it on the radio or to write about it. To complain about ongoing negativity had simply become too negative. Like I said, I needed a break.
After I decided that it was time to resume writing, the question then became; what about? When I realized that my next column would be published on Dec. 13, it hit me: that’s the day that Stanley Tookie Williams is scheduled to die. By the time you read this, Williams may have breathed his last breath.
Perhaps he cried anguished tears full of regret and pain. Or perhaps they were tears of joy and relief.
Perhaps there were no tears at all.
Those who want him dead and those who want him to live have expressed their opposing views loudly—a man’s life is at stake, after all. But to many, there’s more at stake than an individual life. Williams has become a symbol of this country’s ongoing argument regarding punishment vs. forgiveness; retribution vs. redemption and of our country’s unwillingness to acknowledge systemic racism.
Some discount Williams’ life as so much payment for four murders he insists he did not commit.
They believe the evidence justifies his conviction and subsequent denials of appeals. Others believe the evidence was not convincing, the attorneys were incompetent, the jury and judges were biased and that our legal system is so inherently racist that every conviction of a black male is suspect.
What we do know are the things Stanley Williams has admitted to: that he grew up in South Central Los Angeles in an area known for its poverty, unemployment, broken families, failing schools and general neglect. That he first fought against local gangs and then fought to create one of the most notorious gangs of them all—the Crips—at the age of 17.
Williams ruled his environment in the ways many poor urban communities continue to be ruled; by might, by intimidation, by violence. No doubt he is guilty of many violent crimes. But, did he kill Albert Owens, Yen-I Yang, Tsai-Shai Yang and Yee-Chin Lin? There is no OJ/DNA and the witnesses at the scene were themselves criminals—one of them has since recanted his testimony, claiming that he was beaten and threatened by police. The others were granted leniency in their own sentencing for various crimes and one of those is in jail for having committed a subsequent murder. Would it be too much of a stretch to wonder whether a few police officers may have been so anxious to “get Tookie” that they tampered with what evidence there was?
Surely, Williams knows that he would have a better chance at clemency if he were to admit to the killings and express his profound remorse. Although he apologizes profusely for all the past wrongdoings he committed as a gangbanger, Williams steadfastedly refuses to apologize for crimes he insists he did not commit. He has to live (and die) within the confines of his own sense of self, truth and conscience.
“I’m at peace,” Williams says softly, during an interview recently broadcast on radio station KPFA from San Quentin. “I do not fear death ... not because of a cavalier attitude or some machismo ... I could have died many times by police or rival gangs ... I’m not saying I want to die. ... I have a joie de vivre now ... but I will not get rattled over this...”
And what is this—this killing business? The death penalty is no longer viewed as a deterrent in most democracies and, according to Religious Tolerance, based in Ontario, Canada, the homicide rates in American states with the death penalty is almost twice the rate in states without the death penalty. While Amnesty International records that over 40 countries throughout Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe have abolished the death penalty since 1990, the United States chooses to align itself with Japan and South Korea as the only democratic countries still imposing the death penalty. They are joined by countries like Iran, China, Vietnam, Pakistan, the Phillipines, Somalia, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, some of which employ beheading, shooting and stoning to carry out their death sentences.
The strongest argument against the application of the death penalty in the United States can be drawn from the numbers of innocent people who have been convicted and executed for crimes they did not commit. Since 1973, 122 death row “convicts” have been found to be innocent. Luckily, their mistakes were discovered before they were executed but not before most of them had wasted many years of their lives on death row. There were 6 such cases in 2004, and three so far this year.
When you add the factor of disproportionate application of the death penalty to the poor and to African Americans, the situation cries out for breath ... for a moment of silence while we collectively reconsider what we are doing and to whom. Is Stanley Tookie Williams the perfect candidate upon which to pause in reflection? Need he be? Those who believe he committed the murders and believe in capital punishment say “Hell no! Let him burn!” Those who believe in forgiveness and redemption (and how many of you White Male Republican Jesus-loving Christians are among this group?) say that Williams is worth more alive than dead. As a respected voice of experience, wisdom and authority, Williams has steered hundreds of youth away from criminal gang activity and he pledges the remainder of his life to continue to work for peace and hope among the most troubled members of our society.
And as for punishment, not all of the murder victims’ families want to see Williams die. Albert Owens’ brother, Wayne Owens said that he would support clemency if he could be assured that Williams would never be released and that executing Williams would be a “no-win situation ... it will make victims of all of us.” Owens’ widow, Linda Owens released a letter on Dec. 8 stating that she now wants to join with Williams working for peace. What better way to pay tribute to these grieving families than to sentence Stanley Williams to a life of service?
So, what will “The Terminator” do? Can Gov. Schwarzenegger withstand the political heat, the slurs and demeaning accusations (possible headline: “Arnold Schwarzenegger: The Biggest Girlie Man Of Them All”). If you think politics has nothing to do with this, you are only fooling yourself. I say Schwarzenegger is more of a “girlie man” if he succumbs to political pressure, ignoring the necessity at least for a moratorium to reflect upon the core of the death penalty issue and what the United States’ role as a world leader should be.
At the close of the radio interview, Williams imagines himself being free “in my dreams ... floating away” from troubles in his mind. As I listen to this surprisingly soft-spoken man, I hear sincerity. I hear a man who has faced his demons and come through to the other side, a man whose life has become an example to those like him who did not see any other way to live but to follow in their absent father’s footsteps.
The last words Williams spoke before he was cut off were these: “As long as I have breath, I will continue to do what I can to help. I want to be part of the solu— .”