First Person: Vigil at San Quentin By OSHA NEUMANN

Friday December 16, 2005

We wait, packed up against the gate to San Quentin Prison. We are a diverse crowd of many colors and many ages, standing bundled up against the cold, holding our candles and our signs. Off to one side are two counter demonstrators. One holds a large sign that says “Thou shalt not kill applies to Tookie Williams.” The other holds a smaller sign that says “For details read the Bible.” 

The black cables laid down by the media to feed electricity to their equipment are strung along the pavement beneath our feet. In the middle of the crowd, a little space has been carved out by a TV crew. A cameraman holding a camera on his shoulder points it at a reporter doing a stand up. The reporter has short cropped white hair. He’s wearing a white shirt and a tie with a leather jacket. He looks like he’s made of wax. His makeup gives his face an unnatural blush. His expression is blank and unreadable as he waits patiently for the signal to begin his 15 second sound bite.  

To the left of us is the bay, a dark body of water, with the miniature lights of the San Francisco and the Bay Bridge at its outer edge. To the right, two-story frame houses sit on a hillside. They have steps climbing towards porches. One has Christmas lights wrapped around the railing. We are in what the road sign calls “San Quentin Village.” 

Time passes. A woman with a baby sits against a concrete retaining wall. Protesters climb onto the roof of a garage to get a better view of the stage. A man comes out of the adjoining house and announces somewhat half-heartedly “This is private property, you know.” Then he goes back inside. One of the people on the garage roof throws a cigarette butt into a clump of ivy, where it continues to smoke. The smell drifts towards a woman standing next to me. She’s worried it will start a fire. Two men try to allay her fear. They forage for burning butt without success. The smell goes away. 

We had been told the execution would begin at a minute past midnight. Midnight arrives. On the stage, a woman is drumming and singing a Native American chant. The crowd joins in. Then a man leads us in “We Shall Overcome.” 

More minutes pass. Children from Richmond read sections of Tookie Williams’ children’s book A woman assures us that as soon as the organizers know anything they will tell us. The children keep reading. No one leaves. And then finally—finally?—the announcement from the stage: a San Quentin spokesman says that Tookie Williams has been executed. I hold my friend Brian’s hand. He has been a good friend for many years. Two woman next to us embrace and begin to cry quietly. At the edge of the crowd an angry chant begins: “They say death row, we say hell no!” It is not picked up. The crowd does not seem to be in a shouting mood. Slowly we begin to leave. 

At what moment did he die? What precisely were we doing? As my legs got stiff I looked at my watch to see how much longer I needed to be out here. I quickly reproached myself: “Am I anxious for the moment of his death to come? Because my legs are little stiff? 

We say: “I can’t wait till the day will come.” And yet we must wait. We say: “I dread the day that’s coming.” And yet it comes. Time marches on. It’s like an army, trampling through the fields, flattening the grass. Nothing can stand in its way. It is disciplined. It looks neither right nor left. It cares not a whit for the wishes of those who would halt its progress or speed it along. We say it marches because it is relentlessness. It permits no deviation, no side trips into the past, no scouting expeditions into the future. And while we stood, that march goose stepped past Tookie Williams, and we, whether we would or not, joined the parade. And we left his lifeless body behind as we headed for our cars. 

We did not know the moment that he died or even that he was dead until we were told. There was no shift in the light, no change in atmospheric pressure. No tremor passed through the earth. His death did not register on any Richter scale. One life gone, and the universe weighs the same as it did before its passing. It does not seem right that such a monumental event should leave so little mark.  

I had brought along in my satchel a copy of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s statement denying clemency. It took just six pages to print it out from the governor’s website. Unlike most of my friends I thought in the end he would grant clemency. I thought that anyone who has in his hands the life of another human being, would feel the weight of that life. Even a politician as crass and artificial as Arnold. I thought he would know that when all the hoopla had died down, and he was left alone with his memories his decision would be there with him, leaving its mark on his soul. But reading that statement I knew that Arnold never imagined such a moment. For him the hoopla would always be there. Those thin six pages that threw away Tookie’s life read as if written not by a human being but by a clever machine that collated soundbites, bits of boilerplate, and talking points. The words had been chosen, not for their relation to reality, but for their effect. I realized Schwarzenegger lives in an eternal present. He can’t imagine an end to the party. Or the power. But time will eat Schwarzenegger as it has eaten Tookie. And while Tookie’s life will feed other lives, all that will remain of Schwarzenegger will be a bitter memory.  


Osha Neumann is an attorney and activist.