I stood amidst a dense crowd of several thousand outside the East Gate of San Quentin on a Monday night and almost bumped into Sean Penn, the actor who played a death row inmate executed in Dead Man Walking, one of us. Beyond the usual death penalty witnesses, this was a relatively young crowd—diverse, spirited, communal, purposeful—until midnight passed us by and after a while a preacher man on the mic began preaching that Tookie would want us to avoid violence. Some of the crowd’s collective energy drained out, quieted by the preacher. The appropriation of Tookie had begun and he wasn’t even dead yet. Like all leaders before him, Tookie’s intentions, beliefs and legacy were now fair game for head hunters on every side of every question, ready to redefine Tookie in their own image.
By 12:30, when Tookie’s death was announced, there was a palpable wave of despair; a few fists were raised, militant shouts of resistance arose, impotence in the face of the world’s greatest terrorist state. I stayed in the hope someone would do something dramatic to exorcise the state’s death dealing demons. A Native American guy on a wall held an American flag painted with a big swastika that he set on fire. It hardly burned. A woman below, for reasons I could not discern, grabbed the flag from him trying to extinguish the pitiful flame. The poor guy fell off the 6 foot wall he was on —not once but twice. Another Native American hugged the woman and calmed her anger. At the mic a more disciplined and well kempt Native American group chanted. Most people had slowly filtered out. I saw a tear in the corner of Sean Penn’s eye as he walked passed.
After you’ve attended one execution event you feel impelled to come back, though you know the sad ritual. But at the end you don’t want to hear someone on a microphone feed you platitudes about how we need to keep fighting for a just criminal justice system. Or how Tookie lives in our hearts. You want to know what we are going to do next. You want action to end State violence and the ubiquitous media spin on our reality, both designed to further intimidate and pacify people. You want a real social revolution. No, not a protest, a rally, not even a riot. You want catharsis, peace, a total social collision against ruthless, raw, deceitful and selfish power, on the people’s terms.
In this case, the governor signed a clemency denial letter that very pointedly denigrated not only Tookie William’s new found decency, his work ethic and contributions to society today, but also a cross section of the Black American heroes of the last 30 or 40 years. When Stan Williams was put to death early Tuesday morning, December 13, the United States, not in the person of George W Bush but of Arnold Schwarzenegger, sent a message to the African American community. It’s not only the Muslims and the undocumented we’re focused on hitting after Katrina, they as much as said. Arnold’s five-page letter specifically highlighted Tookie’s dedication of a book to Malcolm X (a murder victim, and convert to socialism), Geronimo Pratt (the Black Panther exonerated after 28 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit), George Jackson (who was never charged with a violent crime in his life despite Arnold’s libeling his memory), Leonard Peltier (a national Indian leader who was framed in the murder of provocateur FBI agents, as the original Judge’s call for a new trial makes clear), Asata Shakur (a government opponent whose re-capture has become a maniacal cause in Congress), Nelson Mandela (the most principled and supreme resister of Black oppression in the world), Mumia Abu Jamal (one of the brilliant analytical minds and mellifluous voices of our times, whose career as a leading journalist was abridged with intent to kill him legally by the Philadelphia power structure as it brought out of retirement the hanging racist judge, Szabo).
Because the anti-clemency attack was not limited to Tookie, we all share a tremendous burden to vindicate Stan Williams, to expose the wanton criminal blood lust of the entire logical system that Arnold’s letter represents, and, if possible, to prove Stan’s innocence. Among all the hundreds of media outlets covering the execution across the nation, which newspapers, TV networks or radio stations shouted out the exposé of the blatant racism in Arnold’s labeling so many Black and Indian heroes as criminal elements. Presenting such internationally renowned political prisoners as Mandela and Peltier as evidence that Williams had not turned away from a life of violence will be Arnold’s legacy. Those key figures used their lives to fight for freedom for others, for us all, whether we be Black, or otherwise skin colored or ethnified.
No one should forget this. It needs repeating as a mantra—today, in the 2006 elections, and in the unfolding struggle to defend and preserve democratic rights in the U.S. The system’s ruthlessness has again extended to the level of anti-historical psychological warfare where its front men and women are prepared to call humanity’s heroes past and present “terrorists and criminals,” to all but equate Mandela and George Jackson with Osama Bin Laden.
The state did also execute Martin Luther King Jr. but did not then have the audacity to admit the crime. The book by Rev. King’s lawyer (An Act of State—The Execution of Martin Luther King by William F. Pepper, Verso 2003) provides clear proof that King’s assassination was achieved in a way that the actual assassins didn’t even know they had the backing of the 902nd Military Intelligence Group. This truth was adjudicated by Pepper in a civil court case in Memphis a few years back with the support of the King family. A jury of common Memphis people exonerated James Earl Ray and ruled the U.S. Government collaborated in the assassination. If MLK were alive today it is conceivable the government would find a way to label him a terrorist and put him to death legally. This is the state and situation we face.
If the issues were really about violence and homeland security rather than political opposition to this system’s ruthlessness and its racism, Arnold’s speech writers would not have lied about George Jackson being a violent gang banger in that letter. They would not have dared to even mention Mandela whose principled refusal to betray the ANC’s armed wing kept him in prison, solidified the ANC’s unity and catapulted him to the presidency of South Africa after Apartheid.
No, the state’s message was loud and clear. “If you resist our violence and terror you will be called the terrorist and we will kill you.” It is not violence per se that the elite and political classes fear. It is resistance and unity amidst the decline and fall of a class system and an empire already in total chaos, coming apart at its seams. Tookie, like Malcolm X and Martin King Jr., was slowly becoming the kind of leader that terrifies them. Alive or dead his example will be nurtured.
Marc Sapir is a Berkeley resident.