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Conference Calls for Strategies To End America’s Prison Cycle

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Wednesday December 17, 2008 - 07:15:00 PM
Nation of Islam Minister Christopher Muhammad of San Francisco speaks at Saturday’s Stanley “Tookie” Williams Legacy Summit while Bill Ayers looks on.
Nation of Islam Minister Christopher Muhammad of San Francisco speaks at Saturday’s Stanley “Tookie” Williams Legacy Summit while Bill Ayers looks on.

More than 300 ’60s and ’70s era radicals and students not born until the ’80s gathered at Oakland’s Merritt College on Saturday to honor a man executed by the State of California three years ago and to hear strategies to end the cycle of criminalization of American communities and the country’s re-volving prison door and the death penalty. 

The occasion was the second annual Stanley “Tookie” Williams Legacy Summit, held at Merritt’s Huey P. Newton/Bobby Seale Student Lounge in the name of a man who went from founder of Los Angeles’ violent Crips street gang to convicted murderer to internationally famous author and crusader for street peace to Nobel Peace Prize nominee. 

The sponsors of the summit, Richmond-based STW (Stanley “Tookie” Williams) Legacy Network, are trying to build a national network of activists to, among other things, sponsor peacekeeping efforts to end street violence within urban inner cities and to lobby for progressive state and federal legislation. 

Presenters at the four-hour conference included Chicago university professor Bill Ayers—the former radical made infamous during the recent presidential campaign for his association with then-candidate Barack Obama—Ayer’s wife Bernadine Dohrn, another well-known ‘60s and ‘70s radical, and former Black Panther Party Chairperson Elaine Brown. 

Ayers talked of going out to Chicago’s Grant Park on last November’s election night to gather in celebration with “one million people brought together by love, hope, and unity.” Referring to the election of Barack Obama, Ayers, who is white, said that “a blow was struck against white supremacy that night, and that’s a good thing. That night the spirit was ‘yes we can,’ and that’s the spirit today.” 

He called for an “urban public school bailout” similar to the recent Wall Street bailout, adding that the country needed an “ongoing dialogue to rethink the purpose of education in a democracy.” 

And Elaine Brown, who now lives in Savannah, sharply criticized the nation’s prison system, saying that while the use of torture is being debated and condemned around the world, it is regularly being practiced in the nation’s prisons.  

“They’re going to close [the prison at] Guantanamo Bay” because of allegations of torture of foreign nationals by U.S. security officials, Brown said, “but not a word is being said about Pelican Bay and all the dungeons there.” 

Pelican Bay is the California prison where the state houses prisoners it considers the most violent and dangerous. There have been numerous allegations of abuse of prisoners at the facility over the years. 

Brown, an associate of Panther Party founders Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, called for the end of three-strikes laws across the nation and “the creation of a new Freedom Movement.” 

And noting that the cities of Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, and San Francisco all had mayors, councilmembers, and legislators who were allies of the progressive movement, San Francisco Nation of Islam mosque minister Christopher Muhammad urged conference participants to use that influence to change city and state policies.  

“It’s not enough to simply meet here in conference,” Muhammad said. “We have to begin to shape policies and make legislation.” 

And Stan Muhammad of the H.E.L.P.E.R. Alliance Cease Fire Committee of South Central Los Angeles talked about efforts in that community to organize and promote a gang cease fire between the Crips and Bloods gangs called for by Tookie Williams, among others. Stan Muhammad said that his group, all of whom are ex-gang members, did training in the city of Richmond last year among that city’s violent gang-bangers.  

“We came up several times, and in the period we were there, the killings went down,” Stan Muhammad said. He said the Alliance’s efforts in Richmond ended only because the “financial resources to support it went down, so we couldn’t continue,” but he said the group was willing to return to Richmond to continue peacekeeping efforts among that city’s gangs, and would welcome coming to Oakland as well, if they were invited and if financial sponsorship could be arranged. 

While Ayers and Brown were the headliners at Saturday’s conference, the most dramatic moment of the day’s events was a live call to the conference from San Quentin’s Death Row by Death Row inmate Kevin Cooper. 

Cooper had been scheduled to call in at 1:30 p.m. to speak to conference participants, but the scheduled time came and went with no call. It was only at 2 p.m., when presenter Crystal Bibby was reading a previously prepared statement by Cooper, that the call suddenly came in. But with Cooper’s voice breaking in and out over the phone line, conference participants could not hear him directly, but could only listen to Bibby as she alternately heard what Cooper had to say over the phone and passed it on. 

Asked to give examples of the dehumanization of Death Row prisoners, Cooper gave a vivid description of a full-body cavity search done on him by guards in 2004 while they were preparing him for his execution, an execution that was later put off. Cooper described how the procedure is deliberately designed to turn inmates into animals in a process similar to the inspection of captive Africans 150 years ago on the American slave blocks. Some audience members visibly squirmed during the description, and then sat almost in stunned silence as Cooper—through Bibby—concluded, “My God, we have to stop this madness.” 

Presenters also read statements from several other Death Row inmates, including one from inmate Correll Thomas who said that guards once confiscated and presumably destroyed several years of letters he had written and was saving for eventual presentation to his young son. Thomas said, “I’m no angel and don’t pretend to be, but I’m not a monster either.”  

Presenter Brandy Howard broke down in tears before continuing with the statement of Death Row inmate Richard Boyd that San Quentin prisoners “are driven to mental madness and chaos.” 

“We’re at the beginning stages of galvanizing an incredible movement,” STW founder Barbara Becnel of Richmond told the gathering. “We’re not going to wait for our issues to get on the table. We’re going to put our issues on the table.” 

Williams was executed in San Quentin’s gas chamber in December of 2005 still denying he was guilty of the four 1979 shotgun deaths he was convicted of committing. Becnel worked closely with Williams over the last years of his life, editing his children’s books and serving as a witness at his execution.