MEASURE OF A MANS LIFE
- Questions of redemption, atonement and clemency swirl as Stanley
Tookie Williams' execution date approaches
MEASURE OF A MAN'S LIFE AS A REDEEMER
San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, December 4, 2005
A .45-caliber bullet didn't lead Diego Garcia to give up the violent
gang life he had known for years. Stanley Tookie Williams did.
Garcia, who grew up in the housing projects on Richmond's Easter Hill,
joined a gang at age 9 and took part in drug deals, beatings and
drive-by shootings before he was shot when he was 18. Months of
recovery gave him plenty of time to think about making changes.
"I was completely confused. I didn't know whether I should choose the
right path," said Garcia, now 30. "I read Tookie's books and it
inspired me. I related to him. The books are different because it is
the co-founder of the Crips giving you a message. Tookie caught my
Williams is scheduled to be executed at San Quentin State Prison Dec.
13 for the shotgun murders of four people in the Los Angeles area in
1979. He maintains he is innocent, an assertion no court has agreed
with, and now his lawyers are pinning their hopes on a clemency
hearing Thursday before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
His attorneys and the high-profile figures who have been drawn to
Williams' cause -- including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, rapper Snoop Dogg
and celebrities such as Jamie Foxx and Bianca Jagger -- say Williams
is worth more alive than dead. He has co-authored 10 books from Death
Row laying out the evils of gangs, many of them directed at children,
spoken by phone at anti-violence summits, and lent his name to an
Internet peace project that links disadvantaged youths around the world.
"He is such a well-known member of the Crips that he is held in high
esteem," said Alfonso Valdez, an investigator with the Orange County
district attorney's office and expert on California gangs. "I have
spoken to kids who consider him a demigod, a very high-ranking gang
member. That means they listen to him."
Garcia, who now works with underprivileged students in Richmond, says
he is living proof of Williams' ability to persuade gang members that
the criminal life is not the way to go.
"Stanley changed my life," he said.
Those opposed to clemency say Williams should not be promoted as a
role model, that he is an unrepentant criminal who should be executed
for his crimes.
"His work doesn't mitigate the fact that he killed four people and
started a gang that is still killing, dealing drugs and committing
other crimes," said Jane Alexander, co-founder of Citizens Against
Homicide, a Marin County support group for the families of homicide
victims. "We want the execution to go on as planned."
Crusade to change lives
Williams, 51, started his public crusade against violence in a hotel
ballroom in 1993. He had already spent 12 years on Death Row after
being convicted of murdering Albert Owens, a clerk at a Whittier (Los
Angeles County) 7-Eleven store, in a February 1979 robbery, and the
owners of a Los Angeles motel, Yen-I Yang and Tsai-Shai Yang, and
their adult daughter, Yee-Chen Lin, during another robbery 12 days later.
Hundreds of gang members who had gathered in the Los Angeles ballroom
for a peace summit called Hands Across Watts watched a videotape
Williams had filmed in a San Quentin visiting room.
Williams admitted he had helped build the Crips, a vicious Los Angeles
gang, and said he regretted having done so. He said he was going to
spend the rest of his life trying to persuade other gang members to
"I told them I never thought I could change my life, that I thought I
would be a Crip forever," Williams said last week during an interview
at San Quentin. "But I developed common sense, wisdom and knowledge. I
Tony Muhammad, a minister with the Nation of Islam, remembers that day.
"I saw tears rolling down those young people's eyes after they watched
that video," he said. "It was deep. Many of us who are free can't
affect the gang culture the way he does."
The gang members' reactions convinced many that Williams could help
save lives, and his work in the following years convinced more.
Supporters say his renunciation of violence and the "Tookie Speaks
Out" and "Life in Prison" books he wrote from his 4-by-9-foot cell are
deterring youth from entering gangs and entitle him to mercy.
Early years in prison
Williams' first decade at San Quentin scarcely hinted at the reform he
and his followers say he has undergone. He spent six years in solitary
confinement for bad behavior that included fighting with inmates and
threatening to assault staff.
Williams says he spent his time in solitary reading the dictionary,
studying philosophy, psychology and black history. He found God in
"the hole," and considers himself a member of many religions. His
first series of books was published in 1996, and the following year
the www.tookie.com Web site was launched. In 1998, "Life in Prison,"
intended for teenagers, was published, and the Internet Project for
Street Peace started in 2000. Williams' autobiography and a movie
about his life, "Redemption," starring Foxx, were both released in 2004.
His supporters say thousands of children have been rescued thanks to
Williams' books. It's a tough point to prove, however, at least by
looking at crime rates.
George Tita, an assistant professor of criminology at UC Irvine who
has done extensive research on homicide rates in Watts and surrounding
areas, says there are no numbers showing that killings declined as a
result of the numerous gang peace summits held since the early 1990s.
"The gang peace summits have not had an impact on the levels of
violence in Los Angeles, but that doesn't mean they don't have great
value," Tita said. As for Williams, he said, youths "look at him as a
role model, not for the old Tookie Williams but the new one. His books
and message are important for the community, but there is no
statistical evidence to show that they have changed murder rates."
His backers insist they've seen the proof in those who read Williams'
"I can tell you what it is like, but I've never been in a gang," said
Jorja Leap, an adjunct professor at UCLA who has researched gang
intervention for 20 years. "He is a role model for people who are
thinking about leaving the gang life. He has credibility because he
lived that life. The books are a building block in their survival."
Books reach children
The books are used in a number of classrooms around the country and
elsewhere. In the Chicago public school district, 25 campuses with
at-risk students have created a class using Williams' autobiography as
To get that program started, Williams talked via telephone with
Chicago principals, answered questions and gave them advice for
handling kids involved with gangs. Then, more than 250 seventh- and
eighth-grade boys with life circumstances similar to Williams' were
picked for the program. Its facilitators, described as motivated and
encouraging, use lesson plans and activities based on Williams' writings.
Carole Ward Allen, a professor in Laney College's black studies
department, said she uses Williams' autobiography "because I like the
fact that he has made a change. My goal is to keep kids in education
and on the straight track.
"I am working with kids from the hip-hop generation," Allen said.
"Tookie has an impact because he spans 35 years of gang life."
Language of the street
Williams' "Tookie Speaks Out" series, aimed at elementary school
children, uses street language and glossaries explaining words such as
homeboy (friend or partner), mobbing (large numbers of kids pushing to
get what they want) and enemy (someone who wants to hurt you).
Williams tells his young readers that the power that came with being
in a gang ended up hurting him. He writes about how it feels to lose
friends to gunfire, how he suffered from a gunshot wound to his leg,
how guns don't prove you are tough. He talks about his first fight and
the pressures that pushed him to join up with criminals.
"I grew up poor and wanted a lot of things that other kids had,"
Williams wrote. "Most of my homeboys were poor too. We would gang-bang
to get what our parents couldn't afford to buy us. But now I know it's
better to have less of the things you want than to get them by
stealing, selling drugs or hurting others."
"Life in Prison," aimed at a high school audience, tells of the
humiliation of being strip-searched in jail, the claustrophobia that
comes with living in a cell and the violence of everyday prison life.
Jessie Muldoon, a teacher at Roosevelt Middle School in East Oakland,
uses Williams' books, movie and Web site regularly for classroom
"The kids are now following the case on a day-to-day basis," she said.
"They are interested because of the gang element. They are not
necessarily in gangs, but know people who are.
"To know he has turned himself around from inside prison is not lost
on them," Muldoon said. "They pass the books and newspaper articles
Williams has authored nine of his books with Barbara Becnel. The two
met in January 1993 when she was writing a story about Los Angeles
gangs for Essence magazine. She says that at the time she thought he
was guilty -- she has since changed her mind -- but the 1993 peace
summit convinced her that his message was worth sharing.
"I was watching those kids and how they were entranced by him, and a
lightbulb went off in my head," Becnel said. "I knew he could save
lives. I got over my moral dilemma that day. I had an obligation, for
my son and my grandson and all the African American males in my family."
Williams formed the Crips in 1970 with his friend Raymond Washington.
He admits being involved with drugs and fighting, but not to the
killings that sent him to San Quentin. He says he never imagined the
gang would grow to its current size, and says that once the Crips
moved from fists to guns, the violence spiraled out of control.
"As a result of Williams' actions, this gang is now active throughout
the United States, as well as other countries across the globe," the
Los Angeles County district attorney wrote in asking Schwarzenegger to
deny Williams' request for clemency. "This gang is responsible for the
regular commission of crimes such as murder, rape, robbery and drug
Valdez, the gang expert, said Williams was one of the original members
of the Crips and recruited others to the gang. However, he said, not
all Crips fall under the same umbrella.
"Stanley helped start it and then it snowballed," Valdez said.
"African American gangs decided to use the blue color, but were
independent. Crips have always been a conglomeration of different sets
or cliques that fly the blue color."
Williams said in his prison interview that "blaming me for all the
gang activity is like blaming all white people for slavery or racial
profiling. It is absurd to hold one man responsible."
Execution draws near
As Williams' execution date approaches, supporters' efforts to save
him are growing more frantic. The NAACP plans a tour of California in
the days before the clemency hearing. There are scheduled showings of
"Redemption" and planned rallies in front of the governor's office. A
round-the-clock vigil at the San Quentin gates will start today.
At least some of that interest has been stirred by the five Nobel
Peace Prize nominations Williams has garnered since 2000. The first
nomination was the work of Mario Fehr, a member of the Swiss
Parliament and critic of the death penalty who says his goal in part
was to get people talking about the case.
Those who are unimpressed by Williams note that any professor of
social science, history, philosophy, law or theology can make a
nomination for the prize. There are about 150 names submitted each year.
The nominations, along with his Internet project, have earned Williams
worldwide recognition. He says he gets 20 to 30 letters a day from
supporters and children who have read his work.
"I can't respond to them all," he said. "So I deal with the ones who
are in pain and need immediate help. It's part of my redemption."
E-mail at lfulbright @ sfchronicle.com.
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