It's Important--that's why Tookie's Death is Still Being Debated

These past couple of days, I've taken part in some Internet debates on the execution of Stanley Tookie Williams. Here I present some of my responses.

One person claimed that Tookie was no hero--that he deserved to die because he was found guilty of murdering four people in cold blood. And if he was a real gangster, he should have "taken it like a man" and accepted the death sentence. This is what I wrote:

Okay, let's say Tookie was no hero. That he was a low-down gangster bum. Maybe Tookie "deserved" to die. He may have played everyone. But we shouldn't have anything to do with killing him. Not as a people, a conscious, alive and moral community with standards that should be higher than Tookie's or his victims (most victims want payback). If he was in the streets of LA instead of prison some rival gang member might have done him him. But why did it have to be us?

Now, I don't happen to think that about Tookie. But from the gangster view point, he should have "accepted his fate." He's supposed to do and die and not cry. Who the hell needs that? I've known countless homies and other vatos who've lived by that. What a waste.

The complexity of this issue, like any other, has to find a clear line of march regardless of the difficulties. Some stand with killing him. I stand with that's not for us to decide.

We're either in the life business or the killing business.

You want a hero? There's nothing heroic in having the full power of the state kill a man. Nothing. It's more heroic, believe me, to want to kill, to have so much pain and hate, to want revenge, and then decide, after the most wrenching battle with oneself, that there's got to be another way to go.

Violence is the closing of our imaginations. Tookie could have taught our kids there's another way to imagine life, even if you've done terrible things. That even in prison, you can do some good (we have enough of our brothers and sisters in prison, wasting away. Let them do some good).

Remember, he was the one leading Crip who turned against the gang life. Far more who continue the gang life from behind prison bars are still at it, doing damage as we speak. Nobody is stopping them. But even if we could, we can't kill them all (nor do I advocate we do that--many of them are also capable of helping our youngsters).

We have to imagine another way out.

Another person said, "I consider myself liberal and progressive... but I don't object to capital punishment for cold-blooded murder." Here's my response:

You have to maintain a certain assumption to believe we have the means, the desire, or the kind of system that can actually make a cold-blooded killer pay for his crimes. In South Central LA--as most poor communities--there are no CSI teams, no great forensics doctors sweating over details of evidence to make sure they get "the right person." That's TV, in fantasy land (although quite possible in wealthier communities).

Instead there are overworked police, detectives, and lots of pressure to "get somebody" versus getting the truth.

I know. My wife worked for the Cook County court system in Chicago for years--she quit, finally, after witnessing too often the injustice of poor black and brown people being shafted by mostly white judges, prosecutors, and defense lawyers in a complex and intricate system (and I know there are good white people out there who do care, many of whom stood by Tookie until the end).

I've also been a court advocate for a number of youth (including my own son, but also in a "Walking With" project I've been involved with for years) and an expert witness in some federal deportation cases. And with my own experiences as a youth in juvenile hall and adult jails in the East LA area I can tell you--if you're poor, you're screwed.

I was around LA in the 70s and early 80s (I moved to Chicago in 1985), when police went all out war with gangs, including Crips and Bloods. There were lots of murders, lots of arrests, but not necessarily the right arrest to the right murder. It's possible Tookie killed other people. We don't know (and I may have a strong assumption about this, but who cares). It's also possible in that kind of warfare climate that he was set up. Many thousands were set up. I know of killers walking the streets, while some other poor fool is in prison for life. I also know that Tookie was somebody the police wanted to get. Find the right murders, the right people to turn against him (his own accomplices, done by separating them, scaring them, even beating them if they have to--real "gang" loyalties fall quickly in many a police station), and some jailhouse informants (who would lie to save their own asses), and they got their man.

What's the more probable? He could have killed those people. But it's also probable in that climate that he was set up.

People get arrested for things they didn't do all the time. Remember, 120 men have been found innocent and taken off death rows around the country, despite prosecutors, jurors, police, and others swearing to their mothers that they were guilty.

President Bush once claimed he could sleep at night despite allowing the executions of many Texas death row inmates because he said the system was infallible and they were all guilty. Now there's proof that at least one Texas executed man, Ruben Cantu, killed at 26 for a murder he allegedly did at 17, has been found innocent.

But he's dead. "Sorry. We'll try harder next time."

No. If there were a real system of justice, with real equal access to science, dedicated detectives and resources, and no racism or class prejudice in the mix, you might say, just maybe, that real killers should be killed.

But a real system of justice wouldn't even go there.

There are 3,000 murders in LA that have not been solved--what about those victims? There was a time when the United States had 20,000 murders a year (significantly down over the past ten to 20 years). Yet slightly more than 1,000 people have been executed since 1976. What happened to all those other murders?

Can we possibly kill 20,000 a year for every murder committed?

How come there are Crips who have done more damage than Tookie, yet are still alive?

Maybe (here's something to think about), since Tookie was accused of killing non-black folk he needed to go. Maybe that was his downfall. Lynch a black man for daring to kill a white guy (and Asians as well). Most Crips who have killed have killed their own people. When was the last time one of them got executed?

There are statistics proving that blacks who murder outside their race have a greater chance of being executed than if they killed other blacks.

How much more do I have to go on?

No, we can't allow the state to kill in our name. I will fight for the healing. For the peace. For the imagination and the deep changes we need for real justice to exist. California, or any other state, don't kill for me.

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