Tookie is Dead, but not His Spirit

This past weekend, several of us drove by San Quentin Prison on the way to and from a Mosaic Multicultural Foundation meeting (which included plans for “Voices of Youth, Voices of Community” events in the Bay Area next year; I’ve done these events with some of the most troubled youth in LA, utilizing poetry, their voices, story, song, and community celebration).

Looking out the car window, I saw that people had not yet gathered for the daily vigil against the execution of Stanley Tookie Williams. Silently, I said a prayer as we climbed onto the San Raphael Bridge, overlooking a wondrous sight of Bay waters, hills, and the amazing skyline of San Francisco in the distance.

I’ve been to San Quentin Prison a couple of times to read poetry, along with Mosaic teachers Michael Meade, Orland Bishop, and Jack Kornfield. The prisoners say looking at this sight from their cells may be more torturous than if they only had to stare at deserts or flowing cornfields.

The scenic beauty surrounding San Quentin contrasts sharply with the darkness inside the state’s only death row. As many had predicted, Governor Schwarzenegger denied clemency for Tookie, the redeemed former gang leader’s one last shot at life pulled out from under him. Early on Tuesday morning, December 13, after struggling for 35 minutes to find a vein, Tookie’s died of lethal injection.

I’ve received a myriad of responses to what I’ve written on my weblog and to what I've said on the radio (I did a 5:30 AM interview for New York City’s WBAI radio shortly after Tookie’s death). Most support my position that Tookie should not have been killed. A few didn’t... although they not only supported his death, they gloated about it (“boo hoo hoo for Tookie Williams,” one emailer wrote sarcastically).

In death penalty cases you see this kind of reversal all the time—the so-called “good” people sometimes exhibit the most callous, cold-blooded justifications (Governor Schwarzenegger’s statement denying Williams clemency was a rehash of the state’s case against Tookie as well as a right-wing diatribe against his politics).

It’s all hypocritical and rotten to the core of our being.

That same morning, I read how President Bush, responding to a question, declared that 30,000 Iraqi civilians and 2,140 US troops have been killed since the invasion of Iraq. Yes, the Crips have done massive lethal damage to communities all over the country, but how can this government claim it can stand above the mentality that drives most of these killings? Iraq didn’t even have involvement in the 9/11 massacre of the World Trade Tower (and the Bush Administration’s dance around this won’t change that basic truth).

I even read about a new book on the Skull & Bones "gang" that President Bush, his father, and his father before him all belonged to. In fact, Prescott Bush--Dubya's grandfather--reportedly dug out the skull of Apache resistance leader Geronimo that apparently is still missing and presumably in the possession of Skull & Bones.

We do a terrible disservice when we only designate poor people's (black, brown, and white) street organizations as "gangs." As you can see, there are many other types of gangs doing crazy things in this country, although they will never pay a price for this.

The reality is we as a people and a state squandered an opportunity. Faced with the dilemma of grieving crime victims and Tookie’s vast community support we failed to rise to the challenge of becoming compassionate, humane, imaginative, and to lay the groundwork for real healing. Instead we chose death. And the cycle continues.

Tookie’s struggle is not over. They’ve killed the person, but not the spirit. We will have to carry on. For peace, for justice, for real redemption (ours, not just Tookie’s), and real social change.

Yes, I agree with Tookie—let’s stop gang warfare. Only not just in the barrios and ghettos of the country. Let’s stop it from the Bush Administration, to Governor Schwarzenegger, to the local police. Let’s work to stop it all.

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