12/14/2005 04:58 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Tookie, RIP (Revolution In Progress)

Scattering thoughts, as in scattering ashes...

Tookie Williams went to his death with all the dignity and serenity that is possible in an execution process that is meant to terrify and degrade. There are many possible reasons for his inner strength. To deny his tormenters any satisfaction could be one. But I think he believed that if he had to die, it was a meaningful martyrdom that sent a lasting message to the world. His legend and his life lessons will continue to be studied, debated, embraced. His courage will be remembered. History may well absolve him.

Mine is a minority view today perhaps, because many people feel conflicted by the horrible things they hear about Tookie's past, by what he himself called the "Crips baggage" for which he was executed. Here are my answers to a few key questions. A fuller account will be possible when a publisher somewhere commissions a serious writer to investigate the whole story.

1. Was he guilty of the four heinous murders?

Tookie went to his death proclaiming his innocence in the 1979 murders. I have no independent way of knowing for certain what occurred 26 years ago, but reading the court records reveals overwhelming evidence that he was railroaded in his trial. He was shackled and surrounded by deputies in the courtroom. His lawyer's incompetence was manifest, for example, in failing to give a closing argument. The prosecutor had been reversed twice by the California Supreme Court for racist behavior. In Tookie's case, the same prosecutor got away with cleansing the jury pool of its three blacks, and even described Tookie as an animal [a Bengal tiger] to the all-white jury. There was no physical evidence linking him personally to the murders. The testimony against him was given by five informants who were described by the US Ninth Circuit as having "less than clean backgrounds and incentives to lie in order to obtain leniency from the state in either charging or sentencing." That is an understatement. Two of the witnesses were "admitted felons, thieves and con-artists" who received an undisclosed deal which they lied about on the stand. A another subsequently said he was beaten and coerced into testifying. Another was a jail-house informant facing capital charges who tried to elicit incriminating statements from Tookie. Perhaps the most incredible informant was Andrew Coward, who admitted being the co-perpetrator of the 7-11 homicide with Tookie. The prosecution never dislosed property that the Coward was a Canadian citizen facing deportation, and had three prior armed robbery or weapons violations. One of his priors was in 1974 outside the very motel where the Yang family murders occurred in 1979. He had been released from jail less than three weeks before the 7-11 murders. After receiving immunity for fingering Tookie Williams, the Coward committed five more crimes on the streets of Los Angeles without ever being returned to prison. After he committed another murder/robbery in Canada, he finally was imprisoned in Ottawa, where he sits today. He knows what really happened.

2. If Tookie was railroaded, why did so many courts uphold the legality of his trial?

Actually, the US Ninth Circuit recommended Tookie as a worthy candidate for clemency. Nine of its 24 sitting members voted against the majority decision on September 10, 2002. Just two weeks ago, two members of the California Supreme Court out of six, including the chief justice, voted to delay the execution pending a new hearing. In other words, significant minority blocs in the judiciary voted against the execution. Courts are politically-appointed and divided over ideology and values whether we admit it or not. The courts today, from the US Supreme Court down, are strongly influenced by the belief in punitive law-and-order. Even the "liberal" Ninth Circuit has become more cautious and conservative in the face of right-wing Republican attempts to dismember and restructure it. Finally, the courts are not immune from a general societal prejudice against gang members, especially the founder of the Crips, that results in a tolerance for extra-judicial surveillance and repression [using informants, planting evidence, CRASH units, STEP acts, secret data bases, injunctions that prevent indigent defendants from having lawyers, etc]. If most liberals harbor these biases or at least tolerate illegal Giuliani-style repression of street gangs [and remember, those tactics were indeed found illegal], it can be assumed that the same pervasive prejudice prevails at the highest judicial levels. Gang members are the new scapegoats.

3. So what's your theory of what happened?

Any serious investigation would have to retrace the whole story, examining documents not disclosed to the defense, interviewing Coward in Ottawa, older Crips, and many others, to critically analyse the prosecution theory of the case.

The other model is Tookie's assertion of being railroaded. The evidence for this, made clear in the Governor's scripted denial of clemency, is that the roots of this case lie in the California prison rebellions of the late Sixties and early Seventies, when many inmates rebelled, demanded a union, and in some cases became dedicated revolutionaries. The official fear was that the incarcerated Crips would become a revolutionary army inside the penal institutions. After the killing of three guards and attacks on many others in the early Seventies, elements of law enforcement, prosecutors, and prison guards set out to eliminate those they identified as the gang or revolutionary leadership. When the opportunity came to neutralize Tookie, they seized it, knowing that public prejudice would trump the lack of evidence.
For over two decades, the campaign to eliminate Tookie Williams, the "Godfather of the Crips", has never ceased. Overzealous prosecutors wanted a trophy kill. Once-liberal Attorney General Bill Lockyer championed the execution. The LA District Attorney, who has never brought criminal charges against a single LAPD officer in 440 cases of police shootings since 2001, was programmed to spin and spin again the claim that the evidence against was "overwhleming". The final stages were planned in detail. An ardent pro-death penalty advocate became the Governor's Legal Affairs Secretary, her more reasonable predecessor rewarded with a judicial appointment. The Governor's statement certainly was drafted in spirit, and perhaps in letter, by prosecutors dedicated to avenging murders of guards that happened decades ago. The actor-Governor pretended to "dread" his decision, while his legal affairs secretary wrote that "clemency decisions are never easy" and that her boss would give "serious considertion and careful deliberation" to the matter. But the final Schwarzenegger statement, which even dismissed Tookie Wiliams' gang peace work, could have been written ten years ago.

This second model is only that, a scenario to be seriously examined so that the verdict of history can be proper. It is possible that parts of both scenarios are true, and that the final conclusion will be suprising. But there should be a real investigation of the long campaign to eliminate Tookie Williams.

4. Why wouldn't he "debrief"? Why did he dedicate his children's book to revolutionaries who had been incarcerated?

Law enforcement insists that all gang-affiliated inmates debrief, or "snitch", as a condition of more lenient treatment, a policy of forced confessions. Tookie Williams would not be broken.

As the Governor's statement emphasized, Tookie's book - Life In Prison - was dedicated to a range of figures from Malcolm X to Nelson Mandela, to Angela Davis and George Jackson. The governor fails to mention that the 80 page book itself is filled with nothing but kindly and constructive advice to kids not to follow Tookie's path. As for the introduction, it is no crime to write in honor of people of color who have risen up against their chains, or in honor of John Brown for that matter. But here we perhaps are near the heart of the matter. Tookie Williams began as a megalomaniac thug, in his own words to me, who was caught up in PCP-driven mindless violence against the world. That was three decades ago. His study and introspection since that time led him to believe that he was what he called "an anachronism", a warrior who was meant to live in another time and place. He evolved into what law enforcement - and perhaps society as a whole - fears the most, from a crazed gang-banger to a political revolutionary in a cage. This didn't mean he advocated or planned violence, only that he reclaimed a right to the history of his people. In this, he was politically incorrect.

The greatest repression of the Sixties and Seventies, little understood except by those who experienced it, was the effort of law enforcement and the FBI to penetrate, divide and dismantle the many groups that were trying to channel street gangs into more political directions. They could handle street gangs, but not a serious political challenge to the institutional racism that was producing the underclass.

Tookie's identification with revolutionary heroes didn't mean that he himself was preaching violence to anyone, least of all children. His books and website are the evidence. But in recovering black history, in learning about South Africa, he learned the story of many who rose from the holes of gulags to resist oppression. Leaving the gang life was not enough for those who pursued him. They demanded that he submit, that he admit guilt instead of proclaiming innocence, that he help snitch on others as those five had snitched on him, and these things he could not do. He was only willing to express profound remorse for having founded the Crips, a very courageous admission in itself, and a profound desire to redeem himself by helping kids grow up in a better world, learning African history and revolutionary history. That wasn't enough for his executioners, but it is a dream worth preserving for future generations. #