Redemption, American Style
As Christians everywhere gather for Easter this weekend to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Stanley "Tookie" Williams, a death row inmate and co-founder of the notorious Crips street gang, will sit in his cell. His agenda for the day, like every other day, will be atonement.
Anyone who tunes into Redemption, the F/X original film starring Jamie Foxx and based on Williams's life, renunciation of gang violence and his fervent dedication to deterring children away from gang life will more than likely take for granted the exercise of a privilege that Williams lost twenty-three years ago. This reality of prison life and, more specifically, life on death row, don't get much play in the hip hop music that has glorified, intentionally or not, the gangster lifestyle Williams helped create.
Prison is not supposed to be luxurious. Crime should not pay. There is little to debate here. But when the question arises of whether a person who has walked a path of evil for nearly half of his life can really change, the debate gets heated. It is the primary thesis of Redemption and the ongoing life story of Williams' battle against execution. The irony of his increasingly probable day of reckoning is his claim that he is not guilty of the four murders of which he has been sentenced. Now, of course, as the saying goes, everyone in jail is innocent. But Williams isn't claiming sainthood. He is simply saying that he did not commit these four crimes.
According to the January 11, 2004 Los Angeles Times article "Made-for-TV Atonement" by Bob Baker, in 1979 Williams was arrested for two robbery-murder incidents. He was accused of murdering Albert Owens, a 7-Eleven clerk in Whittier, California, as well as Los Angeles motel clerk Yen-I Yang, his wife and their adult daughter. "Lacking eyewitnesses," writes Baker, "prosecutors relied on the testimony of several people who said Williams told them about the crimes -- in one case, laughingly describing Owens' last breaths."
The sketchiness of Williams' conviction is not why F/X made this film. It is what Williams has done during his time on death row that is most compelling. Since 1996 he has penned nine books against gang violence. Titles such as Tookie Speaks Out Against Gang Violence, Gangs and Wanting to Belong and Life in Prison are the backbone of the curriculum of the Internet Project for Street Peace, which Williams conceived. He also has his own web site, Tookie's Corner. According to some people who work closely with children, Williams' work has stirred countless youths across the globe away from gang violence. His message has been so powerful that he has been nominated for the Nobel Prize seven times -- four times for the Peace prize and three times for the Literature prize.
None of this would be possible without journalist/children's advocate Barbara Cottman Becnel. She crossed paths with Williams while working on a story about gang violence for Essence that would also benefit her research for a book on the Crips that she was then writing. Like many others, Becnel, who now runs the Neighborhood House of North Richmond, a grassroots organization in a rough Bay area community, was skeptical of Williams, whom she has now known for eleven years. It took two and a half years to convince her of Williams' redemption. "I didn't know him. I didn't know if he was sincere," says Becnel. "I knew that my name would be associated or affiliated with [the books project] and that it would be my contacts because I was already a published author. I had three books that I had written that were published. I knew that it would be my name and my reputation that would be on the line if I went to a publisher and said that this guy is rehabilitated; he behaves well, doesn't get into trouble now and wants to write these books for kids. And then what if that were not true, and they published it and then we found out he was not and was doing bad things? Then my reputation would be ruined too."
Becnel's doubts were warranted. Williams, who came to San Quentin on death row in 1981, spent six years in solitary confinement for allegedly contributing to gang warfare while on the inside. In an exclusive interview with Africana, he says of his personal evolution, "First and foremost, I always tell people that I never experienced an epiphany or anything like that. I had to undergo years and years of soul-searching and edification to battle my inner demons." Those inner demons run deep. The Crips, which he created in 1971 with Raymond Washington, who was murdered in 1979, as protection against other gangs, not yet called The Bloods, has spawned violent spin-offs as far away as Africa. Ultimately one of the major turning points in Becnel's own acceptance of Williams' rehabilitation occurred when he agreed to deliver a taped anti-gang message to a meeting of current gang members that repudiated what he had started. After witnessing the power that Williams commanded and the risks he took Becnel's doubts subsided.
"The other people who came and spoke to those gangbangers that day said the same things but it didn't mean anything when they said them," she says passionately. "The youngsters were talking, not listening. Whereas when Stan said it, you could hear a pin drop in that room. Over 400 gangbangers just went totally silent and they didn't move. I watched them. They were sitting on the edges of their seats. So one -- seeing that his words were so powerful, because his voice was so credible; and then combined with him being willing to risk his own life and jeopardize his safety by publicly going against gangs. All of that helped me. That was certainly a pivotal moment for me in deciding that he was, in fact, sincere."
The proof, however, is not in the pudding for some. Veteran L.A. street gang investigator Wes McBride who now heads the California Gang Investigators Association writes off Williams' books and gang-renunciation campaign as a cynical con. McBride told the Los Angeles Times that Williams' motivation was simple: He doesn't want to get executed.
Mario Fehr, one of Williams' nominators for the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize, said at the time, "Everyone can change his life, no matter what mistakes someone has done." But it appears that many Americans, especially journalists, do not feel the same. "I have read quite a few newspapers where so-called journalists have said that 'Stanley 'Tookie' Williams is incapable of change and he's irredeemable,'" says Williams. "Now I've never read in any of my spiritual teachings where God or anyone else said that 'Everyone on the planet Earth is capable of redeeming themselves except for Stanley "Tookie" Williams.'"
Those attitudes anger Becnel. "There are people who are unwilling to believe in his redemption and they speak about it as if they met him, talked to him, have been able to assess him. How do you know? How can you say, 'He is not redeemed," she asks. "The very people who don't believe in Stan's redemption have a great deal of belief in their own."
Is some of the media's assertion against Williams' redemption racially tainted? "There have been articles where they showed a picture of me, it was real dark and the person, the victim who had been killed, he was, like, his picture was almost angelic . . . contrary-wise to the picture they had of me," shares Williams. "It was real dark, menacing-looking, ominous and the contrast was obvious . . . The object is to demonize me because, in that way, it facilitates matters for the courts and the public to accept my execution."
Williams' day of execution draws nearer. Any day now the Ninth Circuit Court will decide on his appeal. In 2002, a court ruled against him but did recommend that California reduce his sentence to life in prison. Should he lose that appeal and the Supreme Court decide against hearing his case, Williams could be executed within the coming six to eight months. Until then, he continues his work, which sometimes impacts those directly around him. "You can't save everybody. Not everybody wants to change," he cautions. "Those who are willing to change, of course, I have somewhat of a powerful influence over them in regards to a transition, a redemption and things like that. Then you have those who you don't. Let's face it, neither Mahatma Ghandi nor Malcolm X nor Martin Luther King could get everybody to adhere to their words."
Such realities make his transformation all the more remarkable for some. "It's not easy for an individual to change in here," he says frankly. "I mean, let's face it, there aren't any systems that are geared or designated to help individuals. You have to do it on your own. It's your choice . . . This place had nothing to do with my change. It was my choice and my choice alone."
So, ultimately, we, as a society that largely professes a belief in a higher being, have to ask ourselves: Why do so many of us find it unbelievable that even a notorious gangbanger can redeem his past transgressions? Not erase his sins, but truly atone for them.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a writer in Atlanta, Georgia.