Tookie’s Final Hour

"I've had it." Sepideh Khosrowjah, a 45 year-old economist, couldn't sit at home in El Cerrito. She's outraged. "This country is so uncivilized: exporting democracy, practicing barbarism."

She was drawn to the East Gate of San Quentin prison to protest the December 13 execution of Stanley "Tookie" Williams, the notorious gang leader and death row inmate charged with murder, who became internationally celebrated peace advocate, children's book author, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee.

It is a just few minutes past 10 p.m. Williams is scheduled to die in less than two hours and Khosrowjah says, "I'm still hoping," and shuts her wide brown eyes.

Many vigil attendees faced a long walk from far-off parking spots to San Quentin prison. They converged on the street that leads to the East Gate, a quaint, tree-lined two-laner with handsome homes that look out onto the bay. There is an eerie sense of serenity on that street and a distinct California smell: the scent of Eucalyptus trees.

If that wasn't surreal enough, tonight, the street resembles a movie set. There are media wagons and bright lights in every driveway and along the sidewalk. It is 48 degrees outside, but much warmer under the lights and in the crowd. One police officer I asked estimated that the crowd numbered 1,000, but other reports double that number.

The crowd is diverse, and charged but somber. There are people meditating, a handful of hecklers, groups singing hymns, and many photographers, professional and not. There is a saxophonist and a man passing out bagels and tangerines. Joan Baez, Angela Davis, and other well-known opponents are said to have been on stage.

Most of them are here because they oppose the death penalty. Many of them believe that Williams is worth more to society alive than dead.

Many protesters were hoping for last-minute clemency.

Abdul-Karim Nasrullahi is smoking a cigarette with his back to about two dozen police officers. When I ask Nasrullahi, who has traveled up from Fresno, if he has ever supported the death penalty, he tells me a story about an electric wheelchair. The wheelchair, much fancier than the one he has now, was stolen from him. "But I don't want the guy to go to jail. I want him to be rehabilitated."

Nasrullahi's been to prison six times, and he has spent a total of 22 years behind bars. He claims he knows people who knew Williams "when he was on the street." He says he has friends who have been executed. When asked how he spends his days now, Nasrullahi says, "Trying to stop the death penalty." He's been to several execution vigils and he participates in advocacy organizations.

Nasrullahi looks around at the crowd. "I wish all these people here would have turned out in Sacramento. People come out when someone's going to die. Some people just want to say, I was there."

He takes a last drag on his cigarette and tosses it behind him. It lands on the shoe of a fellow protester. Nasrullahi nods an apology, a young woman places a "Save Tookie" sign in his lap, and he rolls off into the crowd.

Amanda Lloyd, 26, and Nia Stainbrook, 30, both came to the vigil alone. They met walking along Sir Frances Drake Blvd. Lloyd speaks slowly and clearly, "I'm here to protest the murder of Stanley Tookie Williams." Lloyd, who is a student and a house cleaner, was at home listening to a radio program about Williams. She was trying to understand what it would be like to know you are going to die. Spontaneously, she got in her car and drove to San Quentin.

Stainbrook has a different story; her arrival at San Quentin was a long time in coming. When she was 15, she wanted to protest an upcoming execution. Her father wouldn't let her. "Turns out people don't really change," she says. "I'm here tonight."

It is 11 p.m. and the crowd surges. A steady stream of people inch toward the prison gate and the stage, which are now impossible to reach.

Abdi Jibril, a 38 year-old baker and musician from Oakland, is at San Quentin to witness the "society that kills someone for the supposed murder of someone else."

"I'm here to feel what it is like to be a person in America at this time," he says.

Over 1000 protesters came out to San Quentin.

Robert Garcia, a 24 year-old union representative, and Miguel Suarez, a 26 year-old loan officer, drove to San Quentin from Santa Rosa after work. It is past 11 p.m., and they are standing to the side of the crowd. Garcia grew up in East Los Angeles, close to South Central, where Williams lived. He is sure that Williams is rehabilitated. And he believes there are youth who need him. "The best way to organize folks is to have a leader."

Suarez adds, "If they kill Tookie people will forget about him, and they won't be able to learn from his mistakes."

It is 11:54 p.m., and there is still hope in the crowd. A man near me says to the woman next to him. "Keep my phone here. If the governor issues a stay, I want to hear it."

The woman says: "You'll hear the cheers."

A few minutes later a woman behind me says, "It is midnight." And then shortly after she says, "It is 12:02."

What sounds like a cheer is heard from the front of the crowd. A young man behind me says, "Somebody is cheering. That means something. That means something."

He's hopeful too.

We're in the midnight hour, and the vigil goers are still and almost silent. A woman softly plays the drums, a helicopter circles, and the crowd shuffles quietly. There are hundreds of people between where I stand and the gate and the guards and the death chamber where Williams is executed at 12:35 p.m. A small group of people inside and many more outside witnessed.

California is scheduled to execute three more people in the next two months.

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