Why a "Tookie" Williams

In a candid, and revealing moment, Stanley "Tookie" Williams told a visitor at San Quentin prison that he helped found the notorious Crips street gang because he wanted to smash everyone, make a rep, get respect and dignity, and that he wanted his name to be known everywhere. He got his wish in more ways than he ever dreamed of. The demons that drove Williams in his reckless push for identity and prominence also drove him to become the nation's best known condemned prisoner. He faces execution December 13 for multiple murders.

William's revelatory glimpse into his thug past tells much about the anger, alienation, and desperation that have turned legions of young black men into social pariahs, and that propel them to wreak murder and mayhem in mostly poor, black communities. But today's Tookies didn't crop up from nowhere.

The transformation in the early 1970s of the old-line civil rights groups into business, and professional friendly organizations, and black middle-class flight from the inner city neighborhoods, left the black poor, especially young black males, socially fragmented, politically rudderless, and economically destitute. Lacking visible role models of success and achievement, and competitive technical skills and professional training to compete in a rapidly shifting economy, they were shoved even further to the outer margins of American society.

Yet, the Tookies instinctively know that the material goodies suspended before them in movies, on TV and in advertisements are the primary measures of an individual's worth in a consumer-obsessed culture. They desperately want them but they know that in many cases they can't attain them, at least through legal means. This increases their frustration and anger. The American dream may be a dream deferred, but it's still a dream that many spend their lives in futile pursuit of.

That alone doesn't explain the inner rage that consumes many poor young black males.  They are in a pathetic hunt to live up to the perverse and distorted image of manhood that American society reserves for white men, and denies black males.

Far too many young black males have become especially adept at acting out their frustrations at society's denial of their "manhood" by adopting an exaggerated "tough guy" role. They swagger, boast, curse, fight and commit violent self-destructive acts. Their tattoos, signs, code speak language, dress, gaudy colors, graffiti tagged walls, drug dealing and gunplay are a ritual part of the identity and power quest that once pushed Tookie to the streets.

The accessibility of drugs, and guns, and the influence of violent-laced rap songs also reinforced the deep feeling among many youth that life is cheap, expendable and easy to take. In far too many cases, police and city officials throw up their hands in despair, or downplay the crime and violence they commit as long as their victims are other blacks.  The exception is when there's a loud and pained outcry from residents over an especially heinous and outrageous killing.

The body count of unsolved homicides in predominantly black neighborhoods in Tookie's old South Los Angeles haunts numbers in the hundreds. The pattern is similar in other cities.  Police say it's because the witnesses and victim 's relatives and friends won't cooperate, but often they do and arrests still aren't made, and when they are, the punishment appears less severe than the punishment meted out to blacks if the victims were white or non-blacks. The four victims Williams' is convicted of killing were white and Asian. The sense among young black males that their lives are severely marginalized fosters disrespect for the law and implants the troubling notion that they have an open license to pillage and plunder their community.

Williams was long gone from the scene by the time the Crips devolved and morphed into the hundreds of factions nationally, and internationally, that have since become major players in the gun and drug plague. The memory of the thug life that Tookie helped spawn, as much as the public demand by prison officials, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, and police officials, that Tookie pay with his life for the murders he was convicted of, is why Tookie is still roundly condemned by many.

But Tookie feels deeply responsible for the Frankenstein monster that he helped create, and has profusely and openly apologized to the families of the victims of gang violence in letters and taped messages. His contrition is not too little too late, but it is still slight consolation to the victims that his violent quest for identity and manhood claimed.

The Tookie that thousands are fighting to keep from a December 13 date with the executioner is not the same Tookie that decades ago wanted to smash everyone. Yet there are still thousands like him that do. A very much alive Tookie who understands their anger and alienation could help lesson their numbers.


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