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Sneering at Redemption


In the end, we can only assume the decision wasn’t so “agonizing” after all. Last night Stan Tookie Williams was legally lynched by the state of California, at the behest of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger who denied Williams’ appeal for clemency. The Governor deemed that a man who had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times and brokered gang truces from Newark to South Central was not worthy to walk and breathe among us. Stan’s case for clemency was so compelling it was articulated by people from Desmond Tutu to Snoop Dogg, and yet, watching Schwarzenegger in action has been to observe the nexus of cold-hearted political calculation and cowardice.

Williams’ Attorney John Harris challenged the governor to meet with Tookie, saying to the San Francisco Chronicle, “It’s impossible to me to believe that if you had met Stanley Williams and spent time with him, that you would not believe in his personal redemption.” But that would require a courage the Governor has never demonstrated. Unlike the movie tough guy always ready to look his victims in the eye — a quip at the ready — before shooting, stabbing, or beheading them, Arnold made his decision at safe remove, hanging out this weekend at his son’s soccer game, his face a waxy mask of carefree detachment, while Tookie’s supporters organized, marched, chanted and prayed themselves hoarse.

When it finally came time for Arnold to announce his personal judgment that Stan Williams should die, tragedy became farce. The Governor’s office released an ugly scandalous diatribe that qualifies as nothing less than hate-speech.

As he – or his script doctor – wrote, “The dedication of Williams’ book Life in Prison casts significant doubt on his personal redemption. This book was published in 1998 several years after Williams’ redemptive experience. Specifically the book is dedicated to Nelson Mandela, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt, Ramona Africa, John Africa, Leonard Peltier, George Jackson, Mumia Abu Jamal, and the countless other men, women, and youths, who have to endure the hellish oppression of living behind bars. The mix of individuals on this list is curious. Most have violent pasts and some have been convicted of committing heinous murders including the killing of law enforcement. But the inclusion of George Jackson on this list defies reason and is a significant indicator that Williams is not reformed and that he still sees violence and lawlessness as a legitimate means to address societal problems.”

For Tookie, all of these folks, from Mandela, to Malcolm, to Assata, are one and the same: people of color who strove for liberation in the darkest of circumstances. For Schwarzenegger, the whole lot is the same as well: people who are his political enemies because they refused to be broken. Notice the singling out of George Jackson, author of Soledad Brother, a book for which there is no evidence Schwarzenegger has so much as skimmed. Jackson was someone who despite being framed for his political activism never stopped organizing. That is the person Schwarzenegger wants to kill by executing Tookie.

Later, Arnold passes judgment on Williams’ very redemption, writing, “Is Williams’ redemption complete and sincere, or is it just a hollow promise? . . . Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings there can be no redemption.” In other words, because Williams has consistently defended his own innocence, he should die. But as Tookie once said, “Many people expect me to apologize for crimes I didn’t commit–just to save my life. Of course I want to live, but not by having to lie.”

While not surprising Arnold did not have the courage to face Tookie and spew this nonsense to his face, it certainly would have been incredible theatre. In fact, it would have been something of a reunion. In the late 1970s, Arnold and Tookie, about fifty life times ago, admired each other’s biceps on Muscle Beach in Venice, California. “Your arms are like thighs!” Arnold grinned. Amazing the difference thirty years makes. In that time, Arnold rode his muscles and Teutonic good looks from Hollywood stardom to the Governor’s mansion. Yes, he had a spotty past including many allegations of sexual assault and drug abuse. But he passed that off as youthful indiscretion, claimed that he had changed, and a pliant media were happy to believe that Arnold was worthy of forgiveness and redemption.

Tookie, like Arnold, also fashioned an unlikely political career. But his began not with Hollywood riches but as the target of the tough-on-crime laws of the Clinton-Bush years which saw the nation’s prison population balloon from more than one to two million. He was convicted of murder in a manner that would make Strom Thurmond proud, called a “Bengal tiger” by a prosecutor who engineered an all-white jury to make sure the “Crip founder” found San Quentin. While Arnold cozied up to the Bush and Kennedy clans, Tookie read dictionaries in solitary, wrote letters to gang kids in LA, and became that most dangerous of political beings: a Black leader in racist America.

In one of his final interviews he said, “So, as long as I have breath, I will continue to do what I can to proliferate a positive message throughout this country and abroad to youths everywhere, of all colors or gender and geographical area, and I will continue to do what I can to help. I want to be a part of the, you know, the solution.”

Now another tragedy, along with the murders of Albert Owens, Yen-I Yang, Tsai-Shai Chen Yang, and Yu-Chin Yang Lin, has taken place because Stan Tookie has been put to death. But the tragedy is not theirs to bear alone.

Tonight children are being born to mothers without health insurance, in neighborhoods politicians don”t enter without SWAT teams, news cameras, and latex gloves. The political class has already branded these kids as human waste. But many of them could have found another path, because Stanley Tookie Williams would have been there to intervene in their lives and show another way.

Now it’s up to those of us who stood with Tookie to keep on pushing. This is Schwarzenegger’s “mission accomplished” moment for his right wing, pro-death base. But his “mission” will fail. He is part of a 21st century set of rulers who have repeatedly shown, whether in Baghdad or New Orleans, that they are unfit to rule. Their brutality will be met with resistance in the tradition of Nelson Mandela, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Leonard Peltier, George Jackson… and Stanley Tookie Williams.

[Dave Zirin is the author of "'What's My Name Fool?': Sports and Resistance in the United States" (Haymarket Books). He is a regular writer for the Nation and a columnist for Slam Magazine. You can reach him by emailing dave@edgeofsports.com and you can get his column every week by sending a blank email to edgeofsports-subscribe@zirin.com]

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