In denying Stanley Tookie Williams clemency, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said the former gang leader had failed to prove his redemption. Part of his argument rested on the fact that Williams had dedicated one of his books to a group of political activists, mostly black, who have all served time in prison, as well as a general dedication to those “who have to endure the hellish oppression of living behind bars.” The governor was particularly incensed that Williams included George Jackson in the dedication list, saying that the late black militant’s inclusion “defies reason and is a significant indicator that Williams is not reformed.”
In 1958, at the age of 18, George Jackson was given the brutally vague sentence of one-year-to-life for his role in a $70 gas station robbery. While in prison, Jackson began to change his life: He read voraciously, was an outspoken political analyst and became a leading figure in the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s. The Black Panther Party made him a field marshal, and support committees sprang up nationally after he was charged in 1970, along with John Clutchette and Fleeta Drumgo, of murdering a prison guard. Jackson’s book of prison letters, Soledad Brother, became a bestseller, complete with an introduction by noted author Jean Genet. Jackson was killed August 21, 1971, during an alleged escape attempt from San Quentin.
By 2005 George Jackson is far from a household name, and yet Schwarzenegger found him appalling enough to merit silencing forever the 51-year-old Williams, who had endeavored in the last ten years of his incarceration to dissuade young people from joining gangs. On December 13, the state of California executed Williams by lethal injection for four 1979 murders. To the end, Williams maintained he was innocent.
Five days before Tookie Williams’s execution, another man by the name of Williams died in prison. Fifty-eight-year-old Richard Williams came from a different background but shared some similarities with the Crips co-founder. From a white working-class area outside Boston, Richard Williams had several brushes with the law and by the time he was 23, was serving time for robbery. It was 1971–George Jackson had been killed and one month later the rebellion at Attica Correctional Facility took place. Richard Williams began organizing for better conditions in the New Hampshire prison, where he was incarcerated.
He got out a few years later and threw himself into an array of antiracist organizing efforts: Among other things, he helped organize the historic 1979 Amandla Concert at Harvard Stadium, an antiapartheid benefit show featuring Bob Marley. On November 4, 1984–his thirty-seventh birthday–Richard was arrested in Ohio with four others. All were accused of membership in the United Freedom Front (UFF), a group of white activists who bombed a select collection of government or corporate buildings in the early 1980s, mostly in and around New York City–including General Electric, IBM, Union Carbide, Army and Navy offices–to protest US financial and political support for the apartheid regime and death squads in Central America. No one was injured in the blasts.
Richard faced a series of trials with seven others–two of whom, Jaan Laaman and Tom Manning, remain in prison. In 1986 he was sentenced to forty-five years for his role in five bombings and, with Manning, given a life sentence in 1991 for the death of a New Jersey state trooper, killed during a 1981 shootout. With two of his comrades, Williams was tried of seditious conspiracy in 1989, a rarely used law passed in 1918 that bars “two or more persons…to overthrow or put down or destroy by force the Government of the United States.” The jury failed to convict the trio, and despite the millions of dollars it had spent on the case, the government did not pursue the case after the judge declared a mistrial. Still, Williams already had a lengthy sentence, and he remained in prison.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, however, Richard was inexplicably placed in isolation for fifteen months at Lompoc prison in California. According to Diane Fujino, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara who monitored his case, Richard’s health soon deteriorated: He had a heart attack, was treated for cancer and suffered assorted maladies without adequate medical care, including hepatitis C, which caused liver failure and ultimately led to his death. He was transferred to the Federal Medical Center in Butner, North Carolina, last month; he died there on the morning of December 8. Neither his post-9/11 isolation nor his death captured headlines.
So in less than one week, two prisoners have died–flawed men, each of whom had tried in some fashion to promote social justice. One was executed openly and deliberately, because his antiviolence work with young people was somehow nullified in part by dedicating a book to black radicals. The other was killed slowly and quietly, because he fought quite literally against the pernicious acts of his own government on behalf of the oppressed people of South Africa and Central America.
Although the two men had different life experiences, emerged from different communities and never met, their lives–and deaths–intersect. The government feared both men, not as individuals but for what they represented: Stanley Tookie Williams, an ex-gang member who commemorated the lessons of Black Power into antiviolence messages for youth, and Richard Williams, a committed anti-imperialist who never divorced himself from movements opposing war and racism. Whether they entered prison with a political consciousness or developed it on the inside, Richard Williams and Stanley Williams both were inspired by a unique legacy of radical social justice.
It is not just tough-on-crime and tough-on-terror policies that led Stanley Williams to be executed and Richard Williams to be sent to solitary confinement for more than a year. It is that both men were inspired by anti-establishment heroes–from George Jackson to Nelson Mandela, from struggling black urban youth in America to Third World peasants and beyond. Both men embraced the difficult task of remembering. Memory can be burdensome, even uncomfortable, because to remember requires a conscious choice to pay attention to human tragedy. To remember is to choose sides.
The memories Stanley Tookie Williams and Richard Williams invoked were, it would seem, more than the government wanted to deal with. But the issues their lives and deaths raise–the specter of Black Power, anti-imperialism, personal redemption and political commitment–will not be buried with them.