“Years ago, I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth…. While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” —Eugene V. Debs
These words of the fabled social activist also define the life of NFL hall of famer and actor Jim Brown. He has mediated truces between the toughest gangs in Los Angeles and fought racism from South Central to Soweto. But today he is involved in a different kind of fight: the race to save Stanley Tookie Williams, who now awaits execution on California’s death row. Williams is due to be executed December 13, and Brown has linked arms with a motley crew of activists from Archbishop Desmond Tutu to hip-hop artist Snoop Dogg demanding that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger spare his life. Schwarzenegger, who has set a clemency hearing for December 8, recently told reporters he is “dreading” the decision he is about to make.
The clemency hearing comes at a critical time. On December 2, North Carolina death row inmate Kenneth Lee Boyd became the 1,000th person to be executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Boyd’s execution came days after Virginia Gov. Mike Warner granted clemency to Robin Lovitts, who was originally slated for that spot. After the California Supreme Court decided this week to refuse to re-open the Williams case, the race is on to persuade Schwarzenegger to follow Warner’s lead.
It’s not surprising Williams could inspire such a fierce defense. In 1971 he co-founded the infamous street gang the Crips. In 1981 he was convicted of the 1979 murders of Albert Owens, Thsai-Shai Chen Yang, Yen-I Yang and Yee Chen Lin during two separate robberies. Williams, who continues to maintain his innocence, was convicted in a fashion that would make Bull Connor proud. During a questionable trial, which unfolded against a backdrop of anti-gang hysteria, the prosecutor likened him to “a Bengal tiger” and his South Central home a jungle. He was found guilty by an all-white jury after all prospective black jurors were removed from the pool. In the sentencing phase of his trial, Williams appeared in shackles–a practice that the US Supreme Court has since ruled unconstitutional. Williams went global when Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx portrayed him in the made-for-TV movie Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story.
But the unexpected occurred on the way to death row. From the confines of his six-by-ten-foot cell, Williams decided to make a difference. He has spent the past twenty years intervening in gang disputes and co-writing with Barbara Becnel a children’s book series, Tookie Speaks Out Against Gang Violence. “Don’t join a gang,” he writes. “You won’t find what you’re looking for. All you will find is trouble, pain and sadness. I know. I did.”
In 2004 Williams helped broker peace agreements between Bloods and Crips in California and in New Jersey, in what had been one of the deadliest and infamous gang wars in the country. More than 70,000 people have sent e-mails to the SaveTookie.org website to thank the former gang leader for providing the inspiration and motivation to walk a straighter path. His supporters have nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, and one of his books has won national honors. The San Francisco Chronicle published an editorial calling on Schwarzenegger to grant clemency.
As Todd Chretien of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty said, “There is no reason on earth to kill him and every reason to keep him alive.”
Jim Brown, who founded the organization Amer-I-Can in 1988 to get gangbangers off the express train to San Quentin, intimately knows the value of Williams’s work. “To get to real change, you have to have systems in place,” he said in an article published in the Nation of Islam’s newspaper, The Final Call, which has also taken up Williams’s cause. “Then, you put a powerful voice with that system and you get the result. We have worked for years to put a system in place and have now joined forces with the powerful voice of Stanley Williams. Tookie is brilliant and has a fantastic spirit.”
But it’s this very spirit that the forces of death and reaction in California want to extinguish. This rabid sector of the population represents the last vestige of support for Schwarzenegger, whose poll numbers are Cheney-esque. Just as the politics of racism haunt every aspect of Williams’s case, they also threaten to define Schwarzenegger’s final decision.
And this is exactly the kind of fight Jim Brown craves. “If you think because I’m famous or tough or outspoken that I am not affected by racism, then you don’t understand. I am affected by it any time I see a black person who is not receiving an even shake,” Brown wrote in his book, Out of Bounds. “I don’t have to go hungry to feel for the man with an empty belly…. I will fight for my right to be free. I will die for that right. People say, ‘Yes the white man has his foot up your ass. Be patient. He must adjust to not having his foot up your ass. Give him another two hundred years. Let him ease it out.’ I say no. Take it out. Now.”
This approach has earned Brown his share of enemies. “In the eyes of the police I am more than just famous. I’m big, black and arrogant,” Brown wrote. “There are cops in Los Angeles who would love to be the guy who sent me to San Quentin for 49,000 years.”
But Brown isn’t in San Quentin. He is on the outside, ready to rumble for the sake of justice, redemption and the children who will be hurt because Williams was not there to propose an alternative to gang life. As Jim Brown told conservative talk show host John Ziegler on KFI radio in Los Angeles last week, “When someone like Tookie says, ‘This is not the way to do it. I made a mistake in my life,’ yes, literally, lives are saved.”