“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.”