“As a member of the black male species living in the ghetto microcosm, circumstances dictated that I be either prey or predator. It didn’t require deep reflection to determine which of the two I preferred.” – Stanley “Tookie” Williams
Eight years studying psychology left me with one firm belief about human behavior. Any behavior can be understood if you zoom out far enough or go back long enough.
As a teen I felt as if I was responsible for my own failings and my own successes. I did well in my classes but I was not a whip smart big fish in a little pond. I was in hard classes with some very intelligent peers. I struggled, I took solid notes, I wrote and rewrote papers. I spent more time on homework than most of my peers and I took assignments seriously. When I moved on to college I bit into my mediocre state school education with all the tooth I could muster. I stopped smoking weed and only drank when I was on break from school. I think all my trying added to the facade that success and trajectory were self-determined. But the more I learned about the world, the more I saw that our individual successes and failures can only be understood through an understanding of culture and environment.
Stanley “Tookie” Williams’ biography is the epitome of rough starts. Born to a teen mother in Louisiana, his father abandoned the family when Williams was only one. His mother and he moved to Los Angeles when Williams was six, and he became a latchkey kid in one of the roughest parts of the city. He grew up watching drug deals, drinking, betting, dog fights. Within a few years the men were paying him to run errands and by age twelve he was carrying a switchblade.
His is one of those complicated stories where the foundation, the roots, cannot overshadow or somehow justify his actions. He and his partner Raymond Washington were responsible for the creation of the Crips.
Except, of course, can any person be responsible for the creation of a network of street gangs that grew to include 30,000 people? Can anyone be responsible for creating a social opening for such an organization to form? When soil is rich and sunshine is present, something will grow. The position the Crips filled was created out of the economic struggle of black neighborhoods in Los Angeles after World War II. Williams co-founded the Crips in a vacuum left when several other earlier gangs (the Slausons, the Gladiators, the Del Vikings) disbanded in the mid-1960s as members migrated to the Black Power Movement. Williams and Washington stepped into a space left open by the dissolution of other gangs and gathered their 17 year old peers.
Williams was an intelligent and competent leader. He managed to simultaneously run and build the Crips while working as a youth counselor and studying sociology at Compton College. Still, he was ultimately convicted of a string of homicides at a gas station and a small family owned motel.
The motel gets me. My family owns a motel. My parents and two of my siblings have, at one time or another, lived on the property. When I read the details of Williams’ crime, the way he walked in the lobby and kicked in the office door and shot an elderly Taiwanese immigrant couple and their adult daughter, just to steal some cash from the register, I have the visuals to go with it. I know the door he would have had to kick in. I know the register he would have had to open. I know the office, the blue gray carpet and the pale bruised paneling, where the shooting would have occurred.
And yet, Williams was there because his father left when he was one. He was there because his mom and he got on a Greyhound bus and arrived in Los Angeles when he was six. He was there because there was no safe space for a young black latchkey kid to go while his mother worked three jobs. He was there because the Black Power Movement had managed to capture the attention of the older black men in his community, but not the hearts of the 17 year olds he had organized a decade before. When every story is a set of gears, cogs intermingled, where does personal responsibility or the possibility of self-control stop and start?
Williams ultimately turned his back on gang life, although that change occurred after he was in prison. He wrote books encouraging youth to avoid the gang life, deescalate gang violence, and redirect energy towards social justice issues. His voice was so powerful that he was nominated four separate times for a Nobel Peace Prize, although he was never awarded the honor. Before Williams’ execution in 2005, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger outlined the reasons he would not give Williams clemency. Some of the reasons are understandable. One reason Schwarzenegger gave, however, was the dedication for Williams’ book Life in Prison.
“Specifically, the book is dedicated to “Nelson Mandela, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt, Ramona Africa, John Africa, Leonard Peltier, Dhoruba Al-Mujahid, 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.”
In the same writing Governor Schwarzenegger goes on to lament the impact of the Crips on the experience of black communities. “The senseless killing that has ruined many families, particularly in African-American communities, in the name of the Crips and gang warfare is a tragedy of our modern culture.”
I am not advocating that Stanley Williams should have been released. He had a long and deadly history of violence. You can understand why someone is behaving a certain way and still not want them to be out on the streets with a shotgun. However, to use Williams’ support of the Black Power Movement, and to bring up the plight of the black community, as reasons that he should be executed, is so shortsighted. It ignores the reason the gangs were there in the first place. It ignores the long history of black oppression and white supremacy in this country. Hell, it ignores why the Crips were able to take root in the first place. Zoom out far enough, and Williams doesn’t seem to be the problem.
Stanley “Tookie” Williams, Dec. 29th, 1953 – Dec. 13th, 2005