Friday, October 3, 2008

Tookie Williams: A martyr for the struggle

Workers World book review

By Larry Hales

Published Oct 2, 2008 9:02 PM

“My rage was nourished by the hate I saw and felt from mainstream society and white people, a hate based on my black skin and my historical place at the nadir of America’s social caste. I was filled with hate for injustice. Yet my reaction to the hate was violence directed only toward blacks.”

Stanley Tookie Williams’ “Blue Rage, Black Redemption” is a story of the seething rage within him and the heroic task he undertakes to understand that rage and place it in a historical context.

He begins this process while on death row, where his life has been given an end date. And though he conveys that he knows the system has every intention to fulfill the barbaric sentence, while deepening his political understanding and self-actualization he gives the impression of always looking forward, beyond the conditions of prison, the hole and the death sentence hanging over him.

By writing his memoirs, he intends for his life to be an example, a warning sign for other oppressed youth to not diverge down the same path that he took.

In the introduction, Tookie says: “The title of this book represents two extreme phases of my life. ‘Blue Rage’ is a chronicle of my passage down a spiraling path of Crip rage in South Central Los Angeles. ‘Black Redemption’ depicts the stages of my redemptive awakening during my more than 23 years of imprisonment on California’s death row. These memoirs of my evolution will, I hope, connect the reader to a deeper awareness of a social epidemic that is the unending nightmare of racial minorities in America and abroad as well.

“Throughout my life I was hoodwinked by South Central’s terminal conditions. ... From the beginning I was spoon-fed negative stereotypes that covertly positioned black people as genetic criminals—inferior, illiterate, shiftless, promiscuous. ... Having bought into the myth, I was shackled to the lowest socioeconomic rung where underprivileged citizens compete ruthlessly for morsels of the America pie—a pie theoretically served proportionately to all, based on their ambition, intelligence, and perseverance.”

Tookie begins the book at his birth on December 29, 1953, at New Orleans Charity Hospital, recounted for him by his mother, with the words, “I entered the world kicking and screaming in a caesarean ritual of blood and scalpels.” He relates how his mother endured the ordeal without anesthetics, which were denied to her because she was Black, and that to try and dull the pain in her mind she sang the Christmas carol, “Silent Night,” over and over again.

His birth foreshadowed his life and death, because, though lethal injection is touted as being quick and painless, because of a botched procedure during his execution Tookie languished, struggling for life, for 30 minutes. In the epilogue, Barbara Becnel, Tookie’s friend, advocate and co-author, who witnessed the horrifying ordeal, describes: “The midsection of Stan’s body did not stay still. It began to contort, caving in to the point of distortion—his stomach appeared to have been sucked dry of all internal organs, as it sunk so low it nearly touched his spine. And his convulsing continued for a while. At the sight of Stan’s monumental struggle to die, I thought that I heard an audible and collective gasp fill the room.”

But the recollection of the difficult conditions of his birth also portend his life, because it points to the toll racism takes on the Black soul—the real effects it has on everyday life, the damage it does to the Black psyche and the ramifications of a colonized mind.

In “Black Skin, White Masks,” Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born Black revolutionary theorist, wrote: “A drama is played out every day in the colonized countries. How can we explain, for example, that a black guy who has passed his baccalaureate and arrives at the Sorbonne to study for his degree in philosophy is already on his guard before there is the sign of any conflict?” Of course, the situation depicted is different, but the meaning is that it is with great reservation and tenseness that an oppressed nationality steps out into the world, because of the history of wealth built off the backs of those of darker skin and the history of genocide, theft of land and slavery.

The rage of the first half of the book comes from the conditions imposed upon oppressed Black youth in South Central and of the inferiority complex pressed upon them because of the whitewashed view of history taught to U.S. society.

The rage, however, manifested in a self-hatred: “Unlike those ashamed to admit their motivation or too blind to recognize it, I forged through much of my life locked into a hostile intimacy with America’s wrongness. Conditioned and brainwashed to hate myself, and my own race, other black people became my prey and the Crips my sword. Though I cannot condone it, much of the violence I inflicted on my gang rivals and other blacks was an unconscious display of my frustrations with poverty, racism, police brutality, and other systemic injustices routinely visited upon residents of urban black colonies such as South Central Los Angeles.”

Seeking self-worth and the protection of other street organizations of Black youth, Tookie, Raymond Washington and their friends built the Crips and consolidated many of the other gangs into the fold. He states that they were not aware of the Black Panther Party or other militant and revolutionary organizations, but that if they had been, that perhaps their energies would have been directed towards the struggle and that he and his friends would have been ready and willing foot soldiers.

Real material conditions bring about phenomena. Tookie is a martyr for the struggle for a better world. Not only was he victimized by the conditions of exploitation, but, facing certain death, he transformed himself and sought redemption from the oppressed around the world by using his life as a guide, exposing both the ugly and his many mistakes, the camaraderie of himself and his fellow inmates—the inescapable beauty of life.

His memoirs, which also uncover the frame-up that sent him to be executed—a state-sanctioned murder—belong in the pantheon of other autobiographies of Black heroes like “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”

Stanley Tookie Williams, ¡Presente!

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Oliver FP said...

Oh god, that's awful. The story of his death is going to haunt me.

I don't really know how to verbalise this thought... but a life that starts with your mother in agony, being denied basic care? Messages like that, literally from birth, that you and your kind are worthless?

And even self-defined white liberals just expect young men like him to go "Ah, I see, I should be a law-abiding citizen, because I feel exactly like every other law-abiding citizens, because the system applies to me in exactly the same way." So the tiniest bit of mercy was out of the question, then, just like it always is...

Sorry to keep jumping in, I'm white and am just trying to wrap my head around this stuff.

Anonymous said...

Frantz Fanon's book had a big influence on my thinking about colonialism and race, and I recommend it to everyone.

I was just recently on jury duty, and caught a first degree homicide case. It was horrific. I was immediately dismissed, but was mortified (but not shocked) how many of my white - and some black - citizens were for the death penalty (in a relatively liberal, large American city). I went home and drank, I was so upset.

Maybe the kid (he had to be all of 19) was guilty as sin, and yes, it is very hard for me to argue with distraught people who lost their loved ones to violence that the murderers have a right to live while their loved ones had theirs' taken away. But given our history and ongoing state-sanctioned violence both at home and abroad, I never want to be part of such a system, born out of the racism and classism of our society. It pains and angers me to no end that the majority of Americans somehow view and support the death penalty in a historical and socio-economic vacuum. And so much of the support is not based on achieving justice, but rather based on race, and just pure, feral revenge, whether they will admit it or not.

I am an atheist, but I do believe in redemption, and Mr. Tookie deserved to live and do the good that he was doing before the State killed him.

Ebony Intuition said...

Some of my friends were casted in the short bio movie they filmed up here in toronto about tookie williams. His story is very very sad.

Anonymous said...

The book that drove home my white privelege was called Monster, I believe. It was the autobiography of Monster Kody, a gang member that gradually turned his energies to drawing the line against black on black violence in his neighborhood. His anger at white people shocked me and seemed so unfair. And then when I thought about his book, I realized that I had no right to deny him his anger.

I will read Tookie's story as well.

HereBeDragons said...

@ Anonymous (the first one):

Were you dismissed from serving on the jury because you are against the death penalty? If so, there seems something very twisted about that. Only jurors who are willing to sentence someone to death get to sit in judgment over alleged murderers? Somehow, that seems really wrong, and very, very unfair to the people being put on trial.

Anonymous said...

Dear HereBeDragons,

Yes, that is correct. You are NOT allowed to sit on a jury for a death penalty case if you are against the death penalty (at least in Pennsylvania, and I am almost 100% sure that is the case in all death penalty states). And you are immediately dismissed.

I almost lied just to sit on the case and derail it, or at least make sure he didn't receive the death penalty (I think it has to be unanimous, but I am not sure.). But I was a coward. I, too, was outraged by this. The person already starts out with two strikes against him/her, guilty or not. Justice, indeed...

Anonymous said...

One more thing on the death penalty and juries:

The rationalization, if you can call it that, is that criminal offenses that can qualify for the death penalty (such as first degree homicide) must be decided by people that support at least in theory all possible punishments for said crime. No punishment cannot be considered because of reasons of conscience. Ugh!

But what often happens is that juries are deliberately denied information on sentencing guidelines (not to mention exculpatory evidence) that would allow them to consider other punishments besides the death penalty.