A gripping tale of personal revolution by a man who went from Crips co-founder to Nobel Peace Prize nominee, author, and antigang activist
When his L.A. neighborhood was threatened by gangbangers, Stanley Tookie Williams and a friend formed the Crips, but what began as protection became worse than the original gangs. From deadly street fights with their rivals to drive-by shootings and stealing cars, the Crips' influence -- and Tookie's reputation -- began to spread across L.A. Soon he was regularly under police surveillance, and, as a result, was arrested often, though always released because the charges did not stick. But in 1981, Tookie was convicted of murdering four people and was sent to death row at San Quentin in Marin County, California.
Tookie maintained his innocence and began to work in earnest to prevent others from following his path. Whether he was creating nationwide peace protocols, discouraging adolescents from joining gangs, or writing books, Tookie worked tirelessly for the rest of his life to end gang violence. Even after his death, his legacy continues, supported by such individuals as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Snoop Dogg, Jesse Jackson, and many more.
This posthumous edition of Blue Rage, Black Redemption features a foreword by Tavis Smiley and an epilogue by Barbara Becnel, which details not only the influence of Tookie's activism but also her eyewitness account of his December 2005 execution, and the inquest that followed.
By turns frightening and enlightening, Blue Rage, Black Redemption is a testament to the strength of the human spirit and an invaluable lesson in how rage can be turned into redemption.
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November 12, 2007
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Excerpt from Blue Rage, Black Redemption by Tavis Smiley
It started out as a gray Friday morning, and as I rushed into a West Oakland McDonald's to grab a breakfast sandwich, I heard the commotion coming from a table of older black gentlemen in the back of the restaurant. "If he killed those people, he ought to die," said one. "Well, whether he did it or not, if he stays locked up for the rest of his life, that ain't living," said another. "He might as well be dead." Although I tried to avoid this breakfast-table debate, as soon as I was spotted I was summoned to the table.
"Tavis Smiley, what are you doing here?" One brother yelled out. "We're talking about that gang leader Tookie Williams who is supposed to be executed for killing those people in L.A. back in the day." "So, Smiley," asked another, "what do you think? Should he die?"
The whole scene was surreal. I had just flown into Oakland International Airport that morning and, ironically, my radio producer and I were on our way to San Quentin to meet with Stanley Tookie Williams. He asked to meet me in person before doing an interview that would be aired on both my radio and television shows. It was November 25, 2005, the day after Thanksgiving, and I was already riding a sea of emotions long before being confronted by the breakfast club. Of all the McDonald's we could have chosen.
The truth is, at that moment, I wasn't sure how to respond to the brother's question. All I knew for sure is that I am vehemently opposed to the death penalty and, as a person of faith, I believe in the scripture where God says, "Vengeance is mine." So, without going into too much more detail, that was my answer as I wished the brothers a good day.
As I got back in the car, I started thinking about the morning ahead. Although unfortunately I've visited friends or family members in jail over the years, fortunately I had never been to death row. I wasn't sure what to expect. But as for Stanley, I had a little bit of insight. When Jamie Foxx came on my television show, he talked about what it was like to portray Stanley in the television movie Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story. Jamie also told me that in spite of Stanley's imposing figure -- a massive chest and bulging arms and legs from bodybuilding -- Stanley was very gentle and soft-spoken.
When we arrived at San Quentin a short while later, I found all of that to be true. After going through two metal detectors and security doors, we waited in a small visitors' cell that held an old table, a few chairs, and a small barred window that looked out onto the bay. A few minutes later, a guard escorted the shackled, gentle, soft-spoken bodybuilder with glasses and gray hair to the cell. After his cuffs were unlocked, he reached out, shook my hand, and said, "I'm Stan, and I've been waiting to meet you."
As we sat down, Stan immediately opened the window and we began to talk. We talked briefly about the childhood he discusses at length in this book. We talked about what it was like to be in prison for nearly twenty-five years -- what an average day was like -- and how he had coped for all that time. We talked about his children's books and his Nobel Peace Prize nomination. Then I asked some of the tough questions.
I asked him about his life as a gang leader, and how he felt about all the death and destruction caused in the black community by gang violence in Los Angeles, where I live, as well as many other parts of the country. I asked him about the murders for which he was convicted, and how he felt about the victims' families. I also asked him about the fact that he reportedly refused to assist law enforcement with information in their efforts to arrest, prosecute, and convict other gang members.
Stan solemnly and candidly answered all my questions. He told me that he was sorry for his gang involvement and for the havoc he had personally wreaked in the community. He said that he was sorry for the losses suffered by the Owens and Yang families, but maintained that he was innocent of the murders. He told me that he believes God allowed him to go to prison to pay for some of the horrible things he had done in his life, although ultimately he was being punished for crimes he did not commit. Regarding his cooperation with law enforcement, Stan gave me a somewhat more complicated explanation: he said that it was a violation of a prison code for him to discuss certain gang-related matters because of broader implications that could lead to more violence for him and other prison members.
Then we talked about the power of redemption. Stan told me that prison had afforded him the time to read and learn and grow. He shared how through prayer, reflection, and discipline he had changed from a young, violent man filled with rage to a man whose life revealed redemption. Throughout our conversation, Stan held my gaze and his calm never wavered.