On 13 March 2019, California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, placed a moratorium on the death penalty, halting executions for the duration of his tenure. Stanley “Tookie” Williams was among the last people to be executed in the state before the moratorium. The former Crips gang leader died by lethal injection on 13 December 2005, after last-minute appeals by his lawyers and a clemency petition to then governor Arnold Schwarzenegger were unsuccessful. Tony Thompson spoke with Williams in this piece originally published on 27 November 2004.
Stanley “Tookie” Williams is not typical of the 629 death row inmates at San Quentin prison in San Francisco. Convicted of four murders and the self-confessed cofounder of the Crips, the world’s deadliest street gang, he has become a successful children’s author whose conversations are sprinkled with Latin phrases and references to ancient Greek mathematicians. He has been nominated for the Nobel peace prize four times for his anti-gang initiatives, which he is now extending to Britain.
His biography, Redemption, published in the UK last week, features a “Protocol for Peace”, which gangs can use to help formulate a truce.
“Within the prison system rival gangs have agreed to make peace for the purpose of survival. That simple philosophy can be transmitted to rival gangs out on the streets,” Williams explains. “Instead of our killing each other, that energy can be harnessed to oppose poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, discrimination and other social and judiciary injustices. The protocol is intended to be simple and straightforward. You don’t need to understand Euclidean geometry to work it out. It’s all there in black and white to stop the killing, to address the social emergency of urban violence, to stop the madness.”
The protocol achieved its first success in June, when hundreds of members of two street gangs in New Jersey used it to bring calm to their community. In the four months before the treaty was signed, there had been 34 gang-related murders. The peace has held ever since.
Williams believes a similar success can be achieved in Birmingham, London, Nottingham and Manchester, all plagued by gang violence: “The message is simple: don’t join a gang. All you will find is trouble, pain and sadness. I know. I did.”
Williams has written nine anti-gang books for teenagers under the umbrella title Tookie Speaks Out Against Gang Violence, launched the Internet Project for Street Peace and mentors schoolchildren by telephone. He has received more than 50,000 emails from young people, parents, teachers and law enforcement officers from around the world testifying that his writings have changed and saved lives.
Despite this, and the strong likelihood of a fifth Nobel nomination next year, Williams is down to his last appeal against the death sentence. In four months, he could be executed.
Visiting death row is a sobering and regulated experience. I am not allowed to wear blue, yellow or pale green (all colours worn by inmates). I cannot wear jeans of any kind or a white T-shirt and am not allowed to wear sunglasses unless they are prescription. I can take nothing with me other than my passport (kept by the clerk as I enter the visiting room) and $30 in denominations no bigger than a single dollar bill and no smaller than a quarter.
Walking the path to the visiting room you see the tall metal chimney which, when lethal gas was the preferred method of execution, vented poisoned air from the death chamber into the atmosphere – killing any passing birds in the process.
Next to the chimney is a metallic structure with two lights, one green, one red. The green light is permanently on; the red appears only when the execution chamber is in use, switching back to green once the prisoner has been pronounced dead.
San Quentin was built in 1852 and conditions have changed little in the past 100 years, remaining powerfully reminiscent of the Shawshank Redemption . The main death row building consists of five tiers of concrete cells, 9ft by 4ft, closed off by open bars. Guards are authorised to respond quickly to threats. A sign states: “No warning shots fired in this unit.”
The visit takes place in a steel cage which sits within a much larger steel cage in the middle of a row of similar structures. Williams is in the cage when I arrive. The guard opens a small flap in the side. Williams is ordered to stick his hands through the flap behind his back and is cuffed. Only then does the guard open the door to the cage and let me enter, and only when the door is firmly shut does he unlock the cuffs. Williams requests a pencil for me to take notes – the one that arrives is less than 2 inches long and almost impossibly blunt. I scribble on paper napkins.
Williams is releasing his biography in a further bid to dissuade the young from entering the gangster life.
“When I was young, prison seemed like a great place to be,” he says. “And that attitude continues. Rap stars and other musicians often use the fact they have been in prison as a way of boosting their credibility.
“I remember being a kid and people coming back from prison and showing us pictures of themselves and other inmates in the exercise yard. They would all be huge, toned and muscled and that’s how I wanted to be. You end up thinking this is a place for real men but that’s just not the case at all. This is a terrible place to be.”
Williams was 17 when he founded the Crips with his friend, Raymond Washington. At first the gang was intended to provide its members with protection against others, but as the numbers rapidly grew it became a force and criminal enterprise in its own right. Today there are 150,000 gang members in the Los Angeles area, split between the Crips and their rivals, the Bloods. At least 5,000 lives have been lost.
“I was always known for being a fighter. When I was beating people I would make sure they knew it was Tookie who was hitting them. I was a megalomanic and wanted my gang to be the biggest in the world. At first it was all about fighting, but then the Crips became too big to fight so the other gangs started shooting.
“People started dying, friends of mine, but you never think it’s going to happen to you. The thing that makes people most dangerous is when they start believing they are invincible.”
Washington was killed in a shootout in 1979, but by then Williams was in prison, charged with murdering a shop manager and three members of a family. At first he continued his gang life within the prison walls, but soon came to see the error of his ways.
“It didn’t happen overnight. There was no epiphany. It took seven years of solitary confinement, of soul-searching, to realise what I had become and that I didn’t want to be that person any more.”
Soon afterwards he began his anti-gang work: “The part I love most is working with young people. That’s the absolute highlight of my day.”
A critically acclaimed film of his life, Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story, starring Jamie Foxx, had its premiere at the Cannes film festival this year.
The results of his latest appeal should be known in the next week or so. “I’m a real Catch-22 for the authorities,” he says. “They don’t want someone on death row to redeem themselves. They want to be able to demonise people so that when they kill them, they can have the public behind them.”
But the authorities are also being hit by increasing evidence that Williams, who has always denied involvement in the murders, may indeed be innocent of the crimes for which he is due to be executed. Surprisingly, he makes little reference to the details of the case in any of his books.
“I won’t stand on the shoulders of children to argue my innocence,” he says. “I’ll do that in the proper environment – the courtroom.”
So what keeps him going? He fixes me with a long stare. “Dum spiro, spero,” he says softly, pausing for a moment before translating the Latin. ‘While I breathe, I hope.’