Epitaph for Tookie
Copyright by Evans D. Hopkins
EPITAPH FOR TOOKIE
A FORMER LIFER EXAMINES THE MEANING OF THE EXECUTION OF STANLEY WILLIAMS
Twenty years ago, while serving a life sentence for armed robbery in
the Virginia State Penitentiary, I stayed up all night writing an article
for the Washington Post on the execution of Morris Mason, a retarded man who
had been put to death in the state's electric chair, in a death chamber
beneath my cell. It had become my custom to stay up through the night on
the occasions of electrocutions, believing that by letting people see what
was going on through the eyes of a prisoner living above the death house, I
might somehow help bring an end to the practice.
But Virginia continued on the road to becoming second only to Texas in
the number of executions per year. And though my articles on the death
penalty helped me to become one of the nation's most widely-read prison
writers, I stopped writing about the death penalty after a man who had been
a friend was put to death, and after I began to have nightmares that I was
on death row, and of having guards throw me into the chair.
But tonight, as I watch the preparations for the execution of Stanley
"Tookie" Williams on the television in my living room, I cannot help but
imagine the anger and rage and vehement cursing of the men who are locked
down in San Quentin. But now I am also able to look at the crowds gathered
in vigil from a different vantage point; to listen to those on television
praising the death penalty from the vantage point of a free citizen faced
with the fear of violent crime; and to watch the celebrities and experts
rail against the Williams impending execution from the point-of-view of now
being an author, of having done television and radio, perhaps with the power
to have weighed in on William's case before now.
I could certainly feel some empathy for his plight, I suppose. We are
both the same age, both came under the sway of groupthink in our teens - he
by founding the Crips street gang, and I, by joining the Black Panther
Party; and we both sought personal and social redemption by writing from
prison. I can only wonder if, after eight years of freedom, I have become
like most of American society, accustomed to the idea of death, of one life
meaning little in the scheme of things. Or perhaps my silence has more to
do with not wanting to feel like I was once again writing in a losing cause,
that America loves the death penalty too much to be swayed by international
opinion -- much less just one more voice.
But the two thousand protestors I watch on television, standing in the
chill outside San Quentin, presents tangible evidence that public opinion
regarding the use of the death penalty is changing. The fact that Williams
garnered such support in this country and around the world, not because of
his professed innocence, but because they believe that he is a changed man,
shows that there is, indeed, power in the idea of the redemption of man.
Though the idea of the possibility of man's redemption is a central
tenet of Christianity, it's ironic that this idea often seems lost in the
spiritual awakening said to be afoot in America. When a friend calls while
I am channel surfing for news and views on Williams, I ask her if she
believes in capital punishment.
"Yes," she tells me. "I believe that there is good and evil, and that
God wants us to destroy evil people."
I become impatient and tell her, "How a person who believes their
Savior was martyred by the death penalty -- and who professes to understand
the meaning of Jesus pardoning the thief beside him on the cross -- can also
be in favor of capital punishment, is beyond me."
When I return to the TV, the Rev. Jesse Jackson is before the cameras,
saying, "Stanley is at peace. He knows that he will be a martyr for good."
Will Williams' death actually bring about some changes in the way we
view the death penalty? I wonder, when I turn to another station and hear
the stridency of Nancy Grace and her guests, with attitudes that border on
being bloodthirsty. I turn to another station, and Larry King has on several
guests, including Mike Farrell (of M.A.S.H. fame,) and the right-wing talk
show host Dennis Praeger. Farrell, a long-time opponent of capital
punishment, is tearing into Praeger. "You sit there licking your lips about
the death of a human being. You disgust me."
It is time for me to cut off the tube and start writing.
There is a lot of anger surrounding the issue - a lot of displaced
anger regarding crime, and lot of rage about everything. The death penalty
is an easy way for many to feel mean-spirited and vengeful. Never mind the
fact that studies show that it's not a deterrent. Never mind the fact that
violent crime - and indeed, all crime - has been going down for years.
Never mind the scores from death rows who have been proven innocent by DNA
and other evidence. We want revenge on somebody, and can one expect from a
country attacked by a group comprised mainly of Saudi Arabians, which then
attacks Iraq? I mean, if we don't have a death penalty, what will all those
cops on TV have to threaten "perps," in order to make them confess? Why,
they might have to start using torture again.
Indeed, the correlation between real and imagined violence and the fear
that feeds the death penalty (and the incarceration of more than two million
of our fellow citizens) has a lot to do with what we watch on television and
film, in video games and gangster rap videos. I've spent twenty years in
prison, but I still get scared of what I see around me sometimes. I speak
in the schools regularly now, in an attempt to get young people to stay
straight, with my own story as warning. Speaking at a Columbus, OH,
middle-school last month, to an assembly of boys, I began asking questions
of the unruly group of 150, in order quiet them a bit. "How many of you want
to be doctors?" A few of them raised their hands. "How many of you want to
be lawyers?" A few more hands.
"How many would like to be basketball stars?" Sixty percent hands.
"Rappers?" Seventy per cent or so. "How many want to be gangsters?" Fully
fifty percent raised their hands. Then I asked them how many wanted to go
to the penitentiary when they grew up. I got no hands then. Only quiet.
This memory comes to me as it nears 2:30 am. In a half-hour Stanley
Williams will be dead. He probably knew that he had no chance of getting a
pardon. But he tried to make amends with his books, and he was successful
in bringing people to not only his cause, but the ongoing crusade against
capital punishment. It is easy to be hard. I know from experience, and I
think those who are proponents of the death penalty and revenge,
unconsciously know this too. Perhaps the silent crowd outside San Quentin
will be the impetus for a new movement, one based upon the idea of the
redemption of man. But they have a lot of hard-hearted people to change.