The strange cause celebre that is the Stanley “Tookie” Williams clemency push is a redemption fable missing one major element of the familiar form: repentance. If you’ve read anything about the celebrity death row inmate you know he’s never admitted to the crimes for which he was convicted. While lawyers working on his behalf have attempted to raise doubts about evidence and the competence of the investigation, his appeals have yielded nothing more than a recommendation of mercy from the 9th District Court. Still, if one allows that he could be innocent, and stranger things have been true, Williams persists in deferring responsibility for his ambitious and lethal life of crime and his role in creating one of the most violent street gangs in American history (which continues to maim and kill at an energetic pace) to Racist White America.
I was surprised to learn that Williams is only 51 years old. I would have thought he came of age in the Jim Crow south to hear all the talk of how a smart and ambitious African American of his generation had no recourse other than a life of crime. Jamie Foxx has said that if Tookie had been white and born in Connecticut, he would be a CEO. Foxx would appear to be as confused as his slightly cockeyed visage suggests. It is lost on most of these celebrities who see in Tookie the chance to engage in their own Leonard Bernstein cocktail party moment that if Tookie were white and soundly convicted of these heinous crimes they would have never learned his name, children’s books or no.
I’m not for the death penalty, though I must confess I don’t feel a lot of passion about this issue—and I should, for obvious reasons. I don’t find myself raising my voice when I talk about it. Its finality is a problem. People have been wrongly convicted in the past, so it seems that someone has been or will be wrongly executed. I have a hard time with that. I also think it’s in society’s best interests to value mercy. The sorry saga of the Williams campaign makes it hard to hold fast to these convictions; I daresay it undermines the case against capital punishment.
Williams’ supposed slate of good deeds is only recognized in light of the extreme and far reaching effects of his ambitions in organizing a legendary criminal gang. That it just so happens to be the Crips, arguably the most well known and lauded street gang of all time, embellishes his story in the minds of the celebrities and others who view him with an embarrassingly childlike awe. By now you’ve seen the two more heavily circulated photos of Williams, one apparently from the cover of his book showing him stripped to the waist and flexing body-builder style (Williams is said to weigh about three hundred pounds and has a body-builder’s physique), and another of him in a similar stance, wearing prison issues and bearing a massive afro, the very image of a hardcore gangsta. These are pinups for the adoring.
While Tookie’s famous gang protocol and his children’s books are lauded as, it would seem, Herculean efforts to save the nation’s youth from gang culture (150,000 lives saved and counting, according to the “Tookie Fact Sheet” linked above, based on “emails and letters”) what actually evokes all this adoration is his impressive physical stature and the same brutality (inferred by the thinly veiled bragadoccio of his oft told history) that makes Tookie’s ilk so dangerous, necessitating their removal from society.
You see, there isn’t one of us who, at one time or another, hasn’t wanted just once to be Tookie. Tookie wants to be Tookie. Tookie has cultivated his image as the hulking brute more than anything else, and had he never been caught and convicted of his crimes he would no doubt have gone on being Tookie for as long as he could have pulled it off before death or incarceration put a merciful end to his tear. Physical prowess and emotional detachment combine to make a powerful intoxicant, in the bearer and in the beholder. Just witness the continuing fascination with all things gangster, from The Sopranos to Fifty Cent.
Just beneath the thin veneer of our socialization, deep in the base of our brains, on the wrong side of the tracks from our still developing prefrontal cortexes in the amygdala where our fear resides, we not only reflexively defer to physical superiority; we revere it.
Brute force and the audacity to use it are, deep down, considered values unto themselves, even if we don’t like to admit it. So when the celebrants make the pilgrimage to the shrine of Tookie it is hardly a handful of children’s books or some ridiculous contractual form legitimizing street gangs that brings them there.
They are there to pay homage to the undeniable value of brute force.