Friday, December 16, 2005

Still Confused

Just to see if I was crazy or what, I listened to the KPFA broadcast cited in my previous post. I remembered most of it, including the speaking and singing after Tookie's death was announced. But we never heard that! The crowd way up front turned slowly and began oozing towards the road out. We three were puzzled and grumbling. Corby was crabbing about what cowards the prison authorities were for not issuing an announcement. Patrick asked a nearby newswoman presumably waiting for the same bulletin we were, and she said she'd heard no word. Then when I listened to the archive of the broadcast, you could hear it, just kinda slipped in there.

Usually when death is announced, there is a moment of silence or a collective groan or sigh or some wailing. This time there wasn't. There were some isolated cries of outrage, as there'd been all night, so it didn't seem especially significant this time. A man at the mike lead another singing of "We Shall Overcome," hideously off key and badly phrased. Still, who cares at a time like that? You just sing because it's the togetherness of the voices and collective resolve that counts, not the musicality. We heard some of the words. We sang the song.

I wonder why the sound system was so inadequate? Were the organizers not expecting such a crowd? I'd estimate there were at least 2,000 of us. Were they not allowed to mount more speakers because it's a usually quiet residential street and they can only amplify in the immediate area around the East Gate? Did they not have enough money for more mikes?

I counted at least three helicopters circling the area all night. They had those piercing white lights scanning the crowd. When I was standing next to Sean Penn, I was reminded of reports of his wedding to Madonna when the helicopters were so low and numerous they completely drowned out the words of their vows. Still, this time the helicopters were far enough away that they didn't really out-volume the sound system, such as it was. That is if you could get close enough to the mikes to hear anything.

"They" got 'em lined up now, one execution after the other. Next month, on Monday, January 16, his 76th birthday, Clarence Ray Allen is scheduled to die. Well, technically, at 12:01 a.m. on January 17th. Ironically, this is the weekend the birth of another advocate for non-violence, Martin Luther King, Jr., is celebrated. Allen is not a sympathetic character. He has done nothing of note by way of contributing to society. He's just a sick old man convicted of triple homicide who was probably a pretty unpleasant fellow when he was out in society. I don't want to see him out and about. But killing him in the name of justice just reduces society, us, the people of this state, to his level. We'll be there.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005


I knew there was a reason I was feeling so incomplete! Why we all were so confused when we left. That's because they didn't really announce Tookie's death until after we left, and we left around 12:45 a.m.

Patrick phoned yesterday, saying that Barbara had been watching the TV coverage while we were there and learned that it took more than ten minutes for the killers to get a proper needle into Tookie's veins. So basically, in my opinion, he was tortured. This is obscene! This is hideous, horrifying, immoral!

Driving home from Petaluma yesterday, I turned on KPFA only to hear a long description not only of the circumstances of Tookie's execution, but also of all the various 'humane' ways humans have devised to kill other humans in the name of the state. When the state was still executing by lethal gas, birds flying over San Quentin dropped dead from the sky. The lethal injection method was first used by the Nazis in Germany.

Then it all came up for me. I sobbed the whole way home. I stomped in the house in a state of mixed grief and outrage and turned on the network news, and ranted futily at the newscasters. It seems that, among other things, there was no announcement to the crowd that Tookie was gone until around 1:30 when most vigilers had gone home. Had we known, we would have stayed.

Here's a broadcast from KPFA's coverage of the execution. My sister Catherine sent this interview with Angela Davis by Amy Goodman for Democracy Now that was done yesterday morning, as well as this:
Sneering at Redemption: Why Arnold Killed Tookie
By Dave Zirin

In the end, we can only assume the decision wasn't so "agonizing" after all. Last night Stan Tookie Williams was legally lynched by the state of California, at the behest of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger who denied Williams' appeal for clemency. The Governor deemed that a man who had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times and brokered gang truces from Newark to South Central was not worthy to walk and breathe among us. Stan's case for clemency was so compelling it was articulated by people from Desmond Tutu to Snoop Dogg, and yet, watching Schwarzenegger in action has been to observe the nexus of cold-hearted political calculation and cowardice.

Williams' Attorney John Harris challenged the governor to meet with Tookie, saying to the San Francisco Chronicle, "It's impossible to me to believe that if you had met Stanley Williams and spent time with him, that you would not believe in his personal redemption." But that would require a courage the Governor has never demonstrated. Unlike the movie tough guy always ready to look his victims in the eye – a quip at the ready -- before shooting, stabbing, or beheading them, Arnold made his decision at safe remove, hanging out this weekend at his son's soccer game, his face a waxy mask of carefree detachment, while Tookie's supporters organized, marched, chanted
nd prayed themselves hoarse.

When it finally came time for Arnold to announce his personal judgment that Stan Williams should die, tragedy became farce. The Governor's office released an ugly scandalous diatribe that qualifies as nothing less than hate-speech.

As he - or his script doctor - wrote, "The dedication of Williams' book Life in Prison casts significant doubt on his personal redemption. This book was published in 1998 several years after Williams' redemptive experience. Specifically the book is dedicated to Nelson Mandela, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt, Ramona Africa, John Africa, Leonard Peltier, George Jackson, Mumia Abu Jamal, and the countless other men, women, and youths, who have to endure the hellish oppression of living behind bars. The mix of individuals on this list is curious. Most have violent pasts and some have been convicted of committing heinous murders including the killing of law enforcement. But the inclusion of George Jackson on this list defies reason and is a significant indicator that Williams is not reformed and that he still sees violence and lawlessness as a legitimate means to address societal problems."

For Tookie, all of these folks, from Mandela, to Malcolm, to Assata, are one and the same: people of color who strove for liberation in the darkest of circumstances. For Schwarzenegger, the whole lot is the same as well: people who are his political enemies because they refused to be broken. Notice the singling out of George Jackson, author of Soledad Brother, a book for which there is no evidence Schwarzenegger has so much as skimmed. Jackson was someone who despite being framed for his political activism never stopped organizing. That is the person Schwarzenegger wants to kill by executing Tookie.

Later, Arnold passes judgment on Williams' very redemption, writing, "Is Williams' redemption complete and sincere, or is it just a hollow promise? . . . Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings there can be no redemption." In other words, because Williams has consistently defended his own innocence, he should die. But as Tookie once said, "Many people expect me to apologize for crimes I didn't commit--just to save my life. Of course I want to live, but not by having to lie."

While not surprising Arnold did not have the courage to face Tookie and spew this nonsense to his face, it certainly would have been incredible theatre. In fact, it would have been something of a reunion. In the late 1970s, Arnold and Tookie, about fifty life times ago, admired each other's biceps on Muscle Beach in Venice, California. "Your arms are like thighs!" Arnold grinned. Amazing the difference thirty years makes. In that time, Arnold rode his muscles and Teutonic good looks from Hollywood stardom to the Governor's mansion. Yes, he had a spotty past including many allegations of sexual assault and drug abuse. But he passed that off as youthful indiscretion, claimed that he had changed, and a pliant media were happy to believe that Arnold was worthy of forgiveness and redemption.

Tookie, like Arnold, also fashioned an unlikely political career. But his began not with Hollywood riches but as the target of the tough-on-crime laws of the Clinton-Bush years which saw the nation's prison population balloon from more than one to two million. He was convicted of murder in a manner that would make Strom Thurmond proud, called a "Bengal tiger" by a prosecutor who engineered an all-white jury to make sure the "Crip founder" found San Quentin. While Arnold cozied up to the Bush and Kennedy clans, Tookie read dictionaries in solitary, wrote letters to gang kids in LA, and became that most dangerous of political beings: a Black leader in racist America.

In one of his final interviews he said, "So, as long as I have breath, I will continue to do what I can to proliferate a positive message throughout this country and abroad to youths everywhere, of all colors or gender and geographical area, and I will continue to do what I can to help. I want to be a part of the, you know, the solution."

Now another tragedy, along with the murders of Albert Owens, Yen-I Yang, Tsai-Shai Chen Yang, and Yu-Chin Yang Lin, has taken place because Stan Tookie has been put to death. But the tragedy is not theirs to bear alone.

Tonight children are being born to mothers without health insurance, in neighborhoods politicians don’t enter without SWAT teams, news cameras, and latex gloves. The political class has already branded these kids as human waste. But many of them could have found another path, because Stanley Tookie Williams would have been there to intervene in their lives and show another way.

Now it's up to those of us who stood with Tookie to keep on pushing. This is Schwarzenegger's "mission accomplished" moment for his right wing, pro-death base. But his "mission" will fail. He is part of a 21st century set of rulers who have repeatedly shown, whether in Baghdad or New Orleans, that they are unfit to rule. Their brutality will be met with resistance in the tradition of Nelson Mandela, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Leonard Peltier, George Jackson... and Stanley Tookie Williams.

[Dave Zirin is the author of "'What's My Name Fool?': Sports and Resistance in the United States" (Haymarket Books). He is a regular writer for the Nation and a columnist for Slam Magazine. You can reach him by emailing and you can get his column every week by sending a blank email to]
I hope this tragedy mobilizes the anti-capital punishment movement.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

It's Done

It's 2:20 a.m. and we're home from the vigil. I don't need to tell anyone that Tookie is gone.

We arrive about 8:15 and manage to park not too far away. Cool night, many CHP officers, crowd denser as we walked up the hill towards the prison gate. Some folks sitting in small groups with candles and small signs saying "Forgive." A church group carrying many white wooden crosses. A group reading litanies in unison, and singing.

Closer towards the glaringly bright lights at the East Gate the crowd is tight, facing the speakers' area. We find Patrick, wearing a navy blue nylon jacket with the word CHAPLAIN in block letters across the back, and the three of us stand for an hour or so listening to speakers and musicians. Anti-death penalty activists, lawyers, a fellow from the NAACP. The man P tells me is the second man to Louis Farrakan in the Nation of Islam has stone-faced bodyguards wearing black leather fedoras. A giant Art and Revolution Ghandi puppet holds a sign saying something about violence and change. Angela Davis speaks, Joan Baez sings, young hip hop artists dazzle the crowd with their fervor. A fifth-grade teacher tells of her class reading Tookie's books, and the message the children get from seeing this man who speaks so knowingly to their experience of life be executed by the state.

There's a shed-like structure to the left of the gates that's usually a platform for TV reporters and newscameras looking like giant leggy insects. Tonight there are far too many news trucks and satellite dishes and mega-cameras for them to be atop this building. Instead, vigilers climb to sit on the edge. People shoot photos over the heads of those around them with digital cameras and cell phones. Photographers with larger cameras of all kinds prowl the crowd.

The three of us snake our way out of the densest of the crowd to take a break. We go a long way before the crowd seems any thinner. Where it does, we find more candlelight vigilers, out of earshot of the amplifiers. More clusters of people. More meditators. A sax player. People carrying signs, pushing literature, carrying candles, people with phones and cameras, food and hot tea. Two young entrepeneurs circulate, selling hot chocolate that one carries in a large thermos in his backpack while the other carries cups, dispenses, and takes the money. I remark that in some ways this scene reminds me of public executions in films and books about Medieval Europe or Shakespearean England, with everyone gathered round, sort of camped out, selling comestibles, watching the show -- except that here we have no viewing of the actual murder.

We're astounded at how the crowd has grown while we'd listened to speakers. We go against the flow of traffic as people continue to arrive, more and more, some in wheelchairs or with mobility aids, young parents pushing strollers with sleeping babies. People of all sizes, shapes, colors and ages. People there because they believe this is a wrong action.

We sit for a while, chatting. When we turn to go back to the gates, we see the depth of people has grown to fill much, much more of the little street through San Quentin Village. It takes us a long time to inch our way anywhere close to being able to hear. We see scores of tac squad cops arrayed on the side streets amongst the many media trucks supporting all the network news crews. It's 11:45, 16 minutes before the execution. We sing a Native American chant together. Someone else starts a few verses of "We Shall Overcome." We cannot see who's at the mike and we cannot hear much of what's being said. I hear a voice I'm sure is Al Sharpton's. I notice the man standing silently in front of me is actor Sean Penn. His expression is like that of everyone here, quite somber.

I see some tears. I feel sad but not weepy. Corby and I hold onto each other. I notice tears running down a few cheeks, not many. Schoolchildren take turns reading passages from Tookie's books as he takes his last breaths. This is fitting, it's true, but all three of us find we miss the power of silent vigil together.

By now it's 12:45 and still no word of Tookie's death. A man at the mike says how Tookie went with dignity and at peace, and how we honor him by keeping solidarity in the struggle and not descending to violence. If that was the announcement from the prison, we don't get it. Slowly the crowd begins moving away from the gates and flows down the road towards the CHP blockade. We're bewildered, wondering why there was no announcement yet people were leaving. We feel a strange sense of unresolution.

Swarms and swarms and swarms of people walking miles up the frontage road to their cars. We find our car, drop Patrick off at his, and join the sluggish traffic inching a mile or so to the freeways out of town.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Tookie Williams and Capital Punishment

Not surprisingly, our illustrious Guvernator has rejected Tookie Williams' appeals for clemency. That means Corby and I will be standing vigil outside the gates of San Quentin in the cold (well, cold by California standards) tonight. We are firm in our opposition to state-sanctioned murder. We live only about four miles from SQ so we feel obligated to honor the lives of each person who's executed -- may there be no more! -- by standing vigil with others who feel as we do. We go even when the person being executed doesn't have much popular support, because we believe every life has value and to kill someone in revenge only brings 'us' (the people, the state) down to the level of just another killer. However, in the case of Tookie, a man who has demonstrated his redemption, we know there will be a huge crowd. In fact, there are rallies going on all over the country today and tonight (see TW website).

What more can we ask from a convicted murderer than redemption? He cannot undo what has been done and bring back the dead. I don't understand how killing the killer can bring sorrowing family and friends of a homicide victim any solace. And in the case of Tookie, even though he was convicted, we don't really know if he committed the crime for which he is to pay with his life.

Where there are crowds, especially emotional ones, there are media. Usually the TV camerapeople and reporters stand on a nearby roof and shoot photos down at the crowd. I know that this time it's gonna be a real mob scene. I hope some of them will be doing one-on-one interviews with vigilers.

Buddhists sit in meditation up near the speakers' area. I usually sit a spell with them. There will be speakers and musicians and various kinds of testimony, as well as people leafletting and pushing petitions.

This will be a big night, and a very sad one. Standing in silence and waiting for a prison spokesperson to announce the dastardly deed has been accomplished is really moving and spooky. I wish I could return to this blog and report that the execution had not taken place. I'm not hopeful that that will be the case.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

What to do...

when one's aged mom is failing physically and losing her memory? I don't know. One step at a time, I guess.

Our mom, who will turn 95 next month, took a bad fall about five weeks ago. She was unconscious in her apartment for at least a whole day, and possibly from the night before. Even though she lives in a senior apartment complex where there's a cord to pull if you need emergency help and someone is supposed to check on residents who miss meals, no one found her till about 8:30 in the evening. Miraculously, she didn't break anything, but she doesn't remember much and I suspect she may have had another TIA (a mini-stroke).

She's out of hospital and in a convalescent hospital now. We have no idea how long she'll be there or what we'll do with her when she's released. Obviously she can't return to her apartment. She can walk only a little, a real bummer for someone who used to love to take long walks, especially when she had to relinquish her driver's license after she wrecked her car backing out of her former apartment complex.

Mom is a social animal if there ever was one, revels in her many visitors, even though she cannot remember who visited and when. She seems fairly lucid at times, then something switches in her head and she becomes a whining, weepy child asking to be taken home. This woman has been a strong presence in my life for all my 62 years so seeing her in such a pathetic, dependent state really shocks me.

Tomorrow my sister Catherine and I have a meeting with Mom's physical therapist, social worker, et al. to figure out the next step.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Back in the Saddle - Barely

After eventful time in Philadelphia, giving workshop co-sponsored by the lovely folks at SpiralHeart and the Delaware Valley Reclaiming, then attending the first Conference on Contemporary Pagan Studies, I slipped away with Corby to Oregon for Thanksgiving with his parents and older brother in Salem, then a romantic visit to the storm-tossed beaches of the Oregon Coast for a much-needed rest.

So much to tell about the conference and the rest of the AAR. So many wonderful people, old friends as well as new. So much to mull over, sort through, digest and assimilate. Guess I’ll do this as I can.

In the meantime, we had a leisurely stay with my Holy Terrors coven sister Sophia Sparks, manufacturer and purveyor of tree-climbing equipment at New Tribe in Grants Pass. We caught a matinee of the new Harry Potter movie.

Managed the drive over the Siskiyou Pass between snowstorms, and got some good photos of that glorious, snow-dusted volcanic southern Cascade Range.