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.

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