Behind Bars

Tribute to Tookie

By Lynne Stewart

The following message was delivered to the 5th Annual Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams Legacy Summit on December 9, 2010 at Merritt College’s African American Studies Department in Oakland, CA in conjunction with the Stanley ‘Tookie’ Willams Legacy Network and the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. —The Editors

Tookie Williams may have left us five years ago but I believe and hope he will live on in our consciousness as a symbol of both the evils of this society and also the possibility of human redemption against overwhelming odds.

For me, Tookie represents the very real genocide in the African American communities of this country. The spiral, as my friend and colleague, ex-convict Eddie Ellis repeats on his “On the Count” radio show on WBAI, is “from the plantation to the projects to the penitentiary.” This is a descent into death fueled by educational systems that quit on the children before they are even enrolled in school and whose main purpose is to make sure the paychecks leave the inner cities and enrich the suburbs. They dumb-down and then leave alienated adolescents, provided they haven’t already dropped out, full of anger, resentment and devoid of any clue of political understanding. Although poverty worsens this despair, it is not limited to those who have little; this racial depression also rages in the Black middle class because it is, at its root, born of the racism that still thrives in this society.

In the 1960’s (and not to idealize), the “revolution” was recruiting everywhere, but most successfully in the universities and the prisons. George Jackson, Attica, were the textbooks studied by persons similarly situated. Now the prisons hold elderly, respected heroes, political prisoners, POWs, and those more recently framed by the police state (Mumia, the Scott Sisters, Troy Davis, entrapped Muslims). Many of these came to jail already politicized and active. But the vast majority in prison today are scooped off the street—a generation of mostly young men. They have attitude but not much else to build with.

Not Tookie. He represented the vast majority of prisoners who ended up in jail, programmed for the trip since birth for all the reasons advanced above. But because the human spirit is indomitable, and he was a person whose innate intellect had not been destroyed and who was able to discern the enticements and bling of a false, fraudulent society and begin to resist them, he changed, in jail. And that change led to his homicide by the State of California.

However, the careless society that produced him and thousands like him who remain in our prisons has not changed. Their goals are political—to remove and imprison the unlit dynamite of social change, to prove that crime can be deterred by the death penalty that kills and the lifetime imprisonments that throw away redeemable human beings. Tookie represented the bright hope. He was a shining example that change was possible, achievable. His efforts toward negotiation between warring factions and his understanding of the root causes that sparked “gang” wars made him stand out and so, THEY took him out.

We are here today to affirm out belief in the Tookie Williams’ who are still behind bars, to acknowledge forthrightly the death of the intellect and curiosity of children wrought by the schools they attend and to stand against the genocide of African Americans. You can’t see the boxcars or the concentration camps? Just sniff the air for the smoke of lives burnt up/out.