Behind Bars

Just So You Know

By Kevin Cooper

This statement was written for the 5th Annual Stanley Tookie Williams Legacy Summit, held on December 12, 2010 at Merritt College in Oakland, California. Stanley Tookie Williams was executed by the State of California in 2005. Kevin Cooper is on death row in San Quentin. An active campaign to save his life is in progress1. —The Editors

There is a place that certain Black Men go no matter what their station, or circumstance, in life. It doesn’t matter whether they are in the ghetto, the suburbs, in prison or school, or even in the White House. This place is a very important part of our lives throughout this world, and has been so for a very, very long time. What place is this? It’s the court, the basketball court.

In 1985, when I arrived here at San Quentin prison, the court was the place to go, after I settled in and figured out that this nasty and inhumane place would be where I was to live against my will for untold numbers of years. I made my way to that court to not only play ball, but release all the pent up pressure and frustration that I had within me. I had to get it out, or I would explode. I had just gone through a Jim Crow trial and conviction and was truly all messed up inside.

For most of us, playing basketball is something we are good at, and we take pride in our abilities, and we love the game. It’s also a way for people in prison, for a short time, to forget that we are in prison and forget about our situations within this world, this life, this hell. It also allows for us to be free in our minds, or as free as our game allows us to be.

It’s also a place where friendships are made, built and maintained, and are done so out of respect for that person, and a love for the game. Though every once in awhile an argument, or fight, may break out, it’s in a controlled way and has more to do with pride or ego than violence for violence sake.

Most of us who play ball agree that the court is a neutral place, where any and everyone can come together and play in peace and not have to worry about being attacked by someone of or from another clique, or gang. This is important because everyone played ball, it crossed all races, colors, religions, gangs and all else.

It was under these circumstances that I first met Stanley Tookie Williams. I met him on the basketball court, and we introduced ourselves. At first I must admit that I wondered if he could play basketball because he was so huge. I thought football was more suited for him, but it didn’t take long for me to see that I had misjudged him. He could play basketball and play it good! He could shoot jumpers from the outside, and finger roll from the inside. Everyone called him “Big Took” and so did I.

Since I am not from California, but from Pittsburgh, Pennsyvania, I had no idea what the Crips or any other gangs were. In the early 1980s there were no gangs in Pittsburgh. I came to California in late 1982, and in 1985 I was on death row, so I had no real life experience in matters such as gangs. So I didn’t know at the time when I first met Big Took, who he was.

In my mind, we met as who we were, poor Black men on a prison basketball court. From 1985 to 2005 Stanley Tookie Williams and I had a very peaceful, respectful and real friendship. To this day, I still consider him my personal friend and cultural brother.

“Big Took” told me to stay away from and out of any gang. He managed to stop me from cussing, because at that point in time every other word that came out of my mouth was a cuss word. He told me, in truth, that the reason why I cussed was because I did not know the proper words to use. So he told me to stop cussing, and learn the proper words to speak, or stop coming around him. I stopped cussing, got a dictionary, and learned the proper words to use. I learned to express my feelings and my thoughts without cussing, and I don’t think I would have done it without him!

This was the start of my educating myself, and my journey of self-discovery. Besides the years that this prison took “Big Tookie” and put him in the adjustment center, he and I have always been on the same exercise yard. It is on the yard where we not only played ball, worked out and hung out, but it is where we had some life changing conversations. Conversations like who we are as a people in this world and in this country. Are we what and who the system, the state, the prison, the white man’s history books said we are?

It was conversations like these that opened my mind to a new way of thinking, and seeing things. We spoke about God and spirituality and all the different beliefs. We spoke about classism and racism and all the other “isms” that have had a negative effect on us as a people.

These things are what finally sent me searching for the truth. It sent me on my own journey of self-discovery. I had to find answers to questions, I had to find out who I am, and all the other unanswered questions that I had to find answers for.

I, like Stanley Tookie Williams, and many others who find themselves in places like these and searching for the truth about ourselves, our history, our origins, our ancestors, this country and its government and its history, must find the truth on our own because we know that it will not come to us on its own, nor will the oppressor tell us. Just as Malcolm Little went and found the truth and it, the truth, turned him into Malcolm X, we had to find out truths in our own way, and we did.

Stanley Tookie Williams told me that we are fighting the same fight as poor Black Men, that our ancestors fought, that this is a historical fight that we are engaged in, and that we owe it to them, as well as to ourselves, and to our descendents, to educate ourselves so that we can contribute to this ongoing war. This is very important because we still keep being murdered by this system, and the people within it that are hell-bent on destroying us.

These things, these few things that I write about “Big Tookie,” are the things that this system will never tell you about him. They only want to tell you negative things about him, whether they are true, or not. You will not hear from them the truth about his compassion, his humanness, his humanity. They don’t want for you to know that he was a caring and a giving human being who found on his own journey of self-discovery...Redemption! This man, who is our brother and our friend, has done more to educate, save and help people than those who are involved in this system of torture and death.

Especially those who were involved in his torture and murder in 2005. On December 13th, 2005 to be exact. It is those people who need to ask and seek forgiveness and redemption for all their crimes against humanity.

This is another side of the story of Stanley Tookie Williams. Just so you know, Big Took even helped a man like me in my quest for knowledge so that I could better myself, and not remain a stereotype that this system wants all poor Black Men to be.

I will forever be indebted to Mr. Stanley Tookie Williams for all that he shared with me and gave to me. I am now a much stronger and better and educated man who doesn’t have the need to cuss anymore. Thank you Big Brother. I am also a very real part of your legacy.

—December 12, 2010

1To learn more about Kevin Cooper visit the website: