What Tookie's tale teaches us

December 04, 2005|By EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON

In a candid and revealing moment, Stanley "Tookie" Williams told a visitor at San Quentin State Prison in California that he helped found the notorious Crips street gang because he wanted to smash everyone, make a rep and get respect and dignity, and that he wanted his name to be known everywhere. He got his wish in more ways than he ever dreamed of.

The demons that drove Mr. Williams in his reckless push for identity and prominence also drove him to become the nation's best-known condemned prisoner. He faces execution by lethal injection at San Quentin on Dec. 13 for multiple murders.

Mr. Williams' revelatory glimpse into his thug past tells much about the anger, alienation and desperation that have turned legions of young black men into social pariahs and that propel them to wreak murder and mayhem in mostly poor, black communities. But today's Tookies didn't crop up from nowhere.

The transformation in the early 1970s of the old-line civil rights groups into business and professional organizations and black middle-class flight from the inner city neighborhoods left the black poor, especially young black males, socially fragmented, politically rudderless and economically destitute.

Lacking visible role models of success and achievement or competitive technical skills and professional training to compete in a rapidly shifting economy, they were shoved even further to the outer margins of American society.

Yet the Tookies instinctively know that the material goodies suspended before them in movies, on TV and in advertisements are the primary measures of an individual's worth in a consumer-obsessed culture. They desperately want them, but they know that in many cases they can't attain them, at least not legally. This increases their frustration and anger. The American dream may be a dream deferred, but it's still a dream that many spend their lives in futile pursuit of.

That alone doesn't explain the inner rage that consumes many poor young black males. They are in a pathetic hunt to live up to the perverse and distorted image of manhood that American society reserves for white men and denies black males.

Far too many young black males have become especially adept at acting out their frustrations at society's denial of their "manhood" by adopting an exaggerated "tough guy" role. They swagger, boast, curse, fight and commit violent self-destructive acts. Their tattoos, signs, code language, dress, gaudy colors, graffiti-tagged walls, drug dealing and gunplay are a ritual part of the identity and power quest that once pushed Mr. Williams to the streets.

The accessibility of drugs and guns and the influence of violent-laced rap songs also reinforced the deep feeling among many youths that life is cheap, expendable and easy to take. In far too many cases, police and city officials throw up their hands in despair or play down the crime and violence they commit as long as their victims are other blacks.

The exception is when there's a loud and pained outcry from residents over an especially heinous and outrageous killing. The body count of unsolved homicides in predominantly black neighborhoods in Mr. Williams' old South Los Angeles haunts numbers in the hundreds. The pattern is similar in other cities.

Police say it's because the witnesses and victims' relatives and friends won't cooperate, but often they do and arrests still aren't made. When they are, the punishment appears less severe than the punishment meted out to blacks if the victims were not black.

The four people Mr. Williams is convicted of killing were white and Asian. The sense among young black males that their lives are severely marginalized fosters disrespect for the law and implants the troubling notion that they have an open license to pillage and plunder their community.

Mr. Williams was long gone from the scene by the time the Crips devolved and morphed into the hundreds of factions nationally, and internationally, that have since become major players in the gun and drug plague. The memory of the thug life that Mr. Williams helped spawn, as much as the public demand by the authorities that he pay with his life for the murders he was convicted of, is why Mr. Williams is still roundly condemned by many.

But Mr. Williams feels deeply responsible for the Frankenstein monster that he helped create and has profusely and openly apologized to the families of the victims of gang violence in letters and taped messages. His contrition is not too little, too late, but it is still slight consolation to the victims that his violent quest for identity and manhood claimed.

The Mr. Williams that thousands are fighting to keep from a date with the executioner is not the same Mr. Williams who decades ago wanted to smash everyone. Yet there are still thousands like him that do. A very much alive Mr. Williams who understands their anger and alienation could help lesson their numbers.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a political analyst and social issues commentator, is the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black." His e-mail is hutchinsonreport@aol.com.

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