Apart from winning an appeal or walking the green mile, there aren’t many ways to make the headlines from death row. But last November, Stanley “Tookie” Williams, infamous co-founder of the Crips street gang, saw himself on the nightly news: The San Quentin inmate had been nominated for the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize by a member of the Swiss Parliament.
Williams, now 47, was sentenced to death in 1981 for four robbery-related murders. The Crips — which he and a friend started in South Central Los Angeles in 1971 — had already spread to cities throughout the United States, and copycat gangs would soon crop up in South Africa and Switzerland as well.
Williams experienced a “reawakening” in 1993 and has since tried to whittle away at the burden of his violent legacy, one word at a time. He’s written Tookie Speaks Out Against Gang Violence, a series of eight readers aimed at urban youth, and Life in Prison, a biography detailing the isolation and despair of death row. In collaboration with his editor, Barbara Cottman Becnel, Williams also started the Internet Project for Street Peace, which links teens from the industrial, largely black town of Richmond, California, with peers in Switzerland, teaching them computer literacy and encouraging them to share their experiences in avoiding street violence.
Mother Jones spoke to Williams by phone about his nomination, his work for children, and his life in San Quentin.
Mother Jones: How did you start writing for troubled kids?
Tookie Williams: Let’s just say I was inspired to write children’s books, but without blood and gore. You see, the first publishing company that contacted me, they wanted the gore, the foul language. But see, I don’t curse. All these things they wanted are things that I had actually transformed from. Why should I rehash something that was negative? If you’re going to teach a child, teach him properly. I apprised [editor] Barbara [Cottman Becnel] that I wanted to write children’s books. Life in Prison, that’s self-explanatory — being in here. I wanted to deglamorize this place because this is ridiculous. No child would ever want to end up in here. So any stories that they heard — I wanted to debunk that.
MJ: And the Internet project?
TW: I had been hearing a lot about computers. Admittedly, I’ve never had a computer because we aren’t allowed to have such things. But I found out that children were interested in computers. The program teaches individuals to become computer literate, but it also teaches leadership and communication skills with other youth.
MJ: Anger is at the core of a lot of street violence. How do your projects address that?
TW: That anger that we talk about is self-hate. On a daily basis these youngsters digest negative stereotypes about blacks, and eventually they end up believing them and acting them out in life. That’s basically what happened to me. My books, they are about instilling confidence, trying to convince youngsters that they have the potential to succeed in life, and that they don’t have to succumb to the stereotypes.
MJ: Do you think you can be a role model from death row?
TW: For me, there was never an individual there that I could empathize with when I was growing up. If there had been an individual like myself who had actually experienced the madness and then came back and said, “Hey, look, this is not what you want to do,” I know I would have done better.
MJ: What effect did writing the books have on you?
TW: For me it was redemption, an act of atonement. Something that I could give back. Because let’s face it, myself and others in the gang life have done nothing but destroy the community.
MJ: You say your reawakening began when you were sent to The Hole in 1993. Can you talk about your transformation?
TW: I unchained my mind, and I did so through prayers and extensive study. I had to seriously question whether I was a human or a beast. In choosing not to be a beast, I discovered my humanity. I became autodidactic, self-educated — a critical thinker.
MJ: Do you think you would have had the same transformation if you’d had a life sentence rather than a death sentence?
TW: I would like to think so. We all know this place is potentially volatile and hopeless… I mean, this place — looking in it or being in it — is a place of doom. All right? This is where one’s past continues to haunt you. This place can either make you go mad or convince you to become a better person.
MJ: Do you believe you’ve been effective in turning back the tide of gang violence?
TW: There is no one elixir that can resolve the madness that’s going on out there. But I believe that what I’m doing and what I’ve done has helped individuals. It has more effect on the youngsters, because they have a better chance of growing up into responsible adults.
MJ: What did the Nobel nomination mean to you?
TW: I couldn’t have perceived such an honor being bestowed upon me. Having been nominated is simply mind-shattering.