The legacy of Tookie Williams

Posted: Dec 19, 2005 12:05 AM

Convicted murderer of four and founder of the notorious Crips gang, Tookie Williams, is gone, executed under the death penalty of the state of California. Now those who protested his conviction, and worked for his clemency, want him to be remembered as a hero.

However, these folks should appreciate that their efforts are undermining any credibility and efficacy that there might have been in the words of remorse that Williams left behind.

The picture they choose to portray, of a justice system hopelessly racist and tilted against blacks, supplies nothing but oxygen to the culture of destruction and violence that sustains the very gangs that Williams supposedly wanted to discourage.

I say "supposedly" because his own words and behavior, up until the end, lend credibility to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's concern that Williams' "redemption" was "hollow."

Redemption, after all, is not a declaration but a transaction. It involves one seeking it and one granting it. The more appropriate word for the one seeking it is penitent. Yet, as I look over Williams' words, I see no reference to repentance but a lot of claims to redemption.

Williams made redemption an entitlement, declaring himself his own redeemer and granting himself his wish.

His defiance _ the defiance that sustains gangs and the culture of "us against them" _ was evident in a final interview that he gave. He said that the redemption that he wanted to be his legacy is "something that I believe is not exclusive just for the so-called sanctimonious, the elitists." Not exactly the sentiments of what one would expect from a humble penitent.

Who exactly are the "elitists" that Williams thought claim redemption as their exclusive territory? Surely, they must be those with the temerity to have suspected his guilt.

So, with irony that he seemed not to appreciate, he sought clemency from a system whose legitimacy he rejected and from authorities who, in his mind, were sanctimonious elitists.

Now Williams' entourage wants to carry forth the message that the problem was not the man, but the system.

Despite eyewitness testimony to one of the murders, witnesses to his confession, ballistic analysis relating the shotgun casing from one of the murders to his shotgun, and 25 years of review after review of the case in state and federal courts, Williams' entourage not only refuses to accept his conviction, but even to recognize that there is a remote chance that justice was done.

A Los Angeles Times journalist touched the central nerve of the controversy, identifying the "dueling goals of redemption and retribution."

These have been opposing strains in the civil-rights movement since the days of the Rev. Martin Luther King.

King's great challenge, and great accomplishment, was to fight the forces of violence and destruction and lead a movement defined by hope and possibility. In addressing this challenge he wrote: "What could I say that could keep them courageous and prepared for positive action and yet devoid of hate and resentment."

King believed in the ideals of America, that racists could be led to repentance, and that equality could be achieved. He spoke of the "magnificent" words of our Constitution and shared his dream that black citizens could share in the freedom that the Founders conceived for all.

The forces that King tried to keep at bay preached nightmares rather than dreams. They saw no hope in America. Their nightmare fed frustration, bred despair and spawned riots and violence.

King wanted equality. They wanted revenge.

The gangs, of which Williams was a founder, and today's hip-hop and "gangsta" culture are offspring of the nightmare. They convey hopelessness and a world without value to black kids. So these kids see no value in learning, work, faithfulness and morality.

Ironically, despite Williams' claim to redemption, and alleged repudiation of the gang culture, the message he has left behind, a message being amplified by his hangers-on, is feeding the nightmare and not the dream. He wanted to be forgiven, but he could not forgive. The result is not a legacy of hope and redemption but one of defiance and despair.

If Williams' folks really believe he was redeemed, and that his primary interest was to save black kids, they must change their tune. Stop trying to transform a deeply flawed man into a cult figure, and start talking about the possibilities in a free country for those who live responsible lives. King believed it, many blacks have achieved it, and it is the only possible hope for a decent future for black children.