Never Again: Ending the Death Penalty, with Tookie in the Lead

Stan Tookie Williams is dead.  Long live Stan Tookie Williams.

It is a common saying on the Left that, after a devastating defeat like the one we suffered in the wee hours of this morning, we should organize, not mourn.

I never had the honor of meeting Tookie Williams.  As I fought to save his live over the past several weeks, as I watched the movement swell and finally culminate in a rally at San Quentin of thousands of people — there not only to bear witness to his assassination, but also to express outrage at it — I knew I was seeing something special.  So many people — from every race and religion, every political perspective and every age — over the past few months came together to save this man, and we came closer to succeeding than we would have thought possible six months ago. We also, I believe, witnessed the beginning of a new Civil Rights movement in the United States.

Yet still we mourn.

The grief and anger that we feel at the passing of our friend, our comrade, our brother is tempered with a strength that he gave us to say, “Never again.”  We stand unbowed before Schwarzenegger and the entire machinery of death and vow that not one more of our brothers or sisters will we let you take from us, not one more death will we mourn, not one more innocent person shall be sacrificed to the twin demons of racism and poverty.

There are moments in history that, looking back, are pregnant with the possibility of moving mountains.  They galvanize movements, laying bare awful truths previously hidden and endowing people with the confidence that life can be different and that they are the key to making it so.  We may look back at the day Tookie was so cruelly taken from us as just such a moment.

No matter what we do, Tookie will live on.  He is a movement unto himself, helping thousands of young people steer clear of his mistakes and giving hope and self-respect to a generation of young black men.  Our job is not to keep Tookie’s memory alive — who could forget him? — but to build on his work, to march forward, with Tookie at the lead, to tackle the deep injustice and racism of this society and construct something worthy of his legacy.

It is up to us to follow Tookie’s example and marshal our passion and intellect, our conviction and dedication, to move that mountain.

Some of us have been in this movement for years, some of us have come more recently, and still others have been pushed by Stan’s work into activism for the first time.  Whatever our history in this movement, it is plain to see that we are stronger than before — the years of work put in by those who are the backbone of the movement, before Tookie Williams was a national story, has enabled us to be where we are today.

We have put Schwarzenegger on notice: we will exact a pound of political flesh for his cowardice and cold-bloodedness.  If he — along with Attorney General Bill Lockyer, Senator Dianne Feinstein (silent till the end on Tookie’s case), and the rest of California’s execution squad — wants to continue to kill the innocent, the reformed, people of color, and the poor, then we must respond by making them pay for their bloodlust — both in the streets and at the ballot box.

Take Action!


ACLU, Northern California Urge your elected officials to support The California Moratorium on Executions Act (AB 1121) immediately!

Go to the website of ACLU of Northern California, and write a letter today!

Our next step in this effort is a moratorium on executions.  Two more men are scheduled to die in California in the next two months: Clarence Ray Allen on January 17th and Michael Morales in February.  There is also moratorium legislation to be voted on in the California legislature in early January.  That legislation came too late for Tookie, and our efforts to save him did not succeed.  Can we move from this terrible defeat to victory in one short month?  Can we build on the momentum of the largest anti-death penalty campaign in decades?  It is incumbent on us to try.

It is in times like this, when the hour seems most desperate and our grief threatens to swallow us whole, that we must turn to our forebears for inspiration.  Stan is the latest link in a chain of martyrs that goes back millennia, of those who died at the hands of power for the fundamental challenge they posed, for the alternative they illuminated.  The last few decades in America have seen that chain forged in blood and sorrow, most harshly for black America, who have lost Martin and Malcolm, Fred Hampton and George Jackson.

And now Tookie.

Going back further in our history may provide some solace going forward, as we are reminded that those who fell before us live on as we carry their flag into the battle for a better world.  As August Spies, one of the Haymarket Martyrs hanged in 1886, proclaimed to those who sought to silence him:

If you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labor movement, then hang us. Here you will tread upon a spark, but here, and there, and behind you, and in front of you, and everywhere, the flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out. The ground is on fire upon which you stand.

Stan Tookie Williams is dead.  Long live Stan Tookie Williams.

Michael George Smith is a student at the University of California, Berkeley.  He can be reached at