” It’s a difficult subject to discuss with someone who knows that both time and appeals are fast running out. Someone who knows that in as little as six months time he may have to make the walk to a room less than a hundred yards away from where we are sitting to be executed by lethal injection. We are sitting inside a tiny steel cage on Death Row in California’s notorious San Quentin prison. Locked inside this cage with FHM is perhaps the U.S.’s most notorious Death Row prisoner, a man of fearsome physique and reputation, referred to on the streets even today, as a living legend.
In 1971 at the age of seventeen, Stanley Williams, better known as “Tookie”, co-founded a gang called the Crips and quickly became L.A.’s biggest, baddest gangbanger in its biggest baddest gang. For eight years he ruled the mean streets until his reign was suddenly cut short in 1979 when he was arrested, tried and sentenced to death for four shotgun murders that he maintains to this day, he did not commit. In his absence The Crips continued to grow and have since spread their deadly tentacles as far afield as Japan, Holland, South Africa and the UK, killing, maiming and ruining the lives of tens of thousands of young gang members and innocent bystanders in the process. Today on the streets of Britain’s inner-cities, their legacy is becoming all too evident.
Now fifty one, Stan has spent the last 26 years in San Quentin including six and a half years consecutive years of solitary confinement. With time and appeals fast running out, Stan extended an exclusive invitation to FHM to visit him on Death Row to talk about his life, his legacy and how the hell he came to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize – four times! This has been no ordinary sentence because this is no ordinary prisoner. “Pick up your pencil,” he says as he munches the second tray of chicken wings we’ve bought him from the prison vending machine, “I’m gonna start at the beginning.”
The beginning for FHM however began four days before our visit to San Quentin, when we arrived in Los Angeles, Stan’s old stomping ground, with the intention of seeing for ourselves Stan’s legacy - the current LA gang scene. My initial phone call to one of his old Crip contacts, however, was not encouraging: “This is not a good time for you to be out on the streets,” said, Duane Moody, who now works for AMER-I-CAN, a foundation dedicated to rehabilitating ex-gang members, “there’s a lot of tension out there.” He went on to explain exactly why we had picked a difficult, even dangerous time to “head into the hood” to try and photograph and interview some modern day gangbangers…
A mere three weeks before our arrival, a fourteen year old boy had been brutally gunned down as he rode his bike outside his home in South Central. In an apparently random act of revenge against his neighbourhood, Byron Lee Jr, who had never been involved in gangs, was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Shot nineteen times as he begged on his knees for mercy, Lee became the latest statistic in a seemingly endless cycle of revenge and death that has seen gang related killings rise to over eight hundred a year in Los Angeles alone. Lee’s callous murder made national news and sickened even seasoned detectives. “This is a senseless killing,” said the shocked Chief of the LAPD, William Bratton, “this one touched a nerve.” Not a good time then to be hanging around on street corners in Compton taking photos and asking questions - but the following afternoon that’s exactly what we were doing.
“The name’s A.R.,” says a 24 year old black guy who agrees to talk with FHM and pose for pictures with his “homeboys”, “that’s because I like automatic rifles. You’re hanging with the Cedar Block Pirus, we get on with all the Bloods but we don’t get along with too many Crips. It’s all about territory,” he explains as he talks about all the neighbouring gangs, “we don’t go in their backyard, they don’t come in ours.” So how does trouble start then? “It could be a little thing over a bitch or some money – anything can start off drama but when it get started my whole hood gonna back me up and ain't nothing that can stop it ’til some lives is gone, that’s how it is.” I ask him if he owns a gun and he looks at me puzzled. “Yeah, I got one in my pocket,” he says reaching into his tracksuit pocket and pulling out a Glock. “What are you doing with that?” I blurt genuinely surprised. “What am I doing with that?” he parrots incredulously, “if somebody roll up right now I’m gonna protect you and me motherfucker - it’s real out here, this is not no fucking video game out here – it happens during daylight hours I wouldn’t have if I didn’t need it!” “Yeah its Compton,” says 20 year old Black Star, who is soon to show us his Tec 9 machine pistol, “bullets fly at random and hit you like hard rain. See by that mail box there its got a bullet hole.” It has. Enough chat. Taxi for FHM - straight outta Compton!
Stanley Williams was born on December 29th 1953 in New Orleans to a poor black 17 year old girl who was soon left to fend for herself by an uninterested father. Six years later the pair moved to a small apartment in South Central, Los Angeles where, lacking a father and surrounded by poverty, crime, drugs, illiteracy and racism, it wasn’t long before young Stan began getting into trouble. “School was a joke,” Stan says, polishing off another chicken wing “and the teachers were insipid. I was more interested by what was outside my front door. I had to survive, it was prey or predator and no youngster should be thinking like that.”
With his naturally powerful physique, fearless fighting skills and magnetic charisma Tookie soon developed a reputation for fighting older, bigger bullies who belonged to gangs with names like the Sportsman Park Boys, Denver Lanes and the Figueroa Boys. In and out of Juvenile Hall (borstal) Stan took up weight lifting and as his strength increased so did his resolve to tackle neighbouring gangs. “I hated street gangs,” he explains, “my friends and I lived in fear of bodily harm so I decided to seek and destroy – attack, attack, attack!” As Stan explains the story of how the Crips came into being, I jot his words down with a blunt three inch pencil on the back of some brown paper napkins. San Quentin’s regulations dictate that visitors are allowed to bring nothing into the prison other than a passport/ID, up to thirty one dollar bills for food and one handkerchief? In addition visitor’s are not allowed to wear denim, or clothes that were green, orange, yellow or powder blue. Bang goes my tried and trusted interview outfit of technicolour dungarees! “Every time I attacked a gang member I’d always let them know it was Tookie,” he continues, “In the beginning it was all about fisticuffs, it took nerve to fight with your hands - anyone could pick up a gun and make out they were tough.”
As his reputation grew so did his group of friends until in the spring of 1971 he was approached by Raymond Washington. “He talked about how he was experiencing the same problems with gangs on the East Side and asked if I was interested in uniting our homeboys.” The deal was sealed a few days later at the nearby Rio cinema and the following Friday afternoon, as arranged, Washington turned up outside a gym with thirty of his homeboys. Five different groups loyal to Tookie showed up swelling their numbers to nearly one hundred and the alliance between West side and East had begun. “Raymond and I became joint leaders of what we soon christened the Crips,” says Stan tucking into the first of five FHM funded chocolate bars, “we competed to see who could recruit most people. We attacked gangs everywhere, they had to join if they wanted to continue to exist. It was like a black juggernaut, we walked everywhere in black hats, and black leather coats in groups of fifty, seventy, sometimes 100s. What I didn’t expect was that the Crips would ruin the lives of so many young men” he sighs with a shake of the head, “that’s why for the last fifteen years I’ve dedicated my life to trying to stop gang violence.” I ask him if he’d heard about the shooting of Byron Lee Jr and his big frame sags a little: “That youngster?” he asks, his voice barely a whisper, “it’s absurd…that broke my heart.”The day after our trip to Compton to talk with current gangbangers, FHM had received a surprise phone call from Stan’s old friend Duane Moody telling us that Byron’s mother, Keva Byum, had agreed to meet with us to talk about her son’s death…
We arrive outside her bungalow on 81st Street and are met by her brother Dwayne Marshall who shows us inside. “It was October 9th, a Saturday,” says 35 year old Keva Byum as she beckons us to sit down in her kitchen, “Byron came shopping with me and when we got home he asked me if he could go outside to ride his bike. Ten minutes later I was cooking chicken tacos when I started hearing helicopters. Then my mum came round looking like she’d seen a ghost and said people were screaming and calling my name.” Keva explains how she ran down the street and pushed her way through a large crowd of people gathered round an alleyway. “An ambulance went past which, I didn’t realise at the time had my son in it and all I saw was his leather jacket, a white shoe, his bike and a lot of blood.”
Uncertain what had happened, Keva was then driven at top speed to the local hospital where after an agonising wait, doctors led her down a corridor. “They took me to a room where they have refrigerators that pull out of the wall,” she says, her face numb with grief, “they didn’t want me to touch him, all I could see was his face he had a tube in his neck – he looked like he was asleep.” We take a break whilst she composes herself. “Here I am I’m thirty five, I’ve grown up in a neighbourhood infested by gangs,” she continues, “and my child only made it to the age of fourteen. Gangs are getting worse. The older gang members need to start talking to our youth and telling them there’s a better way.”
With Dwayne offering to show us where his nephew died, we thank Keva and leave her behind in her empty, all too quiet house. At the end of the street he shows us fifty yards down a dusty alley to a place of sad beauty, decorated by coloured candles on the ground “This is where we held a candlelit vigil,” he explains, “and this is where he was shot, right here” he says pointing at a piece of cardboard lain on the ground to cover up the bloodstains. On the surrounding garage doors we read the numerous messages of remembrance from friends. “He didn’t have any gang connections,” says Dwayne as we turn to leave, “I’m sorry but I’m still too angry to talk about it.”For eight long years the “Black Juggernaut” called the Crips that Tookie and Raymond Washington had created rolled through the streets of L.A. creating mayhem and violence with bullets and fists wherever it went. And then the wheels came off as drugs, megalomania, greed and complacency became the order of the day. “It got out of control,” shrugs Stan, “we morphed into what we were fighting against, we became too successful and when any group has no enemy it implodes.” In 1979 Raymond Washington was killed by a shotgun blast as he sat in his car and at the age of 25, Tookie was arrested in his car on four counts of murder. “Yes I’ve done many bad things but that madness is not one of them,” he states emphatically, “and there is no doubt that if I’d had a half good lawyer I wouldn’t even be here.”
Stan then promises to have various court papers relating to his case forwarded to me so that I can see for myself. They arrive a week later and make harrowing reading. His passenger Samuel Coleman claims Police beat him up and offered him immunity if he would testify against Tookie - he did but later retracted it under oath. At the trial the prosecutor had the case moved from downtown LA to an all white suburban neighbourhood. During jury selection he then removed the only three African, American jurors thereby ensuring trial by an all-white jury. Not surprisingly Tookie was found guilty and sentenced to death despite the fact that at both scenes of the crime the fingerprints and bloody bootprints found didn’t match Stan’s – in fact no physical evidence linked Stan to the crimes, simply highly questionable testimonies. In addition, one of the police officers who testified so damningly against Stan at his trial was later given a 99 year sentence for rape and murder.
Anyone reading the details of Stan’s case would have reasonable cause to question whether the man now facing execution was in fact guilty or whether he had been framed by a corrupt and intrinsically racist judicial system eager to rid their streets of an unwanted menace to society. Nowadays, that menace to society has become exactly the opposite – an asset. Against impossible odds, whilst inside Stan turned his life around, educated himself, and for the last fifteen years has devoted his life to finding solutions to the gang violence that he knows he had a hand in creating. “Because of my street indoctrination I needed a radical transition,” he smiles, eyes twinkling, “Whilst I was in solitary for six and a half years I slowly educated myself about words and culture, developed reason, common sense and then a conscience.” So what was it like developing a conscience?
“Horrifying!” he laughs, “it was like peeling away the layers of an onion. I had become desensitized, aggressive, obsessed with machismo and filled with self hate – it felt very strange.”The results of that conscience are plain to see. “Tookie Speaks Out Against Gang Violence” is an eight book series for five to ten year olds, published in 1996 which is still being used in classrooms and libraries across the U.S. His book “Life In Prison” (1998) is a stark warning for those unfamiliar with the grim reality of serving a prison sentence and has won two national awards. Two years ago via his educational anti-gang website www.tookie.com, Stan introduced his “Protocols for Peace”, a step by step guide for setting up lasting peace treaties between warring neighbourhoods which has already been used in Newark, New Jersey to establish peace between nearly 200 hundred rival gangbangers. “That made me feel excellent when I heard about that,” he beams, proudly. Stan’s transition from leader of the Crips to international street peacemaker is a remarkable one and his tireless work since then has not gone unnoticed.
Thousands of emails sent to his website by parents, teachers and police officers alike testify to the fact that his books have made wanna-be gang members stop romanticising gang warfare and caused existing gang members to want to quit. In 1998 Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote expressing his support and then in October 1999 Winnie Mandela paid Stan a visit in person – a day he still treasures. The film “Redemption” about Stan’s life starring Jamie Foxx was the most popular cable film in the States in the year of its release year and has helped further spread his message. To date he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize an astonishing four times and the Nobel Prize for Literature three times. “I’m an example of the fact that an individual can change,” he says as a guard calls time on our visit, “and if the lowest of the low can change in here, believe me anybody can, anywhere.”
In the meantime the black juggernaut of gangbanging thunders onwards across the states and the rest of the world, mowing down innocent bystanders and gangbangers alike and leaving in its wake nothing but grief, pain, anger, resentment and, most recently, fourteen year old Byron Le Jr. “As long as I live and breathe I’ll be doing everything I can to stop it,” says Stan giving FHM a bear hug before we leave. And as the big prison door slams shut behind me, I can’t help but hope that he’ll be living and breathing for a long time to come.
Stanley Williams was executed some 9 months after this interview on December the 13th 2005 after clemency and a four week stay of execution, were rejected by the then Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
© Words Piers Hernu (Used by Kind Permission)
Article Appeared in FHM March 2005