Stanley “Tookie” Williams, a founding member of the Crips, was executed by the state of California in 2005 after his appeal for clemency was denied by then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Williams, a convicted murderer, wrote numerous books while in prison about the dangers of gang violence and was nominated for the Nobel Peace prize for his anti-gang initiatives. His death launched a national debate about the ethics of capital punishment and the U.S. prison system. The following excerpt was adapted from Jasmine Syedullah’s essay “Radicalizing Dharma Dreams” and originally appeared in Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation.
Why sit? There came a time in my own practice when the lofty dreams and abstract ideals that had originally compelled me to move toward the cushion, the sangha, and a tradition of wisdom teachings began to dissolve. I didn’t find nirvana on my cushion. I did, however, find something like it in the middle of the night, surrounded by police, while holding vigil with thousands of people before the gates of a prison. It was the evening of December 12th, 2005. I had traveled with my sangha from Oakland to the foothills of Marin to participate in a talk led by Rev. angel Kyodo williams and Jack Kornfield at Spirit Rock. It was the most racially mixed, densely populated Buddhist gathering I’d ever seen. After the talk, several of us bundled up in hats, scarves, and jackets, our meditation cushions in tow, and headed to San Quentin to protest the state-sanctioned execution of a man named Stanley Tookie Williams.
Williams had been arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death in the early ’80s. He had spent more than 20 years on death row. He had entered prison as the co-founder of one of the most notorious gangs in America, the Crips, but by the time of his execution he had become a Nobel Peace Prize nominee five times over for his violence prevention efforts with urban youth. He was globally celebrated by noteworthy public figures and respected national organizations alike, and that night he was to suffer death by lethal injection.
We heard the chants before we saw their faces. Hundreds of people packed the vacant streets leading to the prison gates. The shouts cut through the cool nighttime air, calling us to come together. We rolled in chanting. The moon, the camera flashes of news photographers, and the soft glow of flickering white-stemmed candles cast an eerie light across a sea of unfamiliar faces. We, the urban sangha, joined a motley crew of anarchists, preachers, politicians, white liberals, black Muslims, communists, hip-hop moguls, and blue-clad Crips. We were flanked by quiet rows of surprisingly passive police, and we flowed together like a river toward the gates of the prison. We are, I thought, the strange bedfellows of the next social revolution.
Our walking meditation winded along a seemingly endless pathway until we arrived at a clearing where lines of protestors spilled out of formation to pool in dense crowds before the barricaded west gate of San Quentin State Prison. It is California’s oldest institution of incarceration and home to the state’s only gas chamber and death row.
We were there for Williams, and not because everyone believed he was innocent. I had read his autobiography, Blue Rage, Black Redemption: A Memoir. By his own account he contributed to violent acts and had a debt to repay to his community. However, he claimed until his death that he was not guilty of the crimes for which he had been sentenced. We were gathered at the gates of the prison because we believed that, given the options, his debt was better paid with life in prison than death in a chair. He was already taking responsibility, brokering his redemption in cooperation with those impacted by his actions. He had spent his time in prison writing books, giving public talks, and creating online educational resources designed to prevent young men like him from following the path he had chosen. Tookie’s was the hard-won kind of auto-correct that reflected our own need for forgiveness, for something with longer-term visions of justice than retributive violence can afford, for something beyond the cycle of punishment, exile, and annihilation we erect around those whose presence poses a clear and present danger to our sense of safety.
The evening felt surreal, like midnight might strike and some old tension might break, giving way to the improbable. Maybe a miracle. Picket signs bearing colorful slogans filled the air. The voices of the few capital punishment supporters were subsumed in a sea of Williams’s advocates, drowned out by our calls for his release from death row. We placed meditation cushions on the concrete and sat. We brought stillness into the roar of 5,000.
In the silence I could feel it all, the grief and the rage. Injustice has a flavor, a smell: It chokes the breath and burns the gut. It rises through the body like poison. I couldn’t sit any more. My voice joined the others. At the eleventh hour, phone in hand, I scrolled the news updates in search of the latest, some sign that the fate of the condemned might be stayed. A quote from Governor Schwarzenegger read, “Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings, there can be no redemption.” I braced myself. The article read that even though Williams had written a children’s book about the danger of gangs, he didn’t indicate remorse for his crimes because he dedicated his book to the political prisoner George Jackson and the Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton. Tookie was being denied a stay of execution, at least in part, because of his affiliation with so-called enemies of the state. I clasped hands with strangers. We stood as one terrific body of dissent against cold and death, armed with nothing but the fullness of our attention, our witnessing, our whole selves.
In the earliest hour of the morning, half-past midnight, it was announced. Stanley Tookie Williams was the 12th person to be executed by the state of California since 1978—the year the brutal, dehumanizing practice of capital punishment was reinstated. His personal transformation could not convince Governor Schwarzenegger that his life was worth saving, but his death was not an event that passed unnoticed.
So why sit? At the beginning it was a means to an end, another way to achieve stillness in the midst of rage. A method of besting what Brazilian theater director Augusto Boal calls “the cops in your head.” I was using meditation to “police the police,” adopting their instruments of surveillance, punishment, exile, and control in service of my liberation. It wasn’t working. It gave me a way out of my head but not a way out of my habit of self-isolation, or believing that the only one who could save me was myself—one of the deepest lies of our hero-obsessed culture. What was first refuge became its own prison. After sitting with those who stood for Tookie, my deep suspicions were confirmed: prisons cannot keep up safe. Criminalization is not in the common interest of justice. These things became more than cause—they became a calling.
Being fully in the stillness was not about self-isolation or self-help but about standing in radical relationship with all that stillness holds—all the grief, all the loss, all the loneliness—and standing with it, rather than rushing to reason it away, arrest it, or lock it in a box. Nothing can truly be destroyed this way.
The lofty dreams and abstract ideals that had originally compelled me to move toward the cushion could not save Stanley. They did not start a revolution. They were never meant to change the world, but to change the way we live our lives. Sitting, we stood for the truth: the struggle for freedom. We sat to struggle with the truth of freedom in all its possibilities and contradictions. This is the practice. This is what makes it radical.
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