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December 13, 2005

Angela Davis: "The State of California May Have Extinguished the Life of Stanley Tookie Williams, But They Have Not Managed to Extinguish the Hope for a Better World"


We speak with longtime prison activist and professor Angela Davis about the execution of Stanley Tookie Williams. She was outside San Quentin prison when he died. In the written response to Williams’ clemency appeal, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said "The dedication of Williams’ book 'Life in Prison' casts significant doubt on his personal redemption."–the dedication includes Angela Davis. [includes rush transcript]

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Angela Davis, longtime prison activist, professor, University of California, Santa Cruz, author of a number of books, including Are Prisons Obsolete?, Women, Race and Class, and her latest is Abolition Democracy: Prisons, Democracy and Empire. Angela, you were outside the death chamber. You were outside the San Quentin prison last night into the morning. Can you talk about your response to the execution and to what was happening outside?

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, of course, it was a very sad moment. But for thousands of people who gathered there, dedicated themselves to keeping Tookie Williams’s spirit alive. I must say, I have attended other vigils; this is the largest vigil I have ever seen. I’m not sure exactly how many people were there, but it seemed like thousands. During the last portion of the protest and vigil, young people, in this extremely moving gesture, read from Tookie Williams’s book, a young man, after young woman, after young man, after young woman, gave very moving renditions of the lessons that Tookie Williams has left to us about the importance of nonviolence, the importance of turning away from the gang life.

And as I stood there imaging what was happening in the death chamber, it seemed to me that this might very well be the beginning of something very new. The campaign against the death penalty has been—while a powerful campaign, its participants have been those who attend all of the vigils, a relatively small number of people. There were last night huge numbers of people, multigenerational, a extremely diverse crowd and everyone was both very sad and at the same time it seemed to me very dedicated to continuing the campaign against capital punishment, against injustices brought on by the prison system, against racism, for peace, for justice, for equality.

AMY GOODMAN: Angela Davis, I wanted to turn to an excerpt from Governor Schwarzenegger’s written response to Tookie Williams’s clemency appeal, when he denied it. Schwarzenegger writes, quote, "The dedication of Williams’s book, Life in Prison, casts significant doubt on his personal redemption. This book was published in 1998, several years after Williams claimed redemptive experience." Schwarzenegger goes on to write, "Specifically the book is dedicated to Nelson Mandela, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, Geromino ji Jaga Pratt, Ramona Africa, John Africa, Leonard Peltier, Dhoruba al-Mujahid, George Jackson, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and the countless other men, women and youths who have to endure the hellish oppression of living behind bars." Schwarzenegger goes on to say, "The mix of individuals on this list is curious. Most have violent pasts, and some have been convicted of committing heinous murders, including the killing of law enforcement." Schwarzenegger goes on to particularly single out the inclusion of George Jackson in Williams’s dedication, George Jackson, the jailed Black Panther member gunned down by prison guards at San Quentin in 1971. Angela Davis, you stood trial and were acquitted of taking part in a courtroom raid that sought Jackson’s release. Can you respond to this part of Schwarzenegger’s denial of Williams’s clemency appeal?

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, it seems to me that we saw a very intentional politicization of this process, namely the equation of what Schwarzenegger would call lawlessness and criminality with radical political activism. It is revealing, it seems to me, that every single name he evoked by quoting the dedication from Tookie’s autobiography, every single name is the name of a person of color, a black person or a Native person, and of course we have Nelson Mandela, who is a global hero, who represents to us the determination to dismantle racism and sexism and economic exploitation.

It is very frightening to me that Schwarzenegger would make such a statement, particularly in light of the assault on people’s rights associated with the PATRIOT Act. This feels like an even more intense kind of McCarthyism that’s happening here, and it was particularly ironic that he said that Williams is not reformed and he still sees violence and lawlessness as legitimate, as what he called a legitimate means to address societal problems. This is ironic, since Stanley Tookie Williams has publicly embraced nonviolence, and as I said this evening, when I spoke at the rally, this execution is the most outrageous example of using violence, of using state violence as a legitimate means of addressing social problems.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the issue that Schwarzenegger raised, and others, that Stanley Tookie Williams, if he was truly engaged in redemption, would ask for forgiveness, admit his crime and ask for forgiveness?

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, Stanley Tookie Williams did repeatedly express remorse for all of the terrible things he admitted he had done in his youth. At the same time, he indicated that, time and time again, that he was not guilty of the particular crimes with which he was charged. It would have actually been easy for him to admit guilt, even though he is innocent, it would have been very easy for him to admit guilt, apologize for the purpose of guaranteeing that he might receive clemency from Governor Schwarzenegger, but he maintained his innocence until the very end.

And, of course, there has been little discussion about the actual evidence in the trial. There’s been little discussion of the witnesses who testified against him, the jailhouse informant, for example, because there was no DNA, or what they call factual evidence in the case, and this is what I think is quite dangerous about the assumption that the only way innocence can be demonstrated is through DNA. I would say parenthetically that I happened to catch on CNN an interview with a man who had been released from death row in Illinois based on DNA evidence, and he told a CNN reporter that he believes that Tookie Williams should be executed, because there was no actual innocence, there was no factual evidence of his innocence. This is very frightening to me, because it means that the science, the so-called scientific production of innocence can, as a matter of fact, boomerang against all of those who are not able to mobilize such evidence. And it might boomerang against the notion that we need to abolish the death penalty because it is wrong. No one, regardless of guilt or innocence, should be put to death by the state during this day and age.

AMY GOODMAN: Angela Davis, I want to thank you very much for being with us, and a safe trip to Paris. What words will you bring to the conferences you speak at in France?

ANGELA DAVIS: Words I will bring will emphasize the importance of generating stronger global solidarity. There is widespread sentiment against the death penalty in France, of course throughout Europe, and increasingly in other parts of the world, as well. I should point out that the Cote d’Ivoire just recently abolished the death penalty. Senegal just recently abolished the death penalty. So I will bring a message of hope, that the State of California may have extinguished the life of Stanley Tookie Williams, but the State has not managed to extinguish the hope for a better world.

AMY GOODMAN: Angela Davis, thank you very much for being with us, professor, University of California, Santa Cruz. Her latest book is Abolition Democracy: Prisons, Democracy, and Empire.

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