The opinions traded about Tookie Williams and his education were, mostly, two. Some people felt that the death penalty was just, Tookie was a bad man who had committed serious crimes, and that he should be executed. Others felt that the death penalty was unjust or immoral, that Tookie had redeemed himself, and that he should be celebrated for his more recent life.

I abhor the death penalty, so that part is taken care of.

But I don’t celebrate Tookie, and I think he belongs in jail and should shut up, and not be celebrated. It’s great news that he has become less of a jerk and that he is trying to do good in his own way in prison. But as an alpha gangster he has done so much damage to others that he deserves incarceration for life rather than adulation. Reading the “save Tookie” people I got the feeling that most of them were well-educated privileged people and that almost none of them had lived in gang territory, much less been challenged or attacked by one of L.A.’s street gangs. I have, both, and I can testify that the constant watching for colors, the stark fear of confrontation, and the head injury were all no fun.

And by no means did I have the worst of it. As an ethnic outsider, I might be ripped off or kicked around, but I would never be given the choice to join or die. Nor would I be at risk for drive-by retaliation just because of my race and my neighborhood. I think about my former coworker M. (I’ve written about him before) running like hell from a drive by because he was black and male and lived in a black neighborhood. And I think about his nephew and friend. At 19, community college students and dorks, they were spending a Saturday afternoon playing Nintendo. They went to McDonalds to get some fries between games, and while they were sitting a couple of gangbangers wandered in.

“Sup?” said one of the bangers.

“Sup,” said the kids.

Ten minutes later the bangers came back in and shot them both multiple times. They’d been given a territorial challenge they didn’t recognized, and their reward was hospitalization and rehab for bullet wounds.

So remember Tookie’s good deeds, sure. But remember too that hundreds of thousands of people you’ve never met live in fear every day of their local Tookies as much as they live in fear of racist and corrupt police. Below the cut is an editorial from the LA Times by someone who knows that story in the first person.

A pootbutt’s scary life in outer space L.A.
By Jervey Tervalon
co-editor of the Cocaine Chronicles, is finishing “The Pootbutt Survives, a Memoir of Growing up in the Hood.”

December 4, 2005

I ALWAYS THOUGHT Stanley Tookie Williams wanted to kill me. I thought he wanted to kill all of us pootbutts who didn’t gangbang, and that fear informed how I lived my life as a boy.

Thirty years later, I don’t believe in the death penalty, and I don’t want the state to execute Tookie. But I do want the people who grew up in better neighborhoods and now want to lionize the gangster to understand just how hellish he made many people’s lives.

I’m about the same age as Tookie, and I grew up in the ’70s, in the neighborhoods lorded over by the Crips he reputedly created. I never wanted a leather coat, because then Tookie couldn’t shoot me over it. I wouldn’t wear a gold chain or sport anything valuable that could possibly get me killed by Tookie or the boys who did his bullying. Tookie is why I didn’t walk south or east, didn’t go to house parties, didn’t and still don’t care for people who talk loud or argue too much.

This was the psychology of a pootbutt who wanted to survive Tookie and the world he ruled. I never shot a gun in a drive-by or kicked somebody to death then spray-painted his corpse — things that happened in my Jefferson Park neighborhood. But human nature being what it is, I would sometimes walk to the comic book store where Crips hung out and have this burning impulse to shout “Brim here!” (Brims being the Bloods of their day — the red-wearing rivals of most Crips.) Courting death held no attraction for me, but this desire to shout a rival gang name occurred so often that I came to think of it as my Tourette’s syndrome, a barely suppressed tic that was unacceptable if I wanted to live.

Wanting to live seemed almost an unreasonable expectation if you were a young black boy who, as boys do, wanted to run the streets. We were alone with Tookie because his folks couldn’t do anything with him, and neither could his teachers or the police.

I was in a summer science program at USC when the Crips, in a squabble with the Bloods, shot up the community center with a machine gun. A police officer showed up and explained the LAPD’s plan of action if the Crips returned: “We’ll take our time getting here,” he said. “We’re not prepared to handle machine guns.”

I was 15 when I heard that, sitting in a broad recreation room filled with folding chairs and anxious kids who just wanted to finish their summer jobs and go back to school. Later that day the Crips did return, and I saw the leader standing in the doorway — Tookie or someone from the quickly growing ranks of even more lunatic Tookie clones — looking for somebody to shoot. I can still see the muzzle of his gun casting a shadow on the freshly mopped linoleum floor. But I was a pootbutt, not a Blood, and so not worth shooting. He left.

Nobody reported these things in the vacuum of outer-space black Los Angeles. So we were left alone with Tookie and company, and we had to make our accommodations. We could get strapped and exchange lead with them, or we could hunker down as I did and pretend the world wasn’t so terrifying, or we could, as many black folks got around to doing, get out of Dodge to anywhere that seemed slightly less dangerous than black Los Angeles’ Tookie-filled streets.

The city may never recover from that fear and that mass retreat. .

9 thoughts on “Tookie

  1. Exactly.
    I’ve been finding both extremes very distastful so I’ve kept my mouth shut about this. I don’t want to support the ability of politicians to kill citizens, and I don’t really feel sympathy for an asshole who, when faced with the penalty prescribed for his crimes, suddenly decides to be less of an asshole. I’d prefer him to rot in jail.
    It’s like we suddenly got our own Mumia Abu-Jamal out here or something.

  2. “But I don’t celebrate Tookie, and I think he belongs in jail and should shut up, and not be celebrated.”
    Maybe I’m confused by your tenses, but you do know that they executed him a week ago, right?

  3. Adulation is a bit much, and the damage is undoubtedly far-spread and heinous. I haven’t seen any Tookie worship myself. Anyway, even though I generally support the death penalty, I do not feel that he should have been executed.

  4. sup?
    So, presuming one is of non-gangbanging origin, what is the correct reply to “sup?” that will afford one their continued existence sans bullet-induced ventilation?

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