Planned execution of gang founder hits racism nerve in United States
Tue Dec 6, 1:53 AM ET
SAN FRANCISCO (AFP) - The fight to save the life of a condemned African-American inmate in California has inflamed deep-rooted racial tension in the United States.
Anti-execution rallies in support of convicted killer Stanley "Tookie" Williams have featured appeals from African-American community icons such as actor Danny Glover, rapper Snoop Dogg, and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson.
Themes hammered at have included stopping a "racist" justice system from killing another "brother" and Williams' using his status as a former gangster to get youths of color to shun crime.
Meanwhile, Barbara Becnel and those working with her at "SaveTookie.org" have been inundated with venomous letters and emails blasting African-Americans and insisting Williams die as scheduled December 13.
"That doesn't surprise me at all," said Natasha Minsker, director of death penalty policy at the American Civil Liberties Union in Northern California. "The death penalty is very racially charged."
"It serves the community's need for vengeance, and that is a strong emotion. It is a way people express their fears, passion and anger about what is going wrong in society."
A study of California homicides from January of 1990 through the end of 1999 showed that those who killed whites were more than four times as likely to be sentenced to death as those who killed Latinos.
Those who killed whites were at least three times more apt to be punished by execution than those who kill African-Americans, according to the study.
Williams, who co-founded the notorious Crips gang in Los Angeles, has maintained his innocence in the four 1979 murders that resulted in his death sentence. Three of the victims were Asian. One was white.
"The Williams case was tainted by racism from beginning to end; from the jury selection to the prosecutors' closing argument," Minsker said.
The 51-year-old Williams was convicted in 1981 of the murders but has since renounced his violent past, penned children's books and worked to stem gang warfare, earning him nominations for the Nobel peace prize.
Of the 645 inmates on death row in California, 229 are African-Americans, 121 Latinos, and 256 whites, according to the ACLU.
Huffman faults a judicial system "run by white people" for a disproportionate number of people of color locked behind bars.
"We are sentenced twice faster and twice longer than whites," said Huffman.
African-Americans make up eight percent of the state's population, according to Minsker.
Cases such as those involving Williams, O.J. Simpson and Rodney King vented longstanding racial emotions into the public arena because "you can't sweep them under the rug," Huffman said.
"It is like the cup is getting full, and then something happens and there we all are," Huffman said. "We come together on behalf of some issue that has finally come to a boil."
"You have to deal with your feelings about it. You can't escape it. It's in your face."
Blacks and whites in the United States are as fervently divided on Williams as they were on Simpson. African-Americans expressed joy when Simpson was acquitted of murdering his white wife and a friend in 1994.
Whites railed against the verdict as a travesty that left a killer unpunished.
US blacks didn't uniformly agree on Simpson's innocence, but celebrated that he got the same benefit of doubt they felt a white man would have gotten if facing the same circumstantial evidence.
Blacks see in Williams a symbol of redemption with the "street credentials" to get his message to inner-city children of color, Huffman said.
If a "thug in the hood" is shown that Williams isn't worth saving, why should they bother to change, Huffman asked.
Celebrity governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has scheduled a clemency hearing for Williams on December 8. The actor-turned-politician has the power to change Williams's sentence to life in prison with no chance of parole.
Huffman said she had "heard through the vine" that warring Crips and Bloods gangs have offered a permanent truce if it would save Williams.
"The flip side of that, if we don't save Stanley, is fearful," Huffman said.
African-Americans in the United States have never gotten an apology for slavery, and feel unwanted, Huffman said.
"I'm going to save these nasty messages and pull them out the next time somebody tells me racism is a thing of the past and that black people need to get over it," Becnel said.