Friday, December 02, 2005
The day of the Stanley Tookie Williams execution moves ever so close ... and I can think of little else ...
The experience of having had that visit some years ago to Death Row -- having sat at a table across from one convicted of having committed crimes worthy of capital punishment without feelings of utter revulsion -- has staggering consequences. His eyes met mine with clarity and openness. He was probably more at ease than anyone in our group, and I wondered about it at the time.
He'd lived in a 9'x5' cell for over a quarter of a century -- 7 or those years in The Hole in solitary confinement -- writing his books for children on small scraps of paper while seated on a mattress piled up in a corner. Barbara brought those bits and pieces out of the prison at each visit and -- over years -- edited them into readable form and published them There were nine in all -- with more in preparation, each intended for and achieving the turning around of young lives from the awesome fate he is now facing.
The transformation experienced over those years of solitude produced a giant of a man -- someone whose inner self eventually grew larger than the over-developed muscular monster who had existed in this body before redemption was experienced in some mystical way in The Hole. I heard him speak of it yesterday in a from-prison interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now.
I came away from that encounter having witnessed serenity personified. I'm not sure that I've ever met anyone else who reflected that -- despite years of exposure to Bill's world of Tibetan Buddhism and the hours, days, weeks, of striving to achieve that kind of affect through the practice of meditation. The busyness of my mind could never be stilled enough for the techniques to take effect, yet I could see the peace in Stan, in this unlikely place, under these incredible circumstances. My own fears that day in the noisy prison visitor's center were cutting off the ability to fully take in the experience despite the attempt to capture it all -- to imprint every sight and sound because it would never be repeated -- ever in life. I can close my eyes and bring it all back in full color -- even now as I write these words.
It was on that day that I knew beyond words that guilt or innocence was less relevant than the taking of lives as vengeance for crimes committed, though I strongly believe in his innocence. I knew that I wanted no part of ending the existence of any human being in my name. That the death penalty was far too contaminated by decisions made for political gain. That those who were most likely to receive it are often doomed from their first appearance in our courts by the color of their skins, the economic status of their families, inadequate legal representation; by lives too often scarred by racial inequality; by lack of opportunity; and (as in the case of Stanley Williams) condemned by an all-white jury unable to identify with or ferret out the truth filtered through lifetimes of racial biases of a system of justice that reflected their own fears and prejudices, and all on purely circumstantial evidence.
Yesterday's published letter from the Senator Don Perata, Pro Tem of the California State Legislature, written to the governor recommended a moratorium on the death penalty. Despite an unwillingness to stay the execution, the Ninth Court of Appeals also made an unprecedented recommendation for executive clemency to the governor at the time of the denial. Senator Perata's letter was eloquent in its plea and a welcomed development to those of us working toward the same goal for our state and nation. It is a powerful statement from one surely more objective than I, and without a belief in Stan's innocence of the crimes for which he was convicted.
Five nominations for the Nobel Peace prize and a sixth for the prize in literature, speak volumes about the power of Stan's work with the world's children at risk through his writing from Death Row.
On Sunday afternoon (from 2:00-4:00 o'clock) I'll join others at the San Quentin prison gates in a peaceful demonstration. It's anticipated that many will arrived from Southern California in buses and that they will be joined by members of the clergy, by former gang members, by those opposed to capital punishment from activist groups from across the state and the nation, and we'll initiate a vigil that will begin on Monday morning and will go around-the-clock until either the governor announces his granting of executive clemency, or, until the 1-minute-after-midnight execution on the December 13th.
What about the families of the victims, you ask?
They will be spared the regret of certain realization at some point in their lives -- that nothing has changed for them. That there is neither closure nor relief from the pain of loss. That the taking of another life has gained nothing of consequence except the possibility of the lifting of the weight of hatred they've experienced as the result, except that the hate may not end with the death of another.
I carry with me the hope that I will never have to live the life of a survivor of such a horrific loss. I'm certain that I would seek the same vengeance were the victim one of my own. In time, I might be grateful for the fact that society has removed the possibility of my acting out my rage by setting limits on my response or my ability to carry it out against the perpetrator while the hurt is unbearable, I might be spared then, the diminishing of my own quality of life that would significantly reduce my own capacity for compassion and humanity. All of this might be more possible if my vengeance was not supported by law. I would know that the offender would live a lifetime separated from society without the possibility of ever enjoying freedom or the ability to re-offend. And at some point I might move beyond the unspeakable pain of my sorrow.
These truths were learned from members of a national organization called Families of Victims - Against the Death Penalty. Met them at a banquet in San Francisco hosted by actor Mike Farrell where the governor of Illinois (who had just freed up everyone on death row in his state after 14 had been found innocent) was the keynote speaker. It was an evening I've never forgotten, and that gives me hope this day.
Now -- there's work to do toward the creation of a more just and equitable system of justice while time continues to run out and the chance to confront ourselves is again lost in a world of everyday insurmountable human loss. Iraq, Darfur, Afghanistan, for me are unreachable. San Quentin is only minutes away .
This in concert with others, I can do.
Photo: A woman from the San Quentin community who walked down from her home near the gate to join us. She made an eloquent statement of support for Stan Williams "...because the State should not be in the business of killing."
Right photo: An unidentified man, UU Minister Paul Sawyer of Pasadena, and me.