Saturday, December 31, 2005

New connections ... newly discovered writers, poets, singers, and activists among those who will follow ...

Young Zena and Yaminah have recently entered from stage left to take their places on that continuum of Reid, Allen, Charbonnet, Parker, Galt, and Moody, "woman lives". The succession goes on as the matriarchs yield the life force to a new generation. Find myself wondering if Mammá or great aunt Alice or great great grandmother Celestine thought about such things in their final years? Did their Catholicism continue to answer all of their questions or were they, too, left with "dead is dead" as it has been for both writer Joan Didion ... and for me? Is this, then, the kind of awareness that develops as time begins to wind down? Am I alone in this?

Maybe Zena Allen's singing and composing ability and Yaminah's budding political activism feel just a bit like extensions of my own life -- and therefore provide a sense of ... what? I knew neither of them until the past few weeks -- so there surely could not have been any influences imposed on their social development -- at least not from me. But I will try harder now to find old tapes of my songs and will offer them to Zena to add to her repertoire. Perhaps that is the "why" of my music, after all. The songs were written for some purpose, though that seemed only serendipitous until now.

We met at her grandmother, Maybelle's, memorial service. She grew up on the east coast, the daughter of Prof. Ernest Allen of Amherst and a mother whom I've never met. Another of the Allen-Reid connections of which there were four such for these large families. Wonder how these bloodlines will play out over the next generations?

Last night brought a phone call from UU minister, Paul Sawyer, who has returned from his meetings at Cambridge -- that jarred me out of the lethargy of holidays and back into the awareness of the pending execution of the oldest prisoner on death row. It's scheduled to take place very soon now. The clock is moving steadily toward another confrontation with the governor's office with another deathwatch to live through. Maybe clemency will be granted this time, and maybe the re-examination of the efficacy of the death penalty as a prelude to the hearing of Assemblymember Mark Leno's bill will gain support. This man's age, poor physical condition, blindness, and the fact that he will be brought to the death chamber in his wheelchair should make a statement about the ritual of death that we'll again have to live through. There could hardly be a more bizarre case upon which to hang this awesome penalty.

This man has become a published poet while serving time. Some of his work will be on hand to be read by those of us who will gather for this new vigil. I'll meet Paul and Country Joe MacDonald and others at the prison gates on Tuesday at noon where there will be yet another press conference and the beginning of a new action in the hope of stopping state executions until we've had a hearing on the Leno bill in the new legislative session sometime in January.

Last Friday, December 29th, would have been the 52nd birthday of Stanley Tookie Williams, had he lived. Barbara Becnel and those who continue to work to clear his name met that day on the steps of the capitol in Sacramento to declare this date evermore as "Redemption Day" and have vowed to meet to memorialize his life annually as they work to bring an end to capital punishment to this state and, hopefully, to the nation. This, done in Stan's name, will have given meaning to his troubled life and senseless death.

It has been a troubling year in many ways, has it not?

...with any luck, the rains may cease ... .

Photo: Newly discovered young cousin, Zena Allen, singer songwriter born on the east coast but currently seeking a career in music in Los Angeles. Her father is Prof. Ernest Allen of Amherst in Massachusetts.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Displaced New Orleans Creoles -- newly "placed" ...

Finding myself wondering -- each time I see a newscast that includes an update on those made homeless by Katrina -- whether they know that life will go on. That, in time, the world will stabilize and some sense of order will be restored. It was so with those of us made homeless in the great hurricane in New Orleans in 1927.

Though only a child of six with little sense of the trauma being experienced by my parents, I am dimly aware still of throbbing, palpable, change that occurred as our new lives began in a strange place called Oakland with little to remind us of "home."

However, New Orleans was gradually replaced by a place where lagniappe and soft-shelled crabs and oyster loaves and coffee with the distinctive aroma of chicory, and french bread as light as air, and lost bread, and cream cheese floating in rich sweet cream in little cartons, and early morning improvised songs of street vendors hawking watermelons, persimmons, and blackberries from pushcarts ... all too soon forgotten by the children. The gumbo and jambalaya and head cheese came with us with little brown-paper packages of filé following in suitcases of travelers who made it back home over time; mostly porters who "ran on the road". There was little else for African Americans (Creole or no) to do in the West. We provided the service workers -- or no jobs at all. It was, after all, the preliminary to the Great Depression years. It was the mid-to-late Twenties.

It was a big night when Papa George came home from the Oakland Athletic Club where he waited tables for (white) VIPs at big parties. We little ones would be allowed to get out of bed -- late though it might be -- to share in the paper party hats, tiny sandwiches, balloons, and sweets that would arrive with him wrapped carefully in dishtowels and hidden under his overcoat. It doesn't take much to make a celebrant of a child. New Orleans had none of this.

Our parents met at novenas at parish churches, or, in mother's social club, "The 500," Mom's social club named for the whist-like card game they played frequently in a round-robin of hostessing.

I look at those years now in retrospect as if I, too, had experienced them as an adult. What rises for me are the kaleidoscopic events that brought such profound social change to my own life, and to the lives of those around me in subsequent years.

My parents died years ago, taking with them all of the pain of the resettlement. I cannot speak to that. But it feels ironic to me that I'm now working with the National Park Service in the process of enshrining a period in history (World War II) that was also marked by racial segregation and that, despite all of the intervening years, Katrina's shocking exposure of the wounds; the scars, the degradation of racism that has revived the fears and the shame of sins long thought forgiven and atoned for.

It's the scabbing over then re-infecting of the awful period of the Civil War and Reconstruction -- never quite resolved ... only dormant for periods ... ever to be revived then matastacize; to go into temporary remission in an endless progression toward ever-freshening rejection until we stop still and take the time to speak the terrible words of hate aloud; do the incantations; burn the incense, bay at the full moon; meditate on our sins; make appropriate apologies; pray to whatever God deemed powerful enough to save us; deal with reparations; then to do whatever it takes to fully acknowledge the awfulness we've lived through in our always tragic and tainted shared unaddressed national history of shame!

It is quite impossible to not see a re-living of the separation of families now spread far and wide as creating yet another diaspora for black peoples. It takes very little imagination to not see a replay of my own ancestors being sold off the slave blocks -- husbands, wives, and children sold to landowners widely separated -- never to be reunited. Katrina aided by an uncaring bureaucracy has mirrored the nightmare, and each day of uncertainty for those still scattered throughout the states makes a mockery of our nation's quest for replicating this "Democracy" through the known world.

Maybe that's why a discovery this morning of mother's "500 Club" snapshot meant so much. It is a testimony to the determination of women to rebuild broken lives; to survive in the face of what appears to be irreplaceable losses.

Despite all, we have survived, and against great odds at times. My own life attests to that truth. Today's families will find ways to do likewise. I truly believe that. But one would have hoped that more progress would have been made after so many years of struggle. There is comfort in the possibility that the percentage of "the Enlightened" has grown exponentially, and that one day soon we'll hit a tipping point and be saved from ourselves. There was surely evidence in the numbers of people who responded with shock and horror at the callousness of the administration's first responders in the wake of the great tragedy of Katrina. We could see it in the faces of those who entered the inundated city as jaded journalists but who've since returned to deliver the updates as concerned citizens demanding change.

Maybe this time ... .

Photo: Back row; Albertine ?, Marie Gaudette Allen, Ruth Smith, Mabel Lashbrook Allen, Annabelle LeBeouf Therence; in front, Lucille Towns. Some of the members of the "500" social club.
Yet another Christmas ...

Dorian and I de-decorated the tree this morning; the earliest deconstruction on record. Its needles were already shedding badly when we brought it home on Christmas Eve. Probably left the forest about three months ago, and -- despite the fading green still visible in its needles -- it surely died soon after the cutting. It seemed fitting to remove the time-collected holiday fancies from its branches and lay it to rest.

Everyone was gathered around the hearth (except for Rick), but the pain of his early death has lessened now and feels more like a resolution to a life of torment than the tearing away of one I still miss, though the missing is less active than before. In place of the pain and guilt that invariably accompanies the loss of a son, I'm now experiencing a deeper appreciation for those still with me.

I worry about my 18-year-old grandson -- but know that he'll eventually survive a troubled adolescence into young adulthood because he is so loved by us all. "Ms. Hermione Ginglehopper" looks reasonably well-launched with a steady love and a brand new Yorky-Maltese puppy, Sophia. The two little ones, Alyana and Tamaya, are vibrant and consuming life in beautiful ways right now -- they're learning and growing and adoring ... I have such pride in them all.

Bob is quiet -- there was little time to catch up with his life, but I'm reading his thoughts and finding a new appreciation for his life on the horse ranch in San Juan Baptista now that he, too, is blogging. He brought me a very contemporary gift only possible through technology. It's an introduction to a philosopher he's discovered -- he'd taken the time to download several hours of a very special documentary produced by the BBC. It reminded me of the day long ago when he gave me a book he'd discovered saying, "...this book changed my life, Mom." It was something about "...a small planet" (can't recall the exact name but it had to do with his introduction to organic foods somewhere along the way in his travels, I believe." At any rate, I then introduced him to the "Adele Davis Cookbook," with the comment. "This is the book that changed my life." Now we'll exchange philosophers, and it feels good -- appropriate.

David and I will work together on getting Reid's (our store) online early in the new year, and that feels good. It's been something I've wanted to do with him for years but the pressure of running the family business while a single parent fathering four children always proved too consuming for new ventures. We may have finally reached the place where we can do that now.

Christmas seemed bittersweet this year. It surely is related to so many deaths over the past 3 months; some near, some distant -- but all traumatic and reminders of the fragility of life.

Enough of that:

Received the preliminary draft (ready for release) of the March 2006 recipients of those women being honored by the National Women's History Project, "Community Builders". I'm listed as "Betty Reid Soskin, Cultural Anthropologist" for want of a title, I suppose. Made me feel more important than I did yesterday -- and maybe that's okay. Not sure what I would have called myself had I been asked.

Also had a call from the "Labor Something Something of San Francisco" asking if I would agree to being interviewed for a radio (KPFA) show on racial discrimination in the labor movement, and -- while we were at it -- would I be willing to serve on a panel on the same subject next July? Next July??? Laughed and told him that I don't buy green bananas these days ... despite the fact that my bank has granted me another 30 years on the last refinance of my condo!

Didn't realize until that exchange that I really am beginning to have some doubt about longevity.

Maybe it is all those deaths ... .

Photo: David's daughters, Alyana and Tamaya.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

All things in their own time ...

Maybelle's memorial service was touchingly beautiful; but it was the living left in her wake who served to set my legs under me again -- full balance has returned -- and an appreciation of the rightness of the succession of life, in an odd way, brought peace. The children in that room were amazing.

Today I attended the 58th annual Charlie Reid's Christmas Party at Shields-Reid Community Center -- a center named in his honor years ago.

Charlie was my first husband's uncle, a man revered in Richmond by all who knew him. He was an icon who effected the lives of the children of North Richmond for many years. He is a legend who still walks these streets and is held up as the paragon of virtue, especially to non-white children. He was the playground director, disciplinarian, baseball, basketball, and football coach, grounds-keeper, benefactor for whatever children needed (including parenting). There is a touching videotape of Charlie and his work that is occasionally shown on the local cable channel. He has provided the model for Reid young men over the years, and is the source of great pride.

At a meeting I attended last week (the Main Street Initiative), it was interesting to see that in the draft of a mural that is in the planning stages for the intermodal train, BART, and AC Transit bus station, Charlie is featured prominently among the many scenes of Richmond life. It will be a 6'x30' montage that will immortalize this loving man who meant so much to so many. There will be lots of bits of civic life shown, but our family will see only Charlie.

Fifty-eight years ago Charles Reid gave the first Christmas party that featured a black Santa. He wanted African American children to experience the holiday love and giving within the context of their own lives and culture. He was far ahead of the black consciousness movements.

His family has continued the tradition now for all these years since his death several decades ago, and has formed a nonprofit that collects toys that are given away each year to over 3000 children of every age, color, or race. Gifts are distributed from one until four o'clock on an afternoon near Christmas to anyone who turns up. Today the lines were shorter since the weather was stormy, but they came as always, and the two Santas (one black and one white) were wonderful.

There was caroling and dancing and a cheer-leading exhibition by our prize-winning team. The kids who participate in the drill team marched to their own drumming. Proud parents took photos of gleeful kids, and Christmas was suddenly here in living color and palpable love!

...and just about in time, too. I needed to be lifted out of the awfulness of so much that has transpired over the past few weeks.

Tomorrow I'll go with Tom and his family to visit Union Square in San Francisco -- then to Japan Town -- and finally to Tadich's in the financial district for supper. San Francisco's skyscrapers are outlined in lights now, and there's nothing quite like Gump's windows to wake the spirit and turn on the internal holiday glow!

I still can't bear to share the most recent conversation with my devastated friend, Barbara Becnel. She is still facing what will be the equivalent of a state funeral for Stanley Tookie Williams in Los Angeles on Tuesday. I can hardly imagine the pain she must be having to live through. But she has a family in Southern California and won't be alone through it all ... .

As a final irony -- Did I think to tell you that -- Stanley Williams was executed on the birthday of Jamie Foxx -- the actor who played him in the film "Redemption," and who visited him in his final hours?

Photo: One of the dancers from the neighborhood. The second pic is self-explanatory, but do notice the racial diversity. There was an interpreter to be sure that the Latino families were brought along. This is how the world should look everywhere. (Click on the thumbnail for a full picture of the room. It's wonderful!)

Friday, December 16, 2005

This is the Stanley Tookie Williams whom I met and mourn ...

The Apology

Twenty-five years ago when I created the Crips youth gang with Raymond Lee Washington in South Central Los Angeles, I never imagined Crips membership would one day spread throughout California, would spread to much of the rest of the nation and to cities in South Africa, where Crips copycat gangs have formed. I also didn't expect the Crips to end up ruining the lives of so many young people, especially young black men who have hurt other young black men. Raymond was murdered in 1979. But if he were here, I believe he would be as troubled as I am by the Crips legacy.

So today I apologize to you all -- the children of America and South Africa -- who must cope every day with dangerous street gangs. I no longer participate in the so-called gangster lifestyle, and I deeply regret that I ever did.

As a contribution to the struggle to end child-on-child brutality and black-on-black brutality, I have written the Tookie Speaks Out Against Gang Violence children's book series. My goal is to reach as many young minds as possible to warn you about the perils of a gang lifestyle.

I am no longer "dys-educated" (disease educated). I am no longer part of the problem. Thanks to the Almighty, I am no longer sleepwalking through life.

I pray that one day my apology will be accepted. I also pray that your suffering, caused by gang violence, will soon come to an end as more gang members wake up and stop hurting themselves and others.

I vow to spend the rest of my life working toward solutions.

Amani (Peace),

Stanley "Tookie" Williams, Surviving Crips Co-Founder,
April 13, 1997

Note the date on this letter. It was written after a seven year period in solitary confinement, a period during which he educated himself in the silence and isolation of that experience and found personal redemption.

There is some need to recall the context in which the Crips were formed. Investigative reporter, Gary Webb, of the San Jose Mercury News wrote a sensational series on the deliberate flooding of the East L.A. and Compton -- as well as other innercity areas with cocaine that provided funds with which to finance the Contras in the not-so-secret wars in South and Central America. The Reagan administration's cabal with the players Ashcroft, North, Negroponte, Rumsfeld, et al, brought together the forces that co-created the Crips and the Bloods. A fact conveniently forgotten in subsequent recollections of the period.

Though most of the revelations brought forth in those dramatic pieces proved out, Webb was demonized, lost his position at the newspaper, and eventually 'committed suicide.' All of this runs hard and deep and has been and will continue to be largely ignored in the writing of the history of the times.

Read Tookie's apology again, and decide for yourself whether this was a man who would have submitted to the pressure to proclaim remorse for crimes that he did not commit -- even to influence the decision for clemency.

When I have the emotional stability to relate my first conversation with Barbara Becnel (yesterday) post- execution -- will do so. For the moment the feelings are simply too raw ... maybe tomorrow. It may be enough to say that the fight goes on; that she will clear his name; and that I won't accept her invitation to attend the huge memorial service being held in Los Angeles on Tuesday. Instead, I will continue to quietly work toward the goal of achieving the moratorium -- will join Paul Sawyer at the prison gates when he returns on January 10th to protest the next scheduled executions. I strongly suspect that there will be no more state killings, though 5 are scheduled over the next several months. A number of the bills now making their way through the legislative process will halt them all until we've had a closer look. Fewer of us now have the heart for this, I strongly believe, and that fact will continue to show up in the polls.

I will do this in his name.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

I firmly believe that the state of California, in the name of us all, last night executed an innocent man ... .

My friend and Stanley Tookie Williams's stalwart supporter, Barbara Cottman Becnel, has vowed to spend the rest of her life proving his innocence. She was one of the five who witnessed his death by lethal injection. The process took 22 minutes. That, she will accomplish with the help of others who shared her (our) conviction of both his innocence and his redemption.

Yesterday, on his day of execution, after a long day of meetings connected with work, I was just about to leave for home -- heading for the elevator -- when a colleague followed us out to announce that, on a break, he'd learned from a radio report that the governor had ruled against clemency -- in a six-page letter. I was shocked and distraught -- and angry. Walked with another co-worker to the parking lot in silence, climbed into my car, and headed into the commute traffic of congested I-880.

I had another meeting scheduled at 5:30 to deliver a talk to the Main Street Initiative gathering, and had intended to drive over to San Quentin to join with others in awaiting the midnight execution despite my earlier misgivings. But, after detaching from the pain of the awful news for the drive back to Richmond -- holding it all in suspension through my talk before a group of community members -- my car headed for home with me at the wheel, passively, and made no attempt to enter the Richmond Parkway or head for the prison. I felt like an automaton -- alive but just barely.

Tried to reach Barbara on her cell, but got a message that her service was completely filled. I had no idea what I'd have said to her even if I'd gotten through ... surely she was devastated. She'd devoted the last ten years to saving this man and pressing for a moratorium on the death penalty -- and now it was over. The only chance left was the last minute appeal to the Supreme Court. News of that denial came within an hour after I reached home.

At around nine the telephone rang sharply through my empty apartment (couldn't bear to listen to radio or watch television) and there was my friend and vigil partner from the past week, Rev. Paul Sawyer, calling from Cambridge. It was only then that the tears came.

I told him that I was feeling guilty for not being with the thousands of others gathered at the gates, or, at least mentally standing with Barbara in the death chamber, but that I couldn't bear it! I only wanted the night to be over and some sanity to return. He was comforting, "...of course you couldn't. You've done enough. Truly. But we've only begun, Betty. I'll be back on January 10th to begin the next protest against the death penalty."

After a period of quiescence, with only 11 executions since the restoration of capital punishment in this state, three are scheduled over the next 2-and-a-half months. The Leno Assembly bill will be heard in January. How could this be? Wouldn't simple compassion suggest that these next two state-sponsored deaths be held off until the bill was heard? Should not the governor have been guided by that as well?

I will join Paul at the gates for the next -- then the next -- and for however many state killings it takes before a moratorium is granted and sanity returns. He will never know how much his call meant to me in those hours.

Why was I feeling such fear combined with the sorrow -- as though my world had suddenly become even more hostile than I'd sensed even yesterday? Suddenly this execution became an extension of all of the death and destruction in the world, and the governor an extension of those associated -- rightly or wrongly -- with natural disasters, and mad-made cruelties from Abu Graib and Guantanomo; to Iraq and Darfur. My world had become a terrifying place.

Stanley Tookie Williams will be exonerated posthumously. I'm certain of it.

May he rest in peace. By all reports, he left this life bravely and with forgiveness for those who failed to hear his pleas ... .


Photo: Stanley Tookie Williams shown here in a photo that displays the post-transformation man of peace. The pictures used so widely in the media -- of the monstrous muscle-builder -- pictures were so fierce and fear-producing appeared to be deliberately distributed in order to support justification for his execution.

Monday, December 12, 2005

There are no words ...

only the pain of inexpressible sorrow.

Maybe tomorrow... .

Photo: Signs posted in the area where we gathered in protest to the execution of this innocent man. Barbara Barker is seen in the left picture - on Friday evening. She was packed for moving on, leaving others to man the barricades until the end. I've wondered about her ... in the hours after Stanley met his death, and whether she was alone when the news came ... .

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Trying terribly hard to not think about the governor's decision ...

and writing about those feelings only increases the tension. Such thoughts when combined with the emphasis on death these past days (the three Reid sisters, Richard Pryor, Eugene McCarthy, the anniversary of John Lennon's, etc.) bear heavily on my sense of vulnerability. But I'm sure that I'm not alone with such feelings, and that the weight of these days will transition into the holiday spirit at some point over the next few days -- unless the decision is the one dreaded... .

It's so hard to understand why -- when so little is being done to alter the downward spiral of so many lives of young black men in the innercities; when the conditions that created the monster whom even Stanley Tookie Williams denounces (his former self) continue to go unaddressed and unabated and cloning murderer-producing internalized self-hatred reflected from an admittedly racist society ... . not sure how to finish this sentence, or, even to unravel it in order to make more sense ... . These days are filled with incomplete sentences and limited understandings ... .

Maybe what I want to say is that this man who rose from the absolute bowels of rejection and dispair in the bleak aloneness of solitary confinement -- rehabilitating himself in the process-- if he can be allowed to continue his life and his work to help to save other lives -- maybe ... .

My mind is disorganized this morning. The words won't come. Won't organize themselves into coherence ...

Yesterday I attended the annual Sharing the Spirit event at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts. It lifted my spirits for a few hours. Last night I dressed in my finest to join others at the annual Senior Ball held in the beautifully-decorated downtown Convention Center. Yet I was home and in my pajamas, in bed with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a (Kaiser Permanente) cup of hot cocoa by nine. Listened to my bedside radio for hours when sleep wouldn't come ...

It's mid-morning now, and I'm off to attend a chamber music concert with Tom this afternoon. That will eat up more hours. We'll have dinner someplace interesting, shrinking the waiting time by a few more.

If it's not too late, I may drive over to the prison tonight for a visit with those who continue to hold the vigil, but without Rev. Paul Sawyer and peace activist Barbara Barker -- it will be different. With the time drawing near, the tension will be almost unbearable. Been here before to protest the death penalty when I didn't feel any particular connection with the prisoner about to be executed. This is so different from those times. So intense ... .

But, however it goes, I will meet Paul and the others back at the prison gates on February 12th when the next man is scheduled to die. He is a diabetic confined to a wheelchair and is also a person of color, though not African American. The following execution is that of a Latino man, scheduled for some time in March. It feels somehow that it should be unimportant to mention race in connection with these pendings state deaths, but with such a large percentage of those on Death Row being from the poor and the non-white population, it's unavoidable -- a part of the sad story.

Tomorrow I will write again. The decision may have come in and this awful teeth-grinding worrisome pain of waiting will have ended.

Still holding that strong sense that this life will be spared and that the decision for a moratorium will be enacted come the January session of the legislature.

I do have this formidable sense of intuition that has served my life so well ...

It will be so.

Photo: Lovely crystal clock, a gift from my co-workers. It bears the inscription taken from a painting on my bedroom wall, "Against the ruin of the world there is only one defense, the creative act!" The painting is by Clarise Bois and often followed me to hang in my offices here and there. It's back home now and hangs behind my bed.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

"Death comes in threes" has new meaning this morning ... .

In less than three months, three sisters; Dorothy Reid Pete, Florence Reid Lewis, and yesterday, Maybelle Reid Allen, ceased to exist -- at least in this dimension. They died in their birth order as it should be -- with Maybelle being the youngest. All lived long and productive lives. All left grieving progeny and a legacy of warmth and love.

This morning I called David to tell him of Maybelle's passing -- he was very fond of her. About ten minutes later the phone rang again and it was he. "Are you okay, Mom?" Of course he would be concerned. These were my contemporaries. The edge was coming closer. His concern for my state of mind was surely understandable. In fact, I really hadn't reacted to her death as one being pushed closer to the edge of existence, but with the sadness of loss -- as might be expected. Hadn't really identified with death in the abstract except in a casual way, I guess. Though each leaving diminishes us all, and fear of non-existence is surely a factor in creating the preciousness of life that grows with each day now. I'm acutely aware of my mortality -- but not with the kind of dread that might be anticipated if I spent much time thinking about it. In these years I'm far more involved with valuing the time left, and using it well.

I suppose it would be more frightening if I could truly imagine non-existence. I can't. Tried hard to experience "The Void" in those days when trying so hard to understand the Tibetan Buddhist belief system -- in support of Bill. Nothing took me there. No amount of meditation techniques worked for me, including the one time that he convinced me to try -- to meditate after sharing a joint. Nothing. Either my resistance was too strong, or, my intellect over rode the effects. I simply don't have the power to imagine non-being. I only know, for sure, what is here and now, and the here and now has always been quite enough.

After cradling the phone I sat quietly for a few minutes. Was aware that I'd tossed off David's concern rather casually. "I'm too busy living to worry about dying," and, "I live each day as fully as possible have no intention of leaving anything to bury!" "I plan to be all used up." Maybe it was too lightly said ... I wondered if he was reassured?

Where does this confidence come from? I don't truly know. Denial? Maybe. Each day of life now I'm aware that on that very first day of life I entered an imperfect world and that I will one day -- surely sooner than I'd wish - - leave one. I know that. I'm also convinced that there is but one life and that we're all living it. I know that the power is in the living of it with intentionality -- no drifting by -- with responsibility -- but not without mistakes or brief trips up wrong pathways. Without them we could not possibly learn to make the corrections necessary to live more productively, or to develop empathy or compassion. Such attributes come from experiencing the full variety of human experience and learning from them and moving through. That's the life process. For some (like Stanley Williams) that process is deeper and more wildly traumatic. For others, like me, it is relatively problem free in comparison, but not without its share of pain and suffering, but manageable.

Though my beliefs are still ever-changing, at the moment I'm sure that each of us born into this life stream from whichever "tributaries," have the power to either enrich the collective existence or impoverish it. We had no choice about how we entered, and through whom, but how we use the time is for each to determine. Had I been born in the first centuries or the Middle Ages -- had I been born to wealth and privilege or a life of peonage -- I would be someone else. And in a way, I was. We all were. Maybe that "star stuff" that connects us all is what science has named DNA. I carry the DNA of slaves; Celestine of No Last Name, Leontine "Mammå" Allen Breaux, but also (from one fascinating possibility that turned up in my research), Sacagewea's son, Jean Pierre Charbonneau; and that French Lieutenant, Louis Charbonnet, who fought Toussaint L'overture in the Haitian Revolution and who later settled in New Orleans to begin the long line of Creole Americans who contributed to history in ways both large and small.

I have little belief in reincarnation per se, but I do have a strong sense of having blood connections to the lineage out of which I've come, and of the character of the lives that I will have influenced upon leaving. My immortality is in the children and grandchildren whose lives will have been marked with the quality of my own life, for good or ill -- and how they remember me -- as have the lives of Mammå, and Aunt Vivian, and Aunt Alice, and my imaginings about the Sacagewea connection, and my father, Dorson Louis Charbonnet, and his steadfast pride in family; all contributors to mine.

Nothing is lost, ever. At least not until the bomb is dropped and all life is obliterated from the planet. And, life will remain imperfect -- a laboratory for each succeeding generation to shape this wondrous collective existence through the living of it.

I truly believe that every day left on my Calendar of Destiny must continue to be lived fully and that the moment I stop -- I will be simply waiting to die. May I be blessed with a quick and relatively pain-free ending.

This is one of those days when I wish fervently that I believed in an afterlife and that Dorothy and Flossie have met and ushered Maybelle into their heavenly circle where, together, they will join the other Reid's who preceded them into eternity. And perhaps this is so.

Would that I, too, could believe ... .

Photo: Another picture of the lovely stained glass windows in the little Chapel at Sea Ranch. Spent some time this morning with eyes closed -- imagining myself there again -- recalling images of Maybelle and her family. She left to me the gift of a strong and loving friendship with her youngest son, who has become one of my closest and dearest friend -- across the generations.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Thursday, December 8th, another day to remember -- the anniversary of the death of John Lennon, the day after the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, and ...

the completion of a park project that Naomi (my co-worker) and I have been working on for weeks. We conducted the first of two planned Leadership Tours of the identified structures that form the widely-spread Rosie the Riveter/Homefront National Historical Park. It was a total success that brought together a cross-section of community leaders and townspeople in a spirited 4-hour adventure that -- as it should have -- taught us more than we've previously known before about this city and its people history. Our goal was to begin to increase the awareness that this is a host city and that its people will soon be living in an urban national park. Richmond is in the process of becoming the place where the nation and the world will come to learn of and reflect upon World War II, a seminal event in world history.

We'd leased a 28-passenger tour bus, filled it with local folk who knew every building on our route but who may have never put them together into what is now identified and congressionally designated an urban national park. We started out with coffee and bagels at city hall, then an exhibit of the artifacts collection; proceeded to the marvelous woman-designed Rosie the Riveter Memorial, then headed out to view many structures: The supermarket of the day, the Greyhound bus terminal, Galileo Hall, the Park Florist, Winters Building, Carquinez Hotel, Old Post Office, Mechanics Bank Building, Old Main Library now housing the Richmond History Museum, the Whirley Crane and SS Red Oak Victory Ship at Shipyard 3, Atchison and Nystrom Villages, The Maritime Child Development Center, the Kaiser Permanente Field Hospital (now a Mosque), and finally the beautiful newly restored Albert Kahn Ford Assembly Plant that will eventually house the Rosie the Riveter Park's reception center. We left the bus for an inside inspection guided by a representative of the developer. The tour wound up at the Harbormaster Office building on the shoreline for lunch and a discussion about what we'd visited and to elicit their suggestion for further tours.

I saw "the Park" quite literally forming before us. These were the oldtimers, some nonprofit reps; the education specialist from the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts, the project manager of the Macdonald Avenue corridor from the Redevelopment Agency staff; a woman from Point Richmond Neighborhood Council, an officer from the Police Athletic League; the president of the Main Street Initiative board and his wife, a pioneer dress shop owner; a community Activist from the Iron Triangle among others; plus our entire Park staff including interns and volunteers.

What surfaced was an almost fierce pride in their city as these structures began to evolve in their minds into the park. Naomi stood next the bus driver narrating what we were seeing and inviting comments -- a process that quickly evaporated as our busload of veterans of those historic times and long time residents began to takeover the telling. It was terrific! It was as if they were suddenly realizing what congress had given to us; that the mission of the National Park Service -- which is to tell the stories of the nation's history through the preservation of structures -- held great meaning now. That they were a critical element in that telling, and that we (our staff) would be the instrument through which that will happen.

As my job description suggests -- Community Liaison -- next steps were suddenly as bright as day. Can you imagine a series of bus tours that each carried a member of the district school board, a member of city government, two public school teachers, and the rest of the bus split evenly between elders and teens? Rather than a few outside experts boning up on the history of World War II and then conducting traveling lectures for the locals; we would put together 80-year olds with young people -- take them on the same tour -- and simply allow history to be transmitted live! by those who lived it. We don't have much time to take advantage of their presence -- but can you imagine the richness of such an experience? We might tape or film these events against the day -- and quite soon -- when we will no longer have access to that living history. I cannot imagine that funding could not be found for such a venture after yesterday's resounding success.

However, that was only Thursday from 8:30 to noon. By 12:30 I was off to join the vigil at San Quentin through two o'clock, then back to check email at my cubicle, and catch some impressions from the rest of staff on our morning bus tour. It was all enthusiastic.

Left for home around 3:00 to shower and get ready to be a guest at the Kaiser Permanente 60th anniversary celebration where -- with other survivors -- I was to be again "honored at" as a Rosie the Riveter. This would mean another celebratory coffee cup this time with "Thrive!" painted thereupon, a Rosie dogtag, a little plastic 60th Anniversary bracelet, a photograph with dignitaries, and then home by 8:00 and a final check-in to see what had happened in Sacramento and how the wind might be blowing in the clemency matters.

Today I'm at home -- to listen for word from the governor -- to rest up from yesterday's marathon - to absorb as much as possible from reflecting on events that are moving me much too fast through time ... and to get ready to drive out into the valley to a sanctuary with Tom who drove down yesterday for the weekend -- then to return to San Quentin for a sunset vigil -- if there has been no word from Sacramento on Stan's fate. I'll drive Paul Sawyer to the Oakland Airport for the red eye late in the evening since -- after a week of living out of his car at the prison gates -- he fly across the country for a ministerial conference in Boston before returning to Pasadena. He and the others will return to the prison gates in February, in time for the next scheduled execution -- and a month later, another.

But ... I must tell you about a woman whom I've met at the prison who is an Evangelical Christian against the death penalty. She came here on November 30th from Camp Casey in Crawford, Texas. She lives in Colorado. She's not left the prison vigil -- but has been at the gates -- day and night since that date. She has college age children and is spirited and dedicated to her cause. She told me yesterday that prison people (I'm assuming spouses of employees) have wandered down to talk with her from time to time, offering her a chance to take showers and to bring fruit and water. She's been offered sleeping space on a boat harbored nearby as well. People do respond to dedication of others, even when we disagree. She told of stories of how many prison people stay away on nights when executions are scheduled, out of their own discomfort. I loved meeting her and will see her again tonight. Yesterday most protesters had gone to Sacramento for a demonstration on the steps of the capitol -- and only she and Paul Sawyer were still at hand holding the vigil.

My small world continues to be well-peopled, despite all.

Photo: My newfound friend, Barbara Barker -- from Colorado and Camp Casey where she stood with Cindy Sheehan until the camp disbanded for the move to Washington. She's one of the heroes of the movement to abolish the death penalty.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Wavy Gravy as "Sanity Clause" and other clowns I've loved ... .

Yesterday dawned like springtime -- except for the warning of an early morning chill that strongly suggested layering for the trip to the prison gates. Today's version starts with panty hose under blue jeans; great solution. Now to find ways to dress properly for a morning of ordinary daily job stuff and also to be ready for a quick noontime drive over the Richmond San Rafael bridge to meet the others. Today would be Wavy Gravy Day and from past history, it would surely hold some surprises.

As I parked and walked up the road toward the gate I could see a small group gathered around the prison post office entrance -- with several members of the media hovering nearby - waiting for some good footage they were sure they'd catch today.

Today there were fewer protestors, but those few who have formed the Alliance Against the Death Penalty to which Paul Sawyer has belonged since it was reinstated in the mid-nineties. But there he was -- Wavy Gravy now renamed "Sanity Clause" dressed in a tie-dyed rainbow-colored santa suit with an awful synthetic beard that he kept having to shift in order to clear his mouth for speaking. A bit later in the proceedings he renamed himself again, this time it was "Escape Clause." He was holding a bag filled with lifesavers, packages of Twinkies in which files had been placed very visibly, and Paul was out looking for a life preserver that Wavy would announce as a gift to be offered (on camera) to the governor. It was Wavy nonsense at its best.

He is a serious clown who runs a clown school, Camp Winnarainbow, in the Santa Cruz mountains, where the clown tradition is faithfully taught and practiced. He is in the Emmett Kelly mold -- but with a social conscience. He is one of the Pranksters from the Ken Kesey crowd. Paul, Wavy, and I lightly touched lives many years ago. In my copy of Kesey's "Sometimes a Great Notion" is a small bunch of dried wildflowers gathered on the beach at Asilomar in Pacific Grove by Ken and presented to me on a day when he was wandering around the dunes with a piece of adhesive tape over his mouth bearing the word, "hello." We were attending a UU Conference where he was the keynoter. He found me sitting on the dunes between workshops, playing my guitar, and silently motioned me to sing a song. I did. He listened quietly and when it ended -- he jumped up and -- like a small boy -- ran to the nearest cluster of wildflowers and gathered up a bunch then -- very formally -- presented them to me with a flourish. It was a delightful moment that I'll never forget. Those little dried blossoms are still with me. Ken died a few years ago. I thought of him and of his Merry Pranksters, and of Wavy and Paul and me, still here and still caring about humanity and willing to do whatever it takes, including dressing up in a clown suit, tucking his now white hair into a Santa's cap, and demonstrating at the gates of a prison to stop state murder in our names. There's just a bit of whimsy about it -- even under these oppressive circumstances. Wavy is sensitive to just how far to push the limits and the ways to maintain the necessary serious note to balance the nonsense.

It's the way of the clown, I suppose.

But that was yesterday. Today my workday didn't allow for a visit to the vigil. Tonight I came home to a message from Paul on my answering machine -- saying that Barbara Becnel, Lynne Whitfield (who played Barbara in Redemption,) and Snoop Dog had visited the prison. He told me that 25 demonstrators had engaged in acts of civil disobedience, had been arrested, and that they were mostly women. He asked that I call two members of the clergy that he hoped would join the vigil tomorrow, but he didn't have their phone numbers ... would I call? He sounded a little forlorn. The weather has been wet and cold with darkness falling early. They're sleeping in their cars and have been since Sunday. I felt guilty. Tomorrow I'll try to bring hot coffee, but most of all -- another witness -- myself.

Tomorrow I have an impossible schedule but there's a hole in the middle of the day that I will use to again visit the vigil and lend moral support. He flies out tomorrow night on the red eye to return to southern California. Others will carry on at the gates until either there is executive clemency, or, the unthinkable takes place on December 13th.

I lack the heart to wait it out at the prison. I cannot. But I will return on Saturday and Sunday. Not sure I'll try to make the march from the Palace of the Legion of Honor to the prison. Let's hope that the governor makes his decision before Sunday at eleven so that we can transform that march into a victory party!

... I cannot spend that last night at the prison gates. I just don't have the heart for that. This would be the first time that I will see the life of one I've come to know -- destroyed by lethal injection -- in my name and that of every Californian.

I can't think of a single thing to do now, except hope ... .

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Hope for the future embodied in a lovely young girl named Yaminah ...

At a point late in the proceedings today, a woman stepped out of the crowd to tug ever so lightly on my sleeve. "I'm Mira. We met recently at Flossie's family memorial service at Geoffrey's." Flossie was the Florence Reid Lewis whose life we celebrated only two weeks ago. The young woman continued, "...Yaminah remembered you (she's standing over there). She's Flossie's granddaughter. I'm Yaminah's mother."

And here she stood. The personification of "Youth on Crusade." Except for Michael Franti's little boy, Yaminah was the youngest demonstrator in sight. But she was here after much thought, obviously, since -- deep into the proceedings after many had testified -- she asked to speak. She was articulate, clear and dedicated to a strong belief in the democratic principles of justice and fairness. She spoke as only a young person can of the predictable effects we can anticipate should clemency be denied and Tookie's life taken. She was Betty at 15-16, and it's hard to express how much her presence meant to me seeing her there. On the drive home across the Richmond-San Rafael bridge, Sondheim's "Children Will Listen" imagined itself into my head and played softly behind our conversation.

Later Yaminah's mother told me of a march for clemency and a moratorium being planned for next week that will start at the San Francisco Palace of the Legion of Honor, cross the Golden Gate Bridge, and end up at San Quentin. "She would like to participate, and we'd love to have you join us."

We exchanged email addresses after I learned from Mira (Yaminah's mother) that this beautiful young cousin had read our family history website (California Black Pioneers) ... and maybe this journal....?

I do hope I can do this ... if work allows ... and if the aging body holds out under new and crushing demands. If not, it's just possible that the young woman replacement I've been waiting for these past years may now be in the wings preparing for an entrance when the time is right ... .

Photo: Yaminah Abdur-Rahim making her statement -- perhaps her first public stand but certainly not her last. Mira is standing just behind and to Yaminah's left -- head down with face showing just above the eyebrows.

Home again, and the tension has broken ...

In all of the days leading up to this one, I've not known just what to expect of our San Quentin Prison gate protest.

The Stanley Tookie Williams case has shadowed my life for about five years, ever since meeting Barbara Becnel and through her, moving closer to the prison and judicial systems than I could ever have anticipated. In the abstract, capital punishment was indefensible to me -- but after meeting Stan -- it was no longer an abstraction, but had living breathing corporeal reality -- all leading up to this day.

I've wondered over the years how it would feel when someone I'd come to know was facing the death penalty? Wondered how Barbara would fare in the aftermath -- when the cause of saving this life had dominated her own over the past ten years? She is stronger than anyone I know. A statuesque black woman of unique beauty and brilliance. But would she be strong enough for what this week may bring?

Today I'd committed myself to silence. There were lots of people who might be anxious to be on camera and to make statements. I mentioned to my friend, Marilyn, that I would not risk my position by being too visible here at the prison. I insisted (when she protested) that there would surely be no pressure brought against me for stands I may take on my own time, but that I wanted to be sensitive to public image in light of my work and the doors that were just now opening up to so many dreams I've held for so long.

I listened for a while -- sure that anything I might have said would surely be expressed by others and that it wouldn't be necessary for me to be more than one more supportive smiling face in the crowd. But it didn't happen. I hadn't counted on the fact that I would be the only person in that crowd with the distinction of having actually met Stanley Williams, and could speak firsthand of what that might mean in this context.

I asked for the mike and all of those cameras suddenly turned toward me. It was not intimidating. It was as though all I could see were the faces beyond them. I don't remembers my exact words, but whatever it was must have been effective since those faces smiled and heads nodded in agreement and it all felt right.

Country Joe Macdonald sang, Paul read from Walt Whitman and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Justice Brennan. But we were from the old revolution for social change. Beautiful young dreadlocked Michael Franti appeared from the edge of the crowd with his lovely little boy, bare feet despite chill and the hard pebbles underfoot, guitar slung carelessly over his shoulder, and I knew that the baton has been passed and that our revolution continues toward changing this recalcitrant world! His music was all the more inspiring in his presence. I've only heard his voice on the air. Joe and I exchanged knowing glances and relayed them to Paul. The revolution is in good hands.

I was glad to have thrown caution to the winds and said my piece. I won't watch the newscasts tonight. Whatever words I spoke did their job and to try to edit myself at this point would serve no purpose. I just don't want to know.

It was a good day.

I'm hopeful.

Photo: Singer Michael Franti whose songs were the highlight of the experience for me. His lyrics were chosen for relevance and were a strong reminder of the period in history when Paul Sawyer, Joe Macdonald, and tomorrow's vigil participant, Wavy Gravy, held the same magic and power for change that is emanating today trom a new generation. Was reminded that I, too, was one of them.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

After site visits of over 7,900 since 9/2003, the very first reader comment arrived in my mailbox yesterday ...

From: Anonymous
Subject: [CBreaux Speaks] 12/02/2005 04:29:40 PM
Date: Fri, 2 Dec 2005 16:29:41 -0800 (PST)

Let the bastard die.........

Posted by Anonymous to CBreaux Speaks at 12/02/2005 04:29:40 PM

Even more so as I watched the weekly PBS show, This Week in Northern California, last night and was dismayed to hear one of the long time S.F. Chronicle reporters make the comment that, "...after all, he has never displayed remorse for his crimes!" Another reporter reminded her that Stanley Williams has claimed innocence since his arrest 25 years ago so would hardly be expressing remorse for crimes he claims not to have committed.

After receiving this disturbing anonymous email I checked with the homepage of Barry Schect's Innocence Project and learned that -- as of December 3rd (today), 163 Death Row prisoners, nationwide, have been exonerated after investigations proved them totally innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted and imprisoned. There are over 600 now awaiting execution at San Quentin. The simple law of averages would surely argue against further state killings until we've reduced the risk of destroying another life for lack of a closer look.

Don Perata is right.

State Assemblyman Mark Leno of San Francisco has already submitted a bill for a moratorium that will be heard on the floor of the legislature in the January session. Why on earth would anyone set an execution date for less than a few weeks before that bill is heard? Does this not suggest that there are some negative biases built into the system, and that need to be investigated and corrected? Who made such a decision, and why is no one questioning it in the media? Does it not cause you to wonder, too? Since everyone in Sacramento has been aware of the pending legislation for months and still set a December execution date ... might the reason be that Williams is being punished for allowing himself to become the international symbol against the death penalty? Is there another logical explanation that I'm missing?

All of this must be weighed by the governor on Thursday, December 8th when he meets with the attorneys for both sides and begins deliberations on the decision to grant clemency, or not. There's time to send off a message to him. Information is posted at where you have access to the Petition for Clemency that was submitted to the governor, learn more about the case, and still have time to make your voice heard.

Will post photos tomorrow after the San Quentin demonstration ... .

Photo: News coverage was overwhelming. The public interest in this pending execution appears to be unprecedented. The camera crews and reporters were everywhere. They've come from Greece, Paris, Spain, London -- plus all of the national news services. The eyes of the world are surely fixed on this issue.

Friday, December 02, 2005

FYI ...

-----Original Message-----
From: Senator Perata
Sent: Wednesday, November 30, 2005 1:34 PM
Subject: Stanley Williams

Dear Friends:

I want to share with you the text of the letter I am sending to Governor Schwarzenegger asking him to grant clemency to condemned inmate Stanley Williams. I do not excuse Mr. Williams for his deplorable crimes, nor do I find his recent atonement adequate justification for clemency. However, the substantial and growing body of evidence of biased and unjust application of the death penalty in California and throughout the nation compels me to support clemency in this, and in every, capital case. As I write in the letter below, we must not accept any substitute for guaranteeing the fair and equal application of the law, particularly when a person's life is at stake.

November 28, 2005

The Honorable Arnold Schwarzenegger
State of California
State Capitol
Sacramento, CA 95814

Dear Governor Schwarzenegger:

I am writing to respectfully request that you grant clemency to prevent the execution of Stanley Williams.

I make this request despite the horrific crimes Mr. Williams has committed. Human decency dictates that the murder of four innocent people cannot be pardoned or excused. And by his own admission, Mr. Williams once helped foster the culture of death that plagues too many California neighborhoods.

Nor am I persuaded that Mr. Williams’ recent good conduct in and of itself constitute grounds for clemency. A lifetime of atonement – while noteworthy – strikes me as insufficient when compared to the offenses of which Mr. Williams stands convicted.

Rather, I ask clemency in this case because I have lost confidence in California’s death penalty as an instrument of justice.

There’s clear and compelling evidence of racial bias in the application of this statute. A third of death-row inmates are African Americans, who make up less than 7 percent of our state population. A Santa Clara Law Review study found that defendants who kill white victims are far more likely to be sentenced to death that those whose victims are from other ethnic groups.

Moreover, the large proportion of poor and uneducated death-row prisoners strongly suggests that our state imposes greater punishments upon low-income defendants than those of greater means. In fact, this disparity is so pervasive that it has prompted the author of California’s death penalty statute to call for its repeal.

No doubt many believe death is a fitting punishment in this case. But satisfying the public mood is no substitute for guaranteeing the fair and equal application of the law. Until our system meets this strict standard, we should refrain from using its awesome power to take human life.

A system of justice that effectively reserves its harshest penalties for the poor – and for those who victimize people of a particular color of skin – is instead the very antithesis of justice. This is a cruel irony that we can prevent – now.


Don Perata

Photo: At the gates of San Quentin, an unidentified nun from the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael. She read an eloquent statement from her order asking for clemency and an end to capital punishment in the State.

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.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

November 23, 2005

Barbara Cottman Becnel
Neighborhood House of North Richmond

Dear Barbara:

You surely won't read this until sometime after this crucible has been dealt with -- but this morning I woke with a strong feeling that Stan's life will continue and that you will have become what I predicted years ago, the Rosa Parks of the Anti-Death Penalty Movement. I cannot believe otherwise.

Can't imagine the pressure cooker you're living in -- or how you continue to "do the work" of all you've brought into motion over the years. But it's all reaching the predictable apex now, and all of the years and the love and the caring and impossible hard work you've done will culminate in whatever fate has ordained. I truly believe that the governor will grant clemency. You're done your work too well. Stan has functioned at the center of this vortex in extraordinary ways -- to become the most worthy recipient of the world's caring and to bring the end of capital punishment. The two of you have created the irresistible force that will change us all forever.

I will join Paul Sawyer and the others in the vigils between December 8th and whenever the governor reacts to the petition -- hopefully before the 13th. I cannot imagine that -- if he is going to act favorably -- he will allow the tension to build much longer than necessary.

My best to Stan.


Photo: Another of the stained glass windows of the Chapel at Sea Ranch. I used it here because I thought of Barbara and Stanley Tookie Williams and of the tension of these past weeks as I looked at the light shining through -- and hoped ... .

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The gem that is the Chapel at Sea Ranch, Gualala, California ...

The Thanksgiving holiday ended with a 3-day trip to Mendocino with a side trip to visit this magnificent tiny chapel beside Coast Highway 1 just a mile or so south of Gualala. It was created by James Hubbell - a San Diego architect and his son, another artist. It is designed for meditation and personal reflection -- holding no more than two or three people at a time, but probably best experienced alone. It is less like a building than a people-sized walk-in sculpture. Everywhere one looks there is an exquisite work of art for the eye to feast on; beautiful mosaics inset underfoot, stain-glass windows, hand-carved highly-polished small wooden benches, a bench lovingly covered in needlepoint to kneel upon, a wrought-iron chandelier overhead that is stunningly right for the space. It is an amazing experience that brought the kinds of feelings I would expect to have when standing under the ceiling with eyes upcast from the floor of the Sistine Chapel. I can imagine visitors 100 years into the future approaching this beauty with the same reverence. It was constructed in 1985 and is not yet well known, but it will be.

Having been a guest at Odiyan, the Tibetan Nyingma Monastery, years ago, with its cutglass library windows and mosaic temple floors, with its colorful gardens for meditation and fine art everywhere to invite contemplation -- one would wonder if Sonoma and Mendocino counties haven't cornered at least two of the important religious sites in the state. Odiyan is just a bit further south, inland from Marshall near Fort Ross, above the Russian River . Though I've visited a number of the California missions, I can't recall ever feeling the reverence there as I've experienced in either of these contemporary places of worship.

The Sea Ranch Chapel is non-denominational, intended for personal contemplation. Odiyan is Tibetan Buddhist. On the hour-and-a-half drive back to Mendocino I found myself silently wondering why such sites draw me inside so deeply without shaking my atheism? What about such places touch my spiritual places so profoundly? What is the nature of the God within me? Can it simply be my response to great art rather then to religion?

We visited St. Marys Catholic Church at Gualala, another small jewel of an architectural triumph. It, too, brought a feeling of deep reverence. It was Sunday afternoon, and there were no worshippers around. It occurred to me that the next time I'm in Mendocino for a weekend, I want to visit this church. But I know that I want to visit when it's filled with worshippers. I want to see it alive and functioning as intended. I want to sit among believers. And I knew that I needn't be a believer to want that experience. I realized that my spirituality was not dependent upon dogma or a belief system -- that it can be tapped into and brought to the surface with or without a creed to adhere to or a god figure to worship. The beauty of design, a combination of art disciplines, witness to the brilliant creativity of any artist capable of conceiving such wondrous spaces, the roar of the ocean and the vastness of the sky and the towering of the redwoods just outside the doors -- all create for me the wonder that feeds what some would call my soul.

I cannot imagine ever entertaining the idea of marrying again, but if I did ... .

Photo: Exterior view of Sea Ranch Chapel on the left. On the right Is a stained glass window viewed from the interior that faces the carved teak door at the entry. Click on these thumbnails for a full picture of this magical place.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Thanksgiving - "over the river and through the traffic" ...

Holidays no longer hold the same power as they once did for me. In these days of far more funerals than christenings, awareness of who is not at the table becomes painfully sharp. There's no longer a need for a children's table. Our youngest are now old enough to sit with the grownups -- it's been several years since we've needed a highchair. The next wave of babies is not yet here. We're all aging ... .

Noticing the competitiveness of everything around me today. ESPN is bringing football from every quarter of the country into our living room while on other channels are featured re-runs of the new genre of reality shows that are the epitome of "you're out" television. We've turned everything into competitions for favor, for money, for careers, for oil and stocks and bonds and elective office, for a place in the chorus line, 24-hour slot machines, for cosmetic surgery, for a spot on the catwalk, and finally, for King of the World!

Remembering the day that I sat high up in the bleachers at Edwards Field, University of California at Berkeley -- overhearing a conversation between two men who coached Special Olympic athletes who at that moment stood far below at the starting line -- in their blocks and ready for the 100 yard dash. "Working with the retarded is difficult," says one, "... you have to teach them to look down as they run. If they catch a glimpse of runners in the next lanes -- they will simply run alongside." Maybe this is a more natural way of performing -- at least before we're taught to compete."

Remember laughing some time later as I watched the San Francisco Bay To Breakers marathon with all of its craziness and color. Here were thousands of people of every size, shape, sexual orientation, skin color, wild costume, running alongside and loving it. The real runners ran far up ahead (the Kenyans, of course) seriously competing for fame and fortune. But it was the nutty ordinary folks who walked, ran at any pace, laughed and joked until they reached Footstock in Golden Gate Park and the great party that followed.

Dorian and her equally handicapped friend, Chris, are in the livingroom watching the Thanksgiving Day parade while I do the chopping and mixing in the kitchen. They're talking about their up-and-coming Special Olympics bowling tournament where they'll be lucky to break 75 out of a possible 300 but will come home bedecked with ribbons and tee shirts emblazoned with the Special Olympics logo. And every other athlete will do the same as they've done for many years.

I'm aware of the number of email pleas for contributions to organizations I respect and admire -- created by political allies whom I trust -- and am aware of the ultimate competition for power those pleas represent. If I answer them all appropriate to my trust and sense of rightness, I'll need another job or a far higher salary. I'm helpless to respond, except in a token way and with the hope that there are enough small fish like me doing what they can to support this nation in what may prove to be the final competition before we collapse into non-relevance and another more worthy national competitor moves forward to take our place in the world arena.

Is there nothing for which we are not willing to write a rule book and offer prizes?

Dance Sport as an olympic event?

Have we lost our collective First World minds?

Photo: Special Olympics swim meet. Dorian is third line in this March of the Athletes, 2005.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Worked through something of importance this weekend ... .

Beethoven's Fidelio experienced in juxtaposition with brilliant jazz violinist, Tarika Lewis, and the renown John Handy on saxophone dueled to a neat finish this weekend. What a convergence of arts and culture this was for me! I'd never have dreamed ... .

The opera was a combination of sounds and spectacle and craziness of a kind that sent me into giggles -- alone in bed late on Saturday night. The music was wonderful -- once I allowed myself to shut out the 275 pound mezzo contralto playing a "lad" in duet with a lovely delicate and svelt young blond ingenue whose father was an African American baritone in a blond/grey wig and all singing in German!

Following the libretto provided on screens on either side of the great opera house stage proved pure folly since opera is apparently not about libretto at all but about music. And casting is not about obesity but about purity of tone, stage presence, and projection. And once I stopped trying to force it to make sense -- closed my eyes and rode the waves of Beethovian music -- it all worked. But I had to work at it. There's an inescapable intellectual component that doesn't quiet easily. A major cultural difference.

This evening there was another family memorial service. This was the younger sister of Dorothy Reid Pete who died recently at the age of 90. Florence was 88. Her only daughter, Joan Tarika Lewis is a brilliant violinist -- a jazz violinist. She's toured the nation and the far east with the famous saxophonist, John Handy, who played for us this evening. It was a memorial service like no other. Tarika is active in African drumming and dance circles so the evening was filled with both as her friends joined in the celebration of her mother, Florence's, life. They were in colorful African costumes. There was a traditional Libation ceremony that reminded us all of that which binds us together across the ages.

The discovery for me was that here in this room the experience of music was purely emotional. Visceral. No thinking here. Just feeling and letting it wash over me. I could anticipate the notes before they were played. I know this. Here were both the notes and the music!

For the greater part of the evening (it was held at Geoffrey's, a smart supper club in downtown Oakland), 15 mm films from the family's archives were shown on a large screen -- while the musicians improvised.

There were scenes from their early marriage and when Tarika and her late brother were very young. Florence's husband and Tarika's father, the never-defeated light-heavyweight champion of the world, John Henry Lewis, was shown in one of his historic bouts. He died in 1974. This was truly the end of an era for their family. This is the family of Mel Reid, my late first husband and the father of our children. I'm still a celebrant when the occasion demands. This is my tribe, too.

As an aside, I can't recall the source of the saying, but it may have been Atlas who claimed that he could lift the world high in his bare hands if he only had a place to stand.

On the drive home I realized that this is what African-Creole history and culture are for me. They're my place to stand. All else flows from that.

This I know.

Photo: Don't recall the year, probably in the late Sixties. I'm in the lower right with guitar -- back to camera. The other musician is visiting from the Caribbean. Cultures blended nicely that night. These were Unitarian-Universalist friends of the Mt. Diablo Church. These were the best years just before my return to Berkeley in the early 70s.

Thank you, Donna. A reminder of how it was ... .

A dear friend and important historian dropped by for a meeting today and in the process dropped this news clipping into my hand. She'd been rumaging around in the Berkeley Main Library and run across this article. It was archived from the now extinct Berkeley Daily Gazette and is dated March 28, 1985. The words of the writer evoke such memories. The article is a reminder of life as I was living it at the time -- and rings quite true -- even in hindsight.

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