The Magazine

The Gangsta as Nobel Nominee

A Crip and his credulous friends smooth over a life of murder and mayhem

Dec 18, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 14 • By DEBRA J. SAUNDERS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

BEING A QUADRUPLE MURDERER who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize means never having to say you're sorry to your victims' families. At least that's what some journalists and one particular Swiss politician seem to believe.

Ask Stanley "Tookie" Williams, the founder of the original Crips gang in Los Angeles, convicted killer, and Nobel nominee. During a 1979 robbery, he shot a teenaged 7-Eleven clerk named Alvin Owens twice in the head, after the unarmed Owens had obediently laid down on the floor. Williams and his accomplices made off with $ 120. Later, according to court testimony, he clowned around in front of friends imitating Owens's death gurgle. A month later, he and his shotgun stormed into a motel where he killed Thsai-Shai Yang, Yen-I Yang, and Yee Chen Lin. Robert Yang heard the shots, ran to the front room, and found his father, mother, and sister mortally wounded. In 1981, a jury sentenced Williams to death.

Mario Fehr, the Swiss member of parliament who recently nominated Williams for the Nobel Prize, would rather not dwell on the past. "If he really has killed these four people," Fehr said in a recent phone interview, "that is something I do not like. But I mean, he has changed his life totally after being in prison for several years. This nomination is for his work in prison."

Tookie has kept busy while on death row. With the help of activist-journalist Barbara Becnel, he has written several books that warn children away from gangs -- to atone for his role in co-founding the Crips. (In 1979, the other Crips founder, Raymond Lee Washington, was killed by a member of a rival gang.) Tookie's latest book, Life in Prison, has been honored by the American Library Association, while earlier books of his were selected for a 1996 panel on youth violence sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. "Do not follow in my footsteps," he laudably warns young people on his website.

This missionary work has earned Tookie fawning coverage. Stories on the Nobel nomination, for example, frequently feature high praise from Fehr and hosannas from Becnel who has said her pet cause was "wide-eyed like a child and really excited" by the nomination. Oh, and humbled too, apparently. In 1993, the Los Angeles Times printed an interview with Williams conducted by Becnel, in which the activist noted, "Williams has earned his 'props' -- his proper respect -- because he has taken his years in prison like a man, not snitching on or complaining to anyone." In prison, Williams told Becnel, he was studying "prison-economics, politics, black history, math, English, philosophy, psychology. And what I've learned has taught me to appeal to logic." Appalled, then deputy attorney general Joan Comparet wrote a letter to the editor, saying she was "shocked that nowhere in the article does Becnel mention the historical fact that Stanley Williams is on death row because he murdered four people in 1979."

The details of Tookie's crimes are commonly omitted from news profiles. A 1996 Los Angeles Times story gushed that Williams "is adamant that his literary effort has nothing to do with the appeal of his case in federal court, a normal path for capital offenses. In fact, he refuses to discuss his case at all." But there is always room for kind words from Tookie's friends. Former gang moll Winnie Mandela came to San Quentin's death row in 1999 to visit Williams and said, according to AP writer Kim Curtis, "What I find most fascinating is, he seems to have completely converted. It's a good message for our children throughout the world . . . that you can reform." In another story, Curtis wrote how Tookie's "eyes soften when he talks about his work with children."

There's one big item many journalists seem to have missed -- that Tookie's reformation lacks remorse for the spilled blood of his four victims. On his website, there is something called "The Apology," but it's an apology for starting the Crips, not for killing four strangers. When he started the gang, Williams writes, "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 black men who have hurt other black men."