Crips Founder Seeks to Save Kids From Gangs
The inmate’s eyes soften when he talks about his work with children.
Stanley “Tookie” Williams, co-founder of the notorious Crips, regrets--regrets big--that he can’t do more, teach more, save more children. He takes as an insult the query whether rescuing one youngster’s life is enough. It’s not nearly enough for him.
His time is limited, and he knows it. Williams, 45, has spent the last 18 years on San Quentin’s death row for killing four people during two robberies.
It all started in Los Angeles, where in 1971 he founded a gang with his pal, Raymond Washington. They met in high school and decided to create an alliance to combat gangs on the east side of South-Central L.A., where Washington lived, and on the area’s west side, where Williams lived.
“We had to band together against them to protect each other and to protect our family members, our loved ones,” Williams says. (Washington was killed by a rival in 1979.)
Even then, at only 5 feet 10, Williams weighed 300 pounds. When lifting weights added bulk, he picked up the nickname “Big Took.”
With no father at home, Williams turned to youths on the streets as role models. Rock, a friend’s older brother, spoke with pride of the years he spent in Soledad, Folsom and San Quentin prisons--”gladiator schools,” he called them.
“He said prisons were places where a man could prove his toughness to other men who were equally tough,” Williams wrote. “Rock was a good storyteller. Now I see that he was too good.”
These days, Williams warns young people away from gang life: Do as he says, not as he did.
“If all I can save is one, then I consider myself a failure,” he said recently by telephone. “This problem exceeds far more than one person. I’d rather be able to assist thousands, hundreds of thousands, if it’s possible. Oh, no, that’s not enough for me.”
Williams works from a 9-by-4-foot cell, writing his books, answering letters from children and talking to anyone who will listen: politicians, police, reporters.
He still cuts an imposing figure, even in prison-issue denim. His close-cropped hair is graying at the temples. He speaks quietly, chooses words carefully.
He doesn’t glamorize prison life. In his latest book, “Life in Prison,” published by Morrow Junior Books, Williams gives no-nonsense insight into life behind bars. The Young Adult Library Services Assn. placed it on a list of 74 titles for “reluctant readers.”
“What Stan shows is, prison is often glorified in inner cities,” said Rosemary Brosnan, executive editor at Morrow. “His first books . . . really made an impact, saying what no one else is saying.”
Williams writes a few pages, then dictates them during 15-minute phone calls to journalist Barbara Cottman Becnel, who edits his work. His first work was published in 1996.
“Tookie Speaks,” a series of eight books aimed at elementary school pupils, serves as an anti-gang primer. Teachers, librarians and counselors gobbled them up.
Barbara Lake, the principal of West Athens Elementary School in South-Central, says no other set of books prompted parents to jam the school’s switchboard, wondering where they could buy copies.
Williams’ latest book, aimed at sixth-graders and up, is blunter, edgier. In “Life in Prison,” he details day-to-day life behind San Quentin’s walls, writing of fear, boredom and more. He describes meals, strip-searches, visits, fights.
Williams tries to deliver subtlety, not sermons. He hopes to offer kids productive ways to spend their time, real alternatives to gangs. Williams regrets ignoring his education. Had he taken school seriously, Williams says, his life might have been different.
Williams is now at work on the Internet Project for Street Peace, connecting at-risk youth in California and South Africa.
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