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Do Not Follow in My Footsteps

Gangbanging brought Tookie Williams to death row. Can a series of children's books that decry violence bring him redemption?

September 11, 1996|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN QUENTIN — At the West Athens Elementary School in South-Central Los Angeles, principal Barbara Lake could recall no other first day of school when fifth-grade students actually asked to take a textbook home. She could think of no other set of books that prompted parents to jam the school's switchboard, wondering where they could buy their very own copies.

"It was highly unusual," Lake said Monday.

Then again, so is the series of eight anti-gang primers co-written by Los Angeles journalist Barbara Cottman Becnel and Stanley "Tookie" Williams, an inmate on death row here and the surviving co-founder of one of this country's most notorious street gangs, the Crips. At a time when children's literature has grown progressively tougher, addressing such issues as AIDS and family violence, the "Tookie Speaks Out" series is almost surely the first set of books aimed at elementary school students where the glossary includes the words "homeboy" and "gangbanger." Early reaction to the books is highly, even vociferously, mixed.

On death row, where he has resided for more than 15 years, the 42-year-old Williams acknowledged the stern, almost forbidding quality of a collection of books that proselytize against gang violence. Just as readily, he admitted deep regret about the legacy of the group he and Raymond Lee Washington launched in 1971 as "an alliance" to provide neighborhood protection.

"I was a megalomaniac; I was a fool back when Raymond and I started the Crips," Williams said. "We saw ourselves as the protectors, but we became monsters, just like the people we were fighting against. The gangs killed too many people. My people, my own people. I wish none of it had ever happened."

While fellow inmates traded urgent embraces with past and would-be lovers in the death row visitors' area, Williams said he opted to write children's books in hopes of reaching a wide, impressionable audience. In a voice so soft it seemed out of character with his mountainous body, he explained, "These books are not an elixir. There is no magic potion. There is no one element that can reverse the cycle of violence in the black community. But these books can help."

Williams is accepting no money for the books, and under state law it is questionable whether he would be allowed to anyway. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to a Stockton-based group called Mothers Against Gang Wars. He 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.

Many on the front lines of the effort to staunch youth violence were swift to agree with Williams on the value of his writing. Franklin Tucker, director of the National Center to Rehabilitate Violent Youth in Washington, called the books "the best thing I have ever seen." At Southern California's largest Head Start program, the Kedren Community Center in Los Angeles, chief of operations Jeri Deamouchet installed the "Tookie" series as the centerpiece of an anti-violence curriculum for 3- to 5-year-olds. Jakki Dennis, director of the spouses' program at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation in Washington, selected the "Tookie" books as the focus of a panel on youth violence to be held Thursday.

Dennis is not troubled by the fact that participants at her conference will be reading books co-written by a man convicted of four murders committed in the course of two robberies. "I think that makes it all the more important to our young people," she said. "They learn best from hands-on role models, and this man is actually there, on death row."

Ronald A. LeGrand, who as director of minority affairs for Nabisco Inc. has underwritten the foundation meeting, concurred. "If I could choose my messenger, perhaps I would have chosen someone else," LeGrand said. "But the reality is, sometimes kids need to hear from someone who has gone down the rocky path that they themselves may be about to embark on."

Others, however, had reservations about the "Tookie Speaks Out" books. Prison anthropologist Mark Fleischer, a professor of criminal justice sciences at Illinois State College, cautioned that a death row epiphany, a kind of "shamanic vision," is a well-known phenomenon. "Take it with a box of salt: A lot of these guys think back about their histories, and they do this kind of conversion reaction. For males, there is this conception of wanting to reach out and help children. These guys sit in prison and think just how much they don't want their children and grandchildren to be like them."

Janice Del Negro, director of the Center for Children's Books at the University of Illinois, questioned the books' "touchy-feely approach" to gang violence. " 'Keep trying to be a good person? I did it? You can do it too?' " she read from "Gangs and Self-Esteem," adding question marks for emphasis. "The guy's on death row? But he's a good person? Come on."

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