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Two Tales of the Thug Life

September 13, 2002

The late Death Row Records rapper Tupac Shakur and death row inmate Stanley "Tookie" Williams each made the news in the last week. The parallel stories offer a glimpse into the brutality of gang life. They also hold a mirror to those taking the peek.

No one has ever been charged for Shakur's 1996 slaying on the streets of Las Vegas. Times reporter Chuck Phillips spent a year reviewing court documents and interviewing investigators and gang members.

His findings, reported in The Times Sept. 6 and 7, revealed as much about the perverse mixture of celebrity and violence that has come to surround street gangs as about who killed Shakur.

Stars whose fame came from rap songs about kicking in rivals' faces, sometimes written from experience, modeled themselves after the old-style mobsters Hollywood has long glorified, just as teenage gangbangers today emulate the lifestyles celebrated in vulgar gangsta rap. Crips and Bloods, hired as bodyguards, paraded around Las Vegas in fancy cars and took over hotels, paying the tab with drug money, beating each other over taunts and turf.

And they all died young. Shakur, dead at 25. The Crip fingered as the gunman, killed at 23 over drugs. A witness from Shakur's entourage, dead at 19 in another shooting. Rival rapper Notorious B.I.G., gunned down outside a Los Angeles automotive museum. He was 24 years old.

Williams, by contrast, is 48, San Quentin being safer than the streets these last 20 years. Williams, who helped launch the first Crips "set" 30 years ago, on Tuesday lost a federal appeal of his death sentence for four 1979 murders.

At the same time, the court made a rare recommendation that Williams seek clemency from Gov. Gray Davis. While in prison, the inmate co-authored children's books that attempt to steer kids away from gangs. The books inspired a Swiss lawmaker to nominate Williams for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Williams is hardly Nobel laureate material. He took the lives of no fewer than four people, and his legacy, at least in some sense, is entwined with the many thousands of gang killings that have taken place in the last decades, up to and after Shakur's.

But if he is no candidate for sainthood, he is one for clemency. The effort he has since put into undoing that harm is a powerful argument for sparing his life. Kids coming up in the sort of neighborhoods that Williams and Shakur did desperately need to hear the rap against gangs before the music booming from so many car stereos helps seduce them into that dead-end life.

There are those who read about Shakur's murder and Williams' death sentence and say, "Who cares?" They echo the jaded cops who used to call gang neighborhoods "self-cleaning ovens" because the young toughs were so adept at killing each other off. At the other extreme are those who feign solidarity by buying the music that makes the stars rich, while maintaining a genteel distance from the wretched reality gangsta rap reflects.

Neither response answers the most urgent question--how to reach the Tupacs and Tookies at 6 or 8 or 12 and guide them along other paths to better lives that too many kids simply do not know are there.

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