Thursday, December 08, 2005

Tookie Williams

When Stanley "Tookie" Williams published his first round of children's books, "Tookie Speaks Out Against Gang Violence," I was asked for comment by Newsweek, and my negative remarks subsequently earned me a series of phone calls from men who described themselves as Mr. Williams' "associates." My mistake, by their lights, was to divorce the quality of the books (which I thought were clumsy and padded in the extreme) from the authority of the author--because Tookie knew whereof he spoke, his books were de facto effective vehicles for keeping kids out of gangs.

We see this call to authority all the time in children's books, and in Tookie Williams' case, it's wedded to celebrity, a different but related situation in which who the author is is at least as important as what the author has to say. (I'm reminded of that famous old Kirkus line: "As a writer, Barbara Bel Geddes is a marvelous actress.")

Today is Tookie Williams' latest day in court, as California's Governor Schwarzenegger, himself married to another children's book expert, hears his plea for clemency. So now the authority and celebrity that obtained in Williams getting to publish his children's books in the first place is meant to work in reverse: because Williams has published children's books against gang violence, he should be allowed to avoid the death sentence.

What do we all think? I am against Williams being put to death because I am against the death penalty, but I'm not sure how I feel about the p.r. strategy employed on his behalf. It is shrewd, though. Incidentally, Williams later wrote a much better book, Life in Prison, a simply written chapter book about what it's like behind bars.

6 comments:

Kelly said...

I'm also against the death penalty in principle, so it is hard to comment. But, I am very interested in what the (shameful) governor of my former state will do. California's relationship to the death penalty has always been uneasy.

Linda Corrales said...

I wonder if Mr. Sutton's opinion would remain the same had it been one of his own family members?

Roger Sutton said...

I assume Linda Corrales is asking if I would still oppose the death penalty had one of my family members been murdered. No, I imagine I would not, but that speaks not at all to the morality of the death penalty. The fact that I might want somebody dead is hardly legal grounds for murder.

HWPellinen said...

I appreciate your thoughtful approach to a difficult issue. However, regardless of one's view of capital punishment I think it inappropriate - and unhelpful - to equate any taking of human life with "murder." I might want another person dead because they were tried, convicted, and sentenced in our system of justice... or because that person is trying at a given moment to take my life or the life of my children, but neither of those mean I want to "murder" another human being. I think it important that we maintain a distinction between "murder" and other types of killing - not an easy thing to do, given how high everyone's emotions are around this topic.. but I think it's important as we - collectively - decide how we deal with capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia and "quality of existence," "just" or "unjust" wars, and the like. For most of us, there are some circumstances that warrant the taking of another human life - for the record, I am not opposed to the death penalty "on principle," any more than I am against the right to self defense "on principle," but like the Supreme Court I have serious concerns with the circumstances that warrant it and the manner in which it is administered. Your point - that you might feel differently had one of your family members been a Tookie victim - is painfully honest... but the mother and daughters of the convenience store clerk who was murdered by Williams are not themselves seeking the "murder" of Williams.

Roger Sutton said...

hwpellinen is right--I was halfway through fixing the grammatical problem of "the fact that I might want somebody dead is hardly grounds for killing them," and got distracted. I completely agree that using the word murder to describe any kind of killing of a human being (or embryo) is pointlessly inflammatory. My apologies.

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