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CI: Of Charles Ramsey & Stanley Tookie Williams ~ Redemption & Transformation, Part 1

May 15, 2013 at 7:00 pm by: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Criminal Defense, Criminal Injustice Series, Intersectionality, Prison Industrial Complex, Prisoner Rights

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Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI.Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.


Of Charles Ramsey and Stanley Tookie Williams ~

Redemption and Transformation, Part 1
by nancy a heitzeg

“People forget that redemption is tailor-made for the wretched.”
~ Stanley Tookie Williams December 2, 2005

Many tales of criminal injustice emerged out of Cleveland last week. As the 10 year ordeal of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, Michelle Knight, and Berry’s 6-year-old daughter came to an end, the horrors were revealed. Kidnapping. Rape. Torture. Forced miscarriages. False imprisonment.

Questions emerged too – about potential laxness on the part of the Cleveland police in investigating further both the missing women and suspicious activity around Ariel Castro’s home. Questions about the role of race and class generally in driving missing persons police action and media coverage. Questions about “The Missing White Woman Syndrome”.

But before the week was over the spot-light turned away from both victims and perpetrator to focus on one Charles Ramsey, the too honest neighbor and eventual rescuer of Berry and the others. From the very first interview, it was clear that Ramsey made the media nervous. His life at the margins of both race and class. His raw honesty about race and some “white girls” — Dead Give-away.

He wasn’t our typical hero. So first, the laughter, then the quick turn to viciousness, as smokinggun and others dug the dirt. Just as they thought, Charles Ramsey was “the criminal-black-man” after all. The cognitive dissonance was now melting away away — Maybe he wasn’t a “hero” after all?? How, in our culture of simplistic either/or binaries, could he be?

In all that has been written since the news broke out of Cleveland, it is Liliana Segura of The Nation who reveals the central questions in Race, Redemption and Charles Ramsey. (The piece is excerpted throughout this essay, but please read the original in its’ entirety.) She finds hope in the support that Ramsey has continued to receive from  many – hope that, by embracing him, we may be more generous to others as well.

The story of Charles Ramsey is a story of redemption that strikes deep at the heart of rigid social constructions of  “criminals” and the cultural charades we endure to maintain them. It is a story of the complexity of the human condition – one that defies all monolithic labels. And, so, it is a window into the possibilities of transformative justice.

“…a man like Charles Ramsey fits much more neatly in the public mind into a different fixed category—not just “felon,” with all its permanent implications, but “criminal,” a label automatically assigned to black men. In particular, the notion that black men who have committed violent acts cannot change and should be forever defined by that violence is what fuels our harshest prison policies.

If there’s any value in the current debate over Ramsey’s “checkered past,” to me, it is that so many people are daring to suggest that a man who went to prison for a series of violent crimes can be more than that; that people are more than the worst things they have ever done.”

                       ~ Liliana Segura in Race, Redemption and Charles Ramsey

“The longer I sit in this animalistic cage, the more human I become. I’ve learned not to allow the negative ambience to control me. I’ve risen above all of that, like a phoenix, a black phoenix.”

         ~ Stanley Tookie Williams December 2, 2005

The US criminal injustice system – start to finish, from legislation to policing to incarceration and execution – is the ultimate in “Othering”. It is brutal system, run on vengeance and fear, where a small fraction of all “law-breakers” are systematically selected, stripped of all complicating aspects of identity and demonized in what the late Harold Garfinkel calls “status degradation ceremonies”. The official legal labels are intended to systematically reduce the accused to what they did — they are “burglars”, “rapists”, “murders” and more.

These select “deviants”, these “criminals”, dehumanized, “collectively represent” all that is Evil, all that is Wrong in the midst of our “civilized” society. The ‘criminalized” serve to unify the “up-standing” citizenry — They are Not Us. They also serve to threaten others on the margins.

Of course, it is always simpler if these “Others” can be visually identified. In earlier eras with homogeneous populations, physical marks such as brands, tattoos, yes Scarlet Letters served exactly this purpose. In the United States, race has always been the primary marker. As Frederick Douglas observed nearly 150 years ago, there is no escaping “the general disposition in this country to impute crime to color”.

But make no mistake, the system will swallow whoever it can — race, class, gender, and age all shape who will be selected and who will be spit out – but once in the belly of the beast, the labels will stick. In spite of all the platitudes about “paying one’ debt to society”, the label of convict/ex-con is built for permanence. The system rests on the notion that those inside or now out must be forever and forever amen reduced to “the worst things they have ever done’.

It is evident of course in the language — at a recent trip to Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, we heard how Warden Cain had carefully instructed all tour guides to stop referring to prisoners as “inmates” — that seems too passive, just a description of their residential status.. No no no — they must instead be  – always — referred to as “offenders”; this is a much more active term that evokes the present tense, suggesting that even if they have lingered at Angola for 30 years or more, their sole identity is located in what they once, even long ago,  did.

Even when released, “ex-con”, with an emphasis on the “con”, is the master status. Add to this the endless litany of “collateral consequences”, those symbolic and structural reminders of  endless stigma. Check the Box. Criminal Background checks. Bans on financial aid for education, food stamps, Section 8 housing. No voting. No legal gun ownership. More.

All designed as a red flag, an alert, an alarm, predicated on the notion that there can be No Redemption.

“Nowhere is this concept more absent than in our criminal justice system, which has lengthened sentences, foreclosed on parole and made pardons a near impossibility. Although the problem of mass incarceration has entered the public consciousness, thanks largely to the excesses of the drug war, the harshest penalties for violent crime (or those labeled “violent” because of any number of aggravating factors) continue to go unquestioned…

But even criminal justice reformers, for understandable reasons, tend to shy from taking on punishments for people who commit violent acts…

When it comes to those who commit violent crimes, our most punitive instincts still rein.”                                        

                     ~ Liliana Segura in Race, Redemption and Charles Ramsey

My interpretation of redemption is different from the theological or the academical rendition. I believe that my redemption symbolizes the end of a bad beginning and a new start. It goes beyond in the sense of being liberated from one’s sins or atonement in itself. I feel that my redemption mostly, or primarily, encompasses the ability to reach out to others.

                  ~ StanleyTookie Williams III, December 12 2005

But of course Redemption is possible; there are a million stories every day. The System just doesn’t want you to know them. Occasionally, as with Charles Ramsey, these stories emerge into public view and debate, creating, as we have seen, a complicated morass of emotions and discombobulation.

At other times, the stakes are higher — requiring some sort of decision, some official judgement, a call for clemency or commutation for those condemned to die. It is here that the real resistance to the Redemption stories are revealed — for Redemption amongst the so-called worst of the worst calls into question our methods, our madness in full.

There is perhaps no better recent example of this than Stanley Tookie Williams III. One of the co-founders of the Crips, he was sentenced to death in California, 1981 for four separate murders that he maintained to the very end that he did not commit. In his years on San Quentin’s Death Row, Williams transformed himself from gang leader to anti-gang author, writing nine children’s books (with Barbara Bechnel) in the Tookie Speaks Out Against Gang Violence book series for children , and a 2005 memoir, Blue Rage, Black Redemption. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize a total of 5 times, and is credited with helping to broker several gang truces in Los Angeles, Newark and elsewhere.

Here, in his own words, is Stanley Tookie Williams on Redemption, in a guest post at The Final Call:

imagesCA4XQ0JSTo say the least, I am a controversial figure with an unenviable gang legacy (Crips co-founder) that will forever haunt me.

Thus, it was highly improbable that I, a Black man on San Quentin’s death row, would overcome egregious odds to radically transform my life, author nine children’s books, create a viable program for youth (the Internet Project for Street Peace, an international peer mentoring and violence prevention effort), meet Winnie Mandela, gain worldwide recognition and be nominated for the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize.

For nearly 20 years I have been pitted against the morbid mind-set of certain unethical prison officials and their confidential informants. On the other hand, I spent half of those 20 years functioning in a predictable pattern of negative behavior. Throughout that first decade on death row, I was a quasi-slave to the prison conditions that dictated how I should think, act and survive.

Being a “condemned” man, I was expected to languish, unchanged, in the silent misery of the doomed. However, from 1988 to 1994, while in solitary confinement, I learned how to battle my hypocritical conscience, gang mentality and personal demons. I underwent many years of soul-searching and re-education, without “debriefing” (another word for “snitching”), without a broken spirit and without violating my moral convictions.

I became culturally conscious through the literary instructions of Cheikh Diop, Dr. Yosef S. Jochanna, Ivan V. Sertima, John H. Clarke, Jacob Carruthers and other Black historians. I even began to tackle topics such as politics, religion, law, math, psychology, philosophy, economics, leadership and others.I have been disciplinary-free for over seven years. Still, prison officials continually challenge the merits of my positive transition; behind these walls, I remain the “whipping boy” for an unforgivable gang past…

Needless to say, my nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize has been opposed by a few vulturous journalists, victim rights groups, death penalty proponents, law enforcement groups and other self-imposed opposition. The focal point continues to elude their train of thought. Obviously, the nomination is not for my gang past, but for the present Internet Project for Street Peace work that I initiated from a death row cell and for the nine anti-gang and anti-violence books for schools and libraries that I have authored.Nonetheless, I have been called an unrepentant sinner, a moral coward, criminal beast, serial killer and a Fox News network reporter even compared me to Adolph Hitler. My belief is that such ungodliness in the judgment of me is the toxic product of American racism. A Black man is not supposed to be capable of redeeming himself.

People tend to forget the transitions of Saul, who became Paul, Moses, King David and Saint Aurelius Augustine, who was not always saintly, given the boy he sired by a mistress. Another controversial transformation was Alfred Nobel, himself, who invented dynamite and, ultimately, created the Nobel Peace Prize. A newspaper mistakenly printed Alfred Nobel’s obituary instead of his dead brother’s: the headline accused Alfred Nobel of earning his wealth through an invention (dynamite) that countless people had used to kill one another. The misprint served as a premonition for Alfred Nobel, allowing him to see how the world would judge him. It provoked his transition.
toolie
Yet, my detractors contend that it is inconceivable that I could reorient my life. Back in the day, I was devoted to building a Crip nation at the expense of other Black people. Today, my life is dedicated to building unity among youths, to promoting youth programs, computer literacy and youth empowerment, and to developing an initiative for a broad-based progressive agenda for youth throughout the world.

In fact, I hold out, here and now, an olive branch to those of you who desire to unite in peaceful solidarity to reverse the cycle of self-destructive madness afflicting too many of our people, Black people, young and old alike…In conclusion, I realize that the process of “self-transition” begins and ends with the determination of my faith. Indeed, the value of my transition cannot be determined by the perception of what people think I am, but rather by the ethics of my deeds.

Thank you Final Call for affording me the opportunity to unchain the truth in my own words. Amani (peace).

After years of claiming prosecutorial misconduct and racial discrimination, he lost his final appeal for a new trial in October 2005 and was scheduled for execution in December 2005. Despite world-wide protests, then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger denied Williams’ appeal for clemency. He was executed by lethal injection on December 13, 2005, in a death that SF Gate describes as an “agonizing 36 minutes……This was not a man who went meekly.”

Stanley Tookie Williams could not be spared because his very existence would continue to belie the unforgiving rigidity of our simplistic labels and our corresponding lust for revenge. If Redemption is possible for Stanley Tookie Williams, then isn’t it for everyone? From the vantage point of a “justice” system deeply invested in the narrative of irredeemable criminals, Williams and those like him would be a living contradiction set to challenge the story-line at every turn. It is easier – from that point of view- to erase and  deny, to Kill the Messenger and Save the Lie.

But there will be more Messengers.. Always…

“Some criminals, like some heroes, are allowed to be complex, as we are reminded in the wake of mass shootings committed by white men who are immediately scrutinized for signs of mental illness. Confusion and debate over what Ramsey really is—criminal or hero (or jolly Internet meme)—shows how little complexity we afford people like him…

Every day behind prison walls, inmates…wonder…if they, too, are “good” people; if they, too might have contributed something to the world if they had been given the chance to try again. Charles Ramsey did.

Can we dare to imagine that there are many others like him?”                                         

                                ~ Liliana Segura in Race, Redemption and Charles Ramsey

“… as long as I have breath, I will continue to do what I can to proliferate a positive message throughout this country and abroad to youths everywhere, of all colors or gender and geographical area, and I will continue to do what I can to help. I want to be a part of the — you know, the solution.”

~Stanley Tookie Williams III, November 30, 2005

The stories of Charles Ramsey and Stanley Tookie Williams are but two tales of Redemption, brought brightly into public light. There personal stories, however, compelling, are ultimately glimpses into another way of doing justice, one that complicates and uplifts the best that lies within each. For if they can be redeemed — in the midst even of the most punitive and objectifying system imaginable — then what is possible for all of us with another way??

Next week in Part 2, Contributing Editor Kay Whitlock dares us to imagine a justice system based on Healing and Transformation; on replacing an ethic of exclusion and disposability with a radical moral commitment to reclaiming/redeeming the lives of all who have been harmed by violence, whether interpersonal, individual, or structural in nature; on visions of caring, compassionate communities finding their ways forward within unshakeable frameworks of racial, gender, economic, and cultural justice.

Until then…

Redemption – The Stanley Tookie Williams Story starring Jamie Foxx

38 comments
kjirik
kjirik

This is a great article, I cannot believe that our society is so obsessed with labeling individuals. Chalres Rasmey is a hero and his passed should of never been investigated/looked at. It unfortunate and makes me wonder if it was a white neighbor who found them, would we even of checked to see if he was a criminal too?

MODI
MODI

great article Nancy, besides all that has been said about the Ramsey and the power of redemption, I was glad you tied in Tookie Williams. His execution was one of the saddest and demoralizing days in American history. Besides his individual redemption, Williams held the power to create the type of change that a 1000 gang-reduction activists could not approach.

Yet so many people could not see his value because of their hatred. I lost friends over disagreements on Tookie Williams.  

Patriot Daily
Patriot Daily

thanks for keeping me on your email list. i have been so otherwise occupied for so long with personal shit, and so wish you still posted you know where. :)


screw them, ramsey is hero and his videos, quite a few of them, i think have gone viral. no one can take away fact he stood up when others thinking this was "just domestic violence" would have turned away. 


torture indeed here. complete with stress positions. did you see the reuters article? someone sent me yesterday or day before. i think two women need reconstructive surgery because he taped faces up with duct tape and then ripped off. cripes. 


i still oppose the death penalty ... and certainly on the grounds considered here. but what should happen to him, i do hear suggestions. 

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg

one more thing -- for now anyway -- i must say i was heartened when i read through the comments at the smokinggun story on Charles Ramsey. They were nearly unanimous in their support of him, their outrage at the site for dredging up his past history, and demanded that yes -- he was a hero indeed

Hope then.. Always

PatriciaLevesque
PatriciaLevesque

Redemption is a common literary theme, no one is entirely proud of every moment of our lives.  Seeing others rise gives us the hope that we too may rise above whatever we regret.  Yet that runs right into the skin barrier, we want to see white people "rise above".  We all want to be Tom Cruise in the Last Samurai, not John Q.  When white people do bad things, we look for the reason (Adam Lanza's possible mental illness).  When blacks do bad things we point at their color as reason itself.  It is a shame that a man who deserves accolades will be remembered more for his past than a life altering moment for those three women, but at least it will not be long before he's given some peace, we've got to get back to the amused indulgence of Lindsey Lohan's latest "incident".

Seeta
Seeta moderator

While all words seem trite and incapable of satisfactorily expressing how glad the world is that these three remarkable women have been reunited with their families, let me say it anyway.  

Still, we are sad beyond words that our institutions failed them and in some ways created and reinforced the misogynistic culture of male entitlement to female bodies.  This culture is simply part and parcel of the same system that criminalizes and dehumanizes the marginalized.

Seeta
Seeta moderator

POWERFUL piece Nancy.  These examples illustrate the heart, force and necessity of restorative/transformative/healing justice models. 

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg

As i was reviewing the Williams case again and thinking about Karla Faye and others, i realized that No Redemption story is ever good enough for the system..

Tookie's wasn't sufficient because he did not admit to the murders or wasn't repentant enough.. Karla Faye did all those things but still was ridiculed by Bush..

The labels are built -- as i said -- for permanence.. And the redeemed must always die anyway because their lives belie the system..

Time for other possibilities - long past

KayWhitlock
KayWhitlock

We need transformative/healing justice perspectives so badly.  We need to replace this society's ethic of disposability and exclusion - throughout society.  Not only in the criminal legal system, but in education, health care, employment....

Thank you for this. 

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg

ps. Maybe the Guvernator's worst moment. And there are many to choose from

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg

@MODIGreat to see you Charles  and Thanks!

I agree 1000% on Williams -- we lost so much potential with him

This is so true -- " His execution was one of the saddest and demoralizing days in American history."

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg

@Patriot Daily Great to see PDN -- thank you for stopping..


Yes Charles Ramsey is a Hero.. I do like to think there could be so many more  would we open our minds to the possibilities..

So good to see you

KayWhitlock
KayWhitlock

@Patriot Daily Lovely to see you, Patriot Daily.  Just stop by when you can.  No onerous expectations.  Sending you all good wishes.

Torture is inflicted both by individuals and the state - and by organizations affiliated with no state.  We need to tackle this as culture change, just as we need to tackle rape culture and incarceration culture.  They aren't just "issues," but mindsets.  What some people believe they have a right to do to others who are not fully human to them.  To shore up their own sense of fear/inadequacy.  Or just to feel powerful over somebody, anybody, else.

What should happen for Castro?  Well, I won't deal with him specifically, but try to check out next week's post, when we address transformative/healing justice.  It's too easy to focus loathing and contempt on him while we forget how ingrained this despicable mindset is.

But I know you know that.  Onward.  Together. 

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg

@PatriciaLevesque Yes.. 

 but also see my comment right about.. I think Charles Ramsey will help turn the tide.. Many actually do want him to be remembered as the hero..

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg

@Seeta Thank you Seeta...I was always haunted by the Williams case -- glad Charles Ramsey brought me back to it...

Wish Stanley Tookie Williams was still alive to d some good..

KayWhitlock
KayWhitlock

@nancy a heitzeg "...because their lives belie the system."  Yes.  And those we don't kill, we destroy in other ways:  extended solitary confinement, felony disenfranchisement, denial of basic survival benefits and housing.  Poor people, especially black people, must die while the corporate thieves and murderers flourish. 

badphairy
badphairy

@KayWhitlock We do, and not only because retribution isn't working, but because we need to have other tools than the stick.

MODI
MODI

@nancy a heitzeg definitely his worst moment. Could have singlehandedly stopped it, but looked the other way like Clinton on Rwanda. I was hoping Maria would talk some sense into him

PatriciaLevesque
PatriciaLevesque

@nancy a heitzeg @PatriciaLevesque 

Your thinking with the new reality of news that the tide could turn here, much like it was turned about Treyvon Martin?  (remember the right wing media tried to paint Treyvon as possibly criminal, but to many voices were raised to counter this)  


Do you think it's possible that had Williams made it just a little further, with the rise in the last few years of activist news, that he might have been saved?  I think Ramsey is a hero, I think in many ways Williams was even more so.

badphairy
badphairy

@KayWhitlock @nancy a heitzeg  Even those who try to do it "the right way" AKA the White Way get ground down by a society that believes no matter how many degrees they have, no matter how much good they do, they are still deviants because not being white is an uncorrectable fault.

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg

we will need a full report on the party at the Mn Capital : )

badphairy
badphairy

@PatriciaLevesque @KayWhitlock @nancy a heitzeg I think the Left is fine, it's just that anything they try to do is attributed to "jobless slackers" and the MSM and the shrinking majority continue to believe it. I actually saw someone who claims to be of the Left wonder if civil disobedience actually worked, ever. He was alive during the late 60's and still asked this question. 

Yesterday, the back of the bus I was in was full of wrinkly white people going to celebrate the gay marriage bill. We have to find a way to bridge the gap between Tookie and Sookie.

PatriciaLevesque
PatriciaLevesque

@KayWhitlock @PatriciaLevesque @nancy a heitzeg 

Unfortunately the right has a strong, rabid base the will quite frankly believe anything they are fed.  Sadly the liberal base thinks it is enough all too often to watch the Daily Show and go to bed.


I do think the activist news movement has helped to turn people in on some very basic truths, but how do you get them to do more than post it to Facebook?

You hit the nail on the fact that we move on when we think the answer is settled, not understanding just how rabid the right is (37 attempts to repeal "Obamacare??  Another week on Benghazi??  Seriously?)  Considering the tidal wave of legislation controlling a woman's right to make constitutionally protected decisions about her body, it just takes me back to how do you wake up the left?

KayWhitlock
KayWhitlock

@PatriciaLevesque @nancy a heitzeg What a beautiful post, Patricia.  


I'm following the Trayvon Martin case closely, and I must say that I do not feel we've definitively won the narrative about him.  He is still being painted as a criminal, fiercely, by many.  That story is far from over, and I fear the trial will be a true nightmare.  

The defense attorneys for Zimmerman have gone full-tilt boogie in trying to control the narrative.  


I'm 63, and one thing I've learned is that the Right never, ever stops.  But our side does, thinking we've won victories, only to discover that what we thought we won, or even what we did win, is up for grabs again.  I wish we were as relentlessly persistent.

Maybe we will learn to be.

Remember in the Trayvon Martin case:  the "black youth are criminals" narrative has had mainstream media support throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.  White media only recognizes an Emmett Till later, and then uses that recognition to pretend that "we were for him all along."

That's a fiction, and a dangerous one.  Racism still continues to drive the Trayvon Martin case.  Count on it.  He is still presumed guilty, despite our constant challenge to that racist narrative.

KayWhitlock
KayWhitlock

@badphairy @nancy a heitzeg Oops - I meant "how slavery morphs into criminality supported by automatic presumption of "innocence" and superiority  and normativity of The White Way....etc.