† 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.
“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:
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.
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.
Redemption – The Stanley Tookie Williams Story starring Jamie Foxx