Stefanie Faucher stood inside a classroom at Oakland's Street Academy High School last Thursday and asked a class of about thirty teenagers, "Do you want to help Tookie Williams live?"
The students nodded and shouted in agreement. Most had just watched a video about the former Crips leader, convicted of murdering four people in 1979. Williams has since apologized for his role in spreading gang violence and written several children's books condemning his old lifestyle. "Heck yeah," one student yelled out. "Free Tookie."
"Good," said Faucher, projects director for the grassroots group Death Penalty Focus. "Because if the governor does not grant Tookie Williams clemency, he will be executed on December 13."
The students drew back in their chairs. Faucher went on to describe the details of lethal injection and electrocution to her equally intrigued and aghast audience.
Faucher was conducting one of about twenty "Tookie Teach-Ins" that will occur across the state in the next few weeks. The school at which she spoke is a so-called "alternative" high school just north of downtown Oakland, attended primarily by black and Latino students. The classroom Faucher spoke in was decorated in a style that might best be described as Bill O'Reilly's Nightmare: A portrait of Che Guevara hung next to a sign that read "Dare to Dream." Another poster suggested, "Honor Dr. King. Defend Mumia Abu-Jamal." A massive painting of the African continent was slung just beneath Cesar Chavez, who was near Malcolm X.
If Faucher's talk was any indication, Tookie Williams deserves a poster too.
Has anyone here ever seen San Quentin?" Faucher asked the teens. "Anyone know who lives there?"
"Prisoners," one student said.
"You can see 'em playing basketball in the yard," another added.
"That's right," Faucher said.
Then the strawberry-blond guest lecturer, dressed in sensible khakis and a turquoise V-neck sweater, passed out a flier headlined "The Apology." It was a 1997 statement in which Williams took responsibility for the spread of gang violence from South Central Los Angeles to South Africa, and said he now regretted it. He also wrote that he'd found "the Almighty" and was no longer "dys-educated."
"How do we feel about this?" Faucher asked. "Is this expected from the founder of the Crips, to ask for forgiveness?"
"People on death row always talk like that," said David Pompa, a student in the back row wearing baggy black clothing and a camouflage-patterned Oakland Raiders cap.
Faucher looked around. "Anyone else?"
"Mumia didn't talk like that," said another student, drawing laughs.
Pompa, the dissenter, tried again. "He's talking like that because he's going to die."
A few awkward laughs trickled from the class.
"There's a lot of other Crips in prison," Faucher said. "I don't know of any others who've written apologies or started up Web sites. What do we think of that?"
"He's trying to get himself out of a bad situation," Pompa said, now exasperated.
"Okay," Faucher acknowledged. "Anyone else?"
A small kid sitting next to the teacher's desk said, "It's kinda like he's trying to make a bad thing good now."
"Good point," Faucher gushed.
The facts are that Williams was convicted of killing four people in eleven days. In 2002, the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that he'd received a fair trial, yet Williams still claims he is innocent. He says bad lawyers and racist jurors are to blame for his 24-year incarceration.
"There is actually little evidence to suggest Tookie Williams was actually guilty of the crimes he's accused of," Faucher told the class. "He was convicted by virtually an all-white jury. So what do we think of the criminal justice system?"
Several students hissed and sighed.
"You're putting too much on this," Pompa chimed in. "He's trying to blame someone else for what he did. It's like, when you break something at home and you tell your parents someone else did it. ... He's just trying to kiss ass now."
The "kiss ass" phrase sent the classroom laughing. Meanwhile, another student piped up, "Just let him die in jail. You don't need to kill him."
"It's not going to bring the dead back," a female student agreed. "He's done a lot of good stuff in jail; why don't they talk about that?"
"Yeah, why don't they?" the guest instructor asked.
Faucher gradually turned the discussion into a broader assault on the death penalty. "Innocent people get convicted and put to death in this country all the time," she said, adding, "Can anyone think of anyone else on death row who's innocent?"
"Mumia!" one voice offered.
"OJ!" said another, provoking laughs.
"That's right," Faucher said, speaking of OJ. "There wasn't a lot of convincing evidence against him."
For the next ten minutes, Faucher led the students through a tangle of injustices, from her observations that the number of black defendants involved in death-penalty cases is "disproportionally large" and that white people get better treatment from the cops, to complaints about the excesses of Laci Peterson coverage.
One black student cut in: "My cousin got popped, and it took forever for the cops to come. But if her name was Sally, had blonde hair and blue eyes? Shoot, they'd be there."
Faucher also bashed the poor quality of attorneys who represent death-row inmates. "I know, for one, I can't afford a two-million-dollar attorney like ... like, Johnnie Cochran."
"Johnnie Cochran's dead," senior Angelina Johnson replied.
Faucher later asked her audience, "Do you feel like you've got a voice? Do you feel like Arnold is going to listen to you?"
"He makes the same kind of decisions George Bush makes," one female student said. "Dumb ones."
"Schhhh," another female sighed. "It's 'cause he Republican, girl."
"He can't even talk the language," the first student said.
Then Johnson asked Faucher, "Does Arnold even have his citizenship?"
"No," Faucher replied. "He doesn't."
"How can he be our governor then?" she asked.
Faucher took a step back and reconsidered. "I don't actually know if he's gotten his citizenship," she conceded. She looked to the other adults for help. There were no takers.
"I want to get back to Tookie's case," she said. "If you think Tookie Williams is worth keeping alive, I'll give you a way for your voice to be heard. Attend a rally with Snoop Dogg."
The teenagers burst into roars.
"Now," Faucher said, passing out fliers for the event, "does anyone want to guess why Snoop Dogg would want to come support Tookie?"
"'Cause he's a Crip," one student said.
"You gotta help a member," another said.
Faucher paused. "Think that's the only reason why Snoop might want to help out?"
Silence. A soft-spoken student with a rosary around his neck asked if it was to protest the death penalty.
Faucher ultimately asked each student to write the governor in support of Williams. The letters, she said, were part of the clemency process and were sure to be read by Schwarzenegger. "It's required by law," she added.
"So we shouldn't say anything bad about Arnold?" one student asked.
"How do you spell 'redemption'?" another asked.
Faucher spelled it. And just in case they were having trouble forming their own thoughts, she offered the students a form letter to copy. "Make sure you put your name, grade, and school on the letter so he knows who you are," she said. In the end, about 29 letters were bound for Sacramento on behalf of Tookie Williams.
Writers were rewarded. "Everyone who wrote a letter today gets a bumper sticker or a button," Faucher said, lifting a bag. "Dig in."
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