A prisoner maintaining innocence on death row - for more than three decades.
Stanley 'Tookie' Williams, co-founder of Los Angeles' Crips gang, was executed by lethal injection in 2005. His excellent autobiography Redemption was published two years earlier, followed by a biopic starring Jamie Foxx. Redemption is a fully-whole, complete story of a life full of violence and turmoil, but full of exquisite insight and very little sentimentality. The book starts with Tookie's execution, spoiling brilliantly from the start – the structural editor clearly had no interest in keeping its readers on tenterhooks, as it is essentially a 300-plus page testament against the death penalty.
Young Stan was transplanted from Louisiana to LA where his long-suffering, deeply religious mother thought he'd have a better life. The realities of the 'concrete jungle' in which Tookie was forced to survive gradually disabused her of any illusions, as her son escaped sibling squabbles at home by doubling down with new friends found on the street. The Crips were gradually formed with characters such as Raymond and Buddha (the book is peppered with nicknames: seemingly no male in Tookie's world wanted to go out under their given monikers).
The women around him fared better in this respect, though possibly less so in the realm of fidelity or provision. Not that Stan didn't seem to try; just he was very busy fighting the Bloods, getting into heists and being shot in the legs. This latter event is excruciatingly detailed, as Stan went from fearless bounder to vicious-minded gang grandmaster after a forced, drug-induced prison stay. There is a compelling musical strut jaywalking the tome, as Tookie recalls Jackson 5 shows in stadiums, and bench-pressing to build up his increasingly vast torso to James Brown's The Payback.
After a number of stints in jail, he was eventually framed by a fellow arrestee, and charged with the murder of four people - an allegation of which he maintained his innocence until his death.
By now in San Quentin prison, he spent his remaining decades trying to solve the manifold internecine differences between the warring factions inside, while becoming a Nobel Prize nominee for his series of internationally acclaimed children's books. He also adopted a Swahili name, connected deeply with a heritage from which he discovered he had been separated his whole life, and concluded through reading the likes of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King that he had been a victim of an intractably racist penal-industrial complex.
The whole journey is so compelling that by the end the reader may have somehow convinced themselves that the state execution had been called off … until they remember the shattering intro.
Redemption is a faraway tale for a white European reader, media-informed by news reports of the Rodney King riots and gangsta rap-era murders, but the arc of history tapering with the near twenty years since Tookie's state murder as a death row prisoner (maintaining innocence) resonates through the tensions of biracial 20th and 21st century Western history.
By Sean Bw Parker