'Don't Be Like Me'
Had he read books like these as a child, says Williams, 42, a muscle-builder with 20-inch biceps, he might have lived his life differently—"become a professor or teacher." Instead, back in the South Central section of Los Angeles in 1971, he helped found the Crips, one of America's most notorious street gangs. Fifteen years ago, he was convicted of the cold-blooded murder of four people and was sentenced to the gas chamber. Now repentant, Williams took a stubby prison-issue pencil to paper recently in the hopes of undoing some of the damage. "Don't join a gang," he writes in a series of easy-to-read books, Tookie Speaks Out Against Gang Violence. "All you will find is trouble, pain and sadness. I know. I did."
Though bleakly realistic, his books, printed by the Rosen Publishing Group, have found an avid readership in schools, particularly in the inner cities. "When I saw these books, I thought, 'This is it,' " says Franklin Tucker, president of the National Center to Rehabilitate Violent Youth, based in Washington. "There's been nothing out there for kids until now."
Since he is donating his royalties to charity (including the California group Mothers Against Gang Wars), Williams can't be accused of cashing in on his crimes. But some do question his motives, particularly since Williams, who maintains his innocence, began to write just as he took his appeal to federal court. "I think there's a crusade going on to get some sort of leniency," says Robert Martin, the prosecutor in his murder case. "No apology can mitigate his execution of four innocent human beings."
The first of two children born to a Louisiana couple, Williams moved to South Central with his mother after she divorced. At 13, he started sniffing glue, and by 17, he was expelled from school for bad behavior. Handsome and charismatic, he and a friend, Raymond Lee Washington, banded teens together to form the Crips, ostensibly to protect the neighborhood from rival gangs.
The Crips quickly became a menace in themselves, and Williams developed a reputation for violence. "He'd ride around shooting people," says Black Diamond, 39, a gang truce leader who was once part of the archrival Bloods. "He even shot at me." He married Bonnie Williams, founder of the Criplettes, an all-girl gang, but his drug use increased. A bodybuilder, he smoked PCP to energize himself while lifting weights, but it made him even meaner.
Eventually, he was arrested and convicted of killing Alvin Owens, a 7-Eleven employee, during a robbery in Whittier in February 1979. "You should have heard the way he sounded when I shot him," a witness testified hearing Williams boast. The same jury also convicted him of killing a motel owner, his wife and daughter during a robbery two weeks later.
At San Quentin, Williams turned to the library to research his appeal but soon began reading books on history and philosophy. By the time journalist Barbara Cottman Becnel met him four years ago, while working on a book about gangs, she was surprised to find an educated, articulate man. "Had he been raised in Brentwood instead of South Central," she says, "he'd be head of the state Democratic party." Williams told her he wanted to write books for children, and she agreed to be his coauthor and find a publisher. Over an eight-month period last year, she spoke with him and took dictation by phone.
The books won't eliminate gangs, but they have caught the attention of young readers. Recently in South Central, teacher Dorothy Hill-Williams discussed a book in the series, Gangs and Wanting to Belong, with fifth graders at West Athens Elementary School. It's a topic they know too well. One girl was sobbing in class because that morning a Crip had threatened to kill her as she walked to school, simply for wearing a red outfit—Blood colors. Student Phillip Wade, a former Crips member at the tender age of 10, feels that, after reading the book, he's sure not to return. "I don't want to end up like Tookie," he says.
MARC BALLON at San Quentin