December 3, 2005

Crips gang focus of Williams execution debate

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A growing debate over the planned
execution of Stanley Tookie Williams hinges partly on his claim
that he founded the notorious Crips street gang then renounced
a criminal life in a quest for redemption.

Williams is scheduled to die on December 13 unless granted
clemency by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

His case is one of several that have drawn attention to
U.S. use of the death penalty, as the execution toll passed a
milestone on Friday of 1,000 since the U.S. Supreme Court
reinstituted capital punishment in 1976.

Though Williams maintains his innocence in the four 1979
murders that landed him on death row, he asserts credit for
founding the Crips a decade earlier with another teenager,
Raymond Washington, and says he now regrets his role. He has
written a series of books urging children to reject violence.

Prosecutors question the 51-year-old Williams' sincerity in
repudiating the Crips. Experts say the convicted killer and his
supporters have also overstated his role in founding the gang
-- which has a reputation for violent rivalries with other
gangs -- as a way of emphasizing his claim of redemption.

"Actually, everybody but Tookie gives Raymond Washington
credit for starting (the Crips)," said Malcolm Klein, an
emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Southern
California who has studied gangs since 1962.

"Instead of founding the gang, which is what Tookie claims,
what you're really talking about is emerging as a dominant
figure," Klein told Reuters.

"Because he is such a dominant, violent, articulate bad
guy. Rather than leadership you're talking about influence."

Latino gangs first surfaced in Los Angeles after the turn
of the century, historians say, and black gangs may have formed
in the 1930s.

Blacks moved to Los Angeles in large numbers during World
War II and those gangs gained strength until the mid-1960s,
when youths were drawn to the civil-rights movement and radical
political groups like the Black Panthers.


By the end of that decade, the Panthers had faded and
15-year-old Washington stepped into a power vacuum, creating a
gang he initially called the Baby Avenues.

The origins of the name "Crips" are hazy, though one theory
attributes it to a disabled member known as a "cripple" to his

"The Crips were already well established when Tookie came
on the scene," said retired Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt.
and gang expert Wes McBride.

"(That he created the Crips) is part of his mystique that
his supporters are using to try get him commuted. It gives him
a stature as an anti-hero kind of person that has now turned
his life around."

McBride says Williams, known by his middle name Tookie or
the nickname "Big Took," helped build and solidify the Crips.
The gang caught the imagination of the media after killing the
son of a prominent black attorney and entering the popular
culture through Hollywood films.

The Bloods emerged as rivals to the Crips in the early
1970s and the two gangs have feuded ever since.

McBride dismissed as "nonsense" claims by Williams that he
started the Crips to defend his neighborhood against other

Williams has become a cause for anti-death penalty
activists, including rapper and former Crips member Snoop Dogg
and Oscar-winning actor Jamie Foxx, who starred in a
sympathetic TV movie about the convicted murderer.

Washington was killed by a rival gang member in 1979.

McBride said there are now some 200 Crips gangs, though
most are only loosely affiliated, with some 25,000 members in
the Los Angeles area. Hundreds of people, mostly young black
men, are killed each year in California by gangs.

"There's not a whole lot of difference between the Crips of
today and the Crips of yesteryear, only there's more of them,"
McBride said. "They are more involved in narcotics trafficking
than they used to be, but Crips will do whatever they can to
make money. Bank robberies, armored car robberies."

"Their legacy is that they've helped destroy the black
community," McBride said. "Gangs kill communities just as
surely as they kill people."