Roundtable: Bus Boycott, Death Row Countdown

Thursday's topics: 50th anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott; a California judge declines to block Stanley "Tookie" Williams' execution; and prison reform. Guests: Jeff Obafemi Carr, host of the radio show Freestyle; Robert George, editorial writer for The New York Post; and Yvonne Bynoe, author of the book Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership and Hip Hop Culture.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

On today's Roundtable, the Supreme Court and parental notification, plus police reconsider the policy of always being on duty. Joining us from our headquarters in Washington, DC, Yvonne Bynoe, author of the book "Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership and the Hip Hop Culture." With me here in our New York bureau, Robert George, editorial writer at The New York Post. And Jeff Obafemi Carr, host of the radio program "Freestyle," joins us from Spotland Productions in Nashville, Tennessee.

All right, folks, before we get into the headlines of the day, I just want to pick up on something that we heard from Fred Shuttlesworth just a moment ago. Jeff, I'll start with you. The idea that he says as encouraged as he is in terms of what they've gained and being hopeful today, he wants to see people stop talking and do more walking. How much do you buy that that needs to be the case today?

Mr. JEFF OBAFEMI CARR (Host, "Freestyle"): Well, I buy into it on two levels. On one level, I'm kind of sickened by the notion of marching and marching and marching and simply because I'm from a little bit of a younger generation who have heard the stories of people actually walking and have seen the footage and have heard the freedom songs. And in the course of hearing those stories and appreciating the commitment that people in the generation previously had to the civil rights movement and human rights in general, I also find myself saying, `OK, that was great for the time. Marches worked at the time. Those boycotts and those particular ways worked very well at the time. What can our generation do now to take it to the next level?' So if we're simply talking about going out and marching and getting in the streets and singing some freedom songs and doing the whole rousing reproduction of "We Shall Overcome," then I'm not really for that. But if we're talking about the walk in a tangible way and getting back into walking, and that being taking definitive actions that are going to now take our struggle to another level--economically, intellectually, educationally--than I'm down for putting a new walk in progress. But I'm not for simply marching to reminisce, and I think...

GORDON: Yeah.

Mr. CARR: ...becomes the case when we get misty-eyed and sentimental about the civil rights movement.

GORDON: Yvonne, I think Reverend Shuttlesworth was speaking of it metaphorically, the idea that walking--meaning just do something. Stop talking and do something.

Ms. YVONNE BYNOE (Author, "Stand and Deliver: Political Action, Leadership, and the Hip-Hop Culture"): Well, if that is the sentiment, then I certainly would agree, but I think also that Jeff makes a great point. I think a lot of our actions are still reactionary. I'm not really seeing where we are looking forward and making plans that deal with the issues of economics, human rights and education. I think that a lot of our actions are motivated by something catastrophic happening. Then there's a protest. Then there is an outcry. And then, you know, in a couple of weeks, a month later, you know, we're back to the same saga. So I think if we've learned anything from the past, we--is to build on those successes, build on those struggles, but we have to update the model to deal with our current realities, which are no longer even domestic. We have a global environment that we also have to deal in, whether we're talking employment or education or whatever, other challenges that face us in the 21st century.

GORDON: Yet, Robert George, it seems to me that you almost need something catastrophic or the idea that something has gone on long enough, as is the case with the Rosa Parks situation, that at that point in time the movement became real, became tangible because it was something to point to.

Mr. ROBERT GEORGE (Editorial Writer, New York Post): That's exactly right, but Jeff and Yvonne are exactly right in the sense of when Rosa Parks--obviously you had a situation that was going on, but you then had the ability to respond to that situation. You had a catastrophic--a lightning event that focused everybody, and then a clear plan of attack to battle a long-standing injustice. The kind of challenges that face the community right now, there's not a Jim Crow line in the sand that you can point to. It forces a whole creative way of trying to focus on education and economic issues.

GORDON: All right, let's move...

Mr. CARR: Can I bounce off? Oh.

GORDON: Real quick.

Mr. CARR: Yeah, yeah, I wanted to bounce off something that Robert said. I feel like we deal and we struggle so much with this issue of collective low self-esteem as a people. 1990, I helped lead a sit-in at Tennessee State that brought about $140 million of improvements to their campus. And what happened is we got accused of being led by professors because they couldn't believe that students could plan a 14-day takeover of a campus themselves. I think right now this generation is faced with the question of what can we do and how can we reconceive of this struggle. We have to be able to analyze our situation and do something, and we have to feel confident that we can find a way to put a dent in this beast and not just rest on what happened generations before and have this sense of confusion and helplessness right now. I think we're smart enough to come up with ways as a people, with all the great minds we have, to combat racism and discrimination and what's been going on in this society right now today. I think we're smart enough, but we struggle with it.

Ms. BYNOE: But, Jeff, you have to convince people there's even a problem. A lot of people looked at Katrina...

Mr. CARR: Yeah.

Ms. BYNOE: ...and they were amazed. Like, wow, I didn't know this existed. So unfortunately, some of the best and brightest--bright among us have our head in the sand as to how the rest of the community is actually living and the struggles that they are dealing with on a day-to-day basis. As long as we have ours, frankly, a lot of people are OK with that.

GORDON: All right, let's turn our attention to people who are actually out doing something right now, and that is those who are protesting the imminent death right now of Stanley "Tookie" Williams, Crips co-founder, who is awaiting execution in California. It moved a step closer to that when the California Supreme Court refused to reopen the case of four murders that he was on trial and convicted of. And now, save a stay of execution or a federal intervention from the federal courts, he will indeed be put to death. But it seems to me, Yvonne, one of the things that we're missing in all of this is there seems to be outrage about Stanley Williams, but one of the things that I think we have to remember to keep in the forward is it really should be outrage from the community about capital punishment in general because it remains such a racist practice in the sense of how it's administered.

Ms. BYNOE: Well, that is certainly true, Ed. You listen to proponents of capital punishment and their position is that the system works. Whether or not you languish in jail forever, hopefully your DNA or some material evidence survives, and then since you were cleared or acquitted then that's the system working. And it does--they never seem to speak also to the people who perhaps were, you know, executed wrongly. So personally I'm not for the death penalty primarily because it has the capacity to go the wrong way. There's human error that's involved. When you look at juries, when you look at who is continuously in the pool to be executed, they are largely poor people and they are largely people of color. And I think that's still problematic, and I don't see any human way of fixing that. I think it'd be better to have people just in jail, prison for life with no parole. And then if there is something that acquits them down the road, be that 20 or 30 years, then they have that ability to get out. But once you've killed someone, they're gone. And to say `I'm sorry,' that certainly isn't sufficient.

Mr. GEORGE: That--you know, that is--I can recognize that. I can accept that. I've gone back and forth on the death penalty issue myself. I recognize that. Though the one thing I will say--I mean, I know we're talking about the death penalty kind of in general, but I--it always troubles me, though, that some of the people that become, you know, the rallying cries for discussing this are somebody like Tookie Williams, who, you know, he founded--you know, he founded the Crips. He is on death row for killing four people, and that's something...

GORDON: But one of the other reasons, Robert, that he has also been given this kind of audience is the redemptive nature--if you believe that he has, in turn, found a way to redeem his life in terms of denouncing his past life.

Mr. GEORGE: Well, of course, the irony of that situation is that because you have the protracted appeals process, he has had it--he's had this long amount of time to--yes, he's written children's books. That's nice. You know, that's good to see. But, you know, I mean, I think if, you know, the state of California, you know, has made this judgment on having the death penalty--and I think it should be--you know, it meted out. Obviously, the governor still has the power of clemency and, you know, we'll see if he does that.

Mr. CARR: What troubles me in this whole discussion takes me back to an old Baptist hymn we used to sing. I won't sing it, but it's called "Take My Life." `Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee.' I wonder--and it struggle--it troubles me that we live in a society right now where on one hand people are claiming that they want retribution. They want an eye for an eye. They want to take people's lives if they took someone's life. They want capital punishment. They want these things in place, but at the same time they want to do this, to legislate morality, but how--what about redemption? Is there any room for forgiveness? Is there any room for transformation? Is there any room for change? And at what point do we say, `We believe in the very things that we are trying to put into the legal structure of this society?' We want to legislate morality. We want to legislate everything from capital punishment to abortion rights'? But when we have somebody who transforms themselves, we can't have any room for forgiveness. And that's where it troubles me. And I believe that in this particular case, those issues are on the table, too. I think it's not only a legal issue and how to punish the four murders, but it's also a moral issue and how to make room for the redemptive nature of the work that Tookie Williams has done since he's been in prison.

Ms. BYNOE: Well, I have a problem with that term `redemptive.' And I don't want to necessarily speak to Tookie Williams because I don't know that the--I know he's been convicted, but again, that's still in dispute. The bottom line for what I see that we certainly should be talking more about educating people once they're in jail. A large majority of--a majority of people who are in jail are undereducated, have all sorts of deficiencies in that area, so certainly we should be preparing them to eventually leave the system and be full-fledged, contributing citizens. But we need to be honest that some of those people are in there, they should be in there, and they never should see the light of day again. There is no redemption.

Mr. GEORGE: Thank you.

Ms. BYNOE: And...

GORDON: But think about what happened...

Mr. GEORGE: Thank you, Yvonne.

Ms. BYNOE: ..that's...

GORDON: Think about what happened right here, Yvonne with this...

Ms. BYNOE: If you're a stone-cold killer, there's nothing to redeem.

Mr. GEORGE: But if that--you're exactly right.

GORDON: Think about--hang on, Robert--think about what happened just in this, and this is part of the issue that I brought up, the idea that I suggested that we talk about the disproportionate number of African-Americans who, A, sit on death row and, B, who are executed, and then the discussion takes its own wheels and goes in many different directions. And that is, for me, the most problematic, when we talk about trying to focus on changing things, that we just talked about in the first segment...

Ms. BYNOE: But...

GORDON: ...changing things...

Mr. GEORGE: And...

GORDON: ...that we see are wrong.

Mr. GEORGE: And at the same time, though, how many...

Ms. BYNOE: But I don't think that's the...

Mr. GEORGE: How many...

Ms. BYNOE: But I don't--listen, let me...

GORDON: How many of us...

Ms. BYNOE: Listen. The thing is...

GORDON: Go ahead, Yvonne.

Ms. BYNOE: ...I think when you have Tookie Williams as the poster boy, or somebody like that, I think it makes the discussion very problematic. I think there are probably millions of people in jail that do have the capacity to change; given the right education, given the right opportunities, they could come out and be contributing citizens. But again...

GORDON: But Tookie Williams didn't have to be the poster boy, Robert. No one else picked up this mantle and continued it along the line to try to get a Pied Piper's effect.

Mr. GEORGE: That may be the case. The thing is, though, now with Tookie Williams, it's, well, he's changed his life around, but then there's also--now there's this question of he's actually saying he didn't do it--you know, he didn't do it in the first place. But, you know, Yvonne really raises a very good point. Yes, there is a disproportionate number of black people in jail and also on death row. I will accept that. Some of--there may even be some that are innocent or innocent of the specific details and so forth. But...

GORDON: May?

Mr. GEORGE: May.

GORDON: Are.

Mr. GEORGE. May. May.

GORDON: Are.

Mr. GEORGE: But the fact is, though, why--how is it, though, that we seem to want to make the assumption that this person is innocent? Many of these people have killed other people. They've killed many black people. And it kind of disturbs me that we're saying--we're having this kind of assumption that these people are innocent whenever these death penalty cases come up.

Mr. CARR: Yeah, I don't agree that we should take the assumption that they are innocent, per se. I think we should take--we should discuss this whole fairness issue. Going back to what Ed said, there's a disproportionate of people who are poor--a number of people who are poor and black who are being put to death and are on death row. And when in doubt, you have to do without. Until we clear that up, I don't think you should put anybody to death and kill innocent people with that.

Mr. GEORGE: A disproportionate number of us are being killed, murdered by--you know, by us, too. I mean, that...

GORDON: But don't you think, Robert--no one's suggested...

Mr. CARR: A disproportionate...

GORDON: No one's suggested the innocence, outside of last week from Mr. Williams himself. None of us here suggested his innocence.

Mr. CARR: Right, right.

GORDON: And if you think about what I said earlier, I said if you believe in the redemptive nature of someone who has sat in jail and the ability to, quote, "change one's life," then the question becomes whether or not they should be spared.

Ms. BYNOE: No, and I guess my--yeah...

Mr. CARR: Well, I don't know about a...

Mr. GEORGE: Well, it seems to me, though...

Mr. CARR: Well, I don't know about anybody else here, but back in high school for a while, I was doing some things that I'm not proud to stick my chest out about. There was a time when I made straight F's because I just wasn't motivated in school. And I think if somebody were to take my grades and to take my behavior at 17 or 18 and say, `This is who this person is for the rest of their life,' then I'd be locked up somewhere.

Ms. BYNOE: Yeah, but that's...

Mr. CARR: But I think each one of us...

Mr. GEORGE: But, Jeff, that's definitely...

Ms. BYNOE: Clocking somebody over the head...

Mr. CARR: Whether you make it murder or not.

GORDON: Yvonne, go ahead.

Ms. BYNOE: ...or raping them or doing something--no, I just--I don't buy...

Mr. CARR: You can't change from that?

Ms. BYNOE: I don't buy that analogy because, again...

Mr. CARR: OK.

Ms. BYNOE: ...I think Robert makes the right point that there are people in communities that are living in terror. They are being terrorized by criminals, and unfortunately the victims and the perpetrators are both black. Now certainly we can discuss the disproportionate amount of people in jail, but that doesn't excuse that some of them need to be in there, and that's the...

Mr. CARR: They need to be?

Mr. GEORGE: And--but...

Ms. BYNOE: ...cut and dry of it.

Mr. CARR: They need to be, but they also need...

Mr. GEORGE: And Jeff, Jeff, Jeff, Jeff...

GORDON: But, Robert, doesn't that...

Mr. GEORGE: ...listen, you--Jeff, you may have...

GORDON: Robert...

Mr. GEORGE: ...gotten some actually...

GORDON: Robert, you're screaming. OK. Isn't that the rub?

Mr. CARR: ...(Unintelligible) right?

GORDON: Pick up on your point, but isn't that the rub? Do we do it for the one person who may have, in fact, redeemed their life?

Mr. GEORGE: Do we...

GORDON: Do we look at the idea of capital punishment, meting it out, etc., for the one person? I agree, most of those--many of those--some of those--are, in fact, guilty and should be put away. But what of the one who does indeed turn their life around?

Mr. GEORGE: And that is indeed a case-by-case basis, and it is within the power of the governor of California to do that. Would I advise him to do so? I personally would probably advise him not to do so, but the governor can certainly do that.

Mr. CARR: Tookie Williams can't help that he's a leader. He can't help that he's a leader. We look at him as an example of this whole issue simply because the man's a leader. Yes, he started a gang. He could have started a corporation, though. And because he took--now on one hand he took his leadership skills and put it into a gang, we kind of gasp and we say, `Oh, my Gosh.' But he's also the poster boy because he took his leadership skills and put it into writing children's books and being nominated for a Nobel Prize. And that's why he put himself in a position to be a poster child for this whole issue.

Mr. GEORGE: Well, some of that might...

Mr. CARR: And somebody else might be innocent who's not a leader...

GORDON: All right.

Mr. CARR: ...is not speaking up on that level.

GORDON: All right, got to stop us there. We're all tired, anyway. Yvonne, Robert and Jeff, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

Mr. CARR: Have a good one.

GORDON: You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.

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