Roundtable: Tookie Williams, 50 Cent Protest Wednesday's topics: After more than 20 years behind bars, the co-founder of the Crips street gang now faces execution; Los Angeles protesters take on rapper 50 Cent over the gun theme in the ads for his new movie Get Rich Or Die Tryin'. Guests: George Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service; Callie Crossley, social and cultural commentator on the television show Beat the Press in Boston; and John McWhorter, Manhattan Institute senior fellow in public policy.

Roundtable: Tookie Williams, 50 Cent Protest

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ED GORDON, host:

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

Two thousand die in Iraq and one is sentenced to die in the United States. Joining us today from Harvard University in the studios there on the campus, Callie Crossley, social and cultural commentator on the television show "Beat the Press," which is seen in Boston and the surrounding areas; and George Curry, editor in chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service joins us from Maryland. We are awaiting John McWhorter, and I am told now the late John McWhorter has joined us, and he is a Manhattan Institute senior fellow in public policy.

And I thank you all for joining us. Greatly appreciate it.

George Curry, let's start with that number: 2,000. Ofttimes, we in society like these rounded-off monumental numbers and we like to look at those as watersheds; 2,000 certainly is one of those numbers.

Mr. GEORGE CURRY (National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service): Yeah. And you got this propaganda war going on. You have people saying, for example, `Well, you look at World War I or II or Korea or Vietnam, even the Civil War, that's not a whole lot of numbers even though, you know, each life was a sacrifice.' But to really understand this, you have to get something that's comparable, and to do that you need to look at wars that counterinsurgency operation where you don't have a major power, basically a weak guerrilla movement. When you put it in that context, when you look at--certainly, over the last 30 years--Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, the Gulf War, Somalia--that 2,000 is an unusually high number. In fact, none of those have come close to even 1,000. So when you put it within context, that's a lot of lives.

GORDON: Mm-hmm. Callie.

Ms. CALLIE CROSSLEY (Cultural Commentator): I am distressed about the face of the folks who are fighting the war. Just as we were going to air, I learned that actually there was one more death, so now it's 2,001. But the 2,000th death actually was a Sergeant George Alexander, 34-year-old black soldier from Killeen, Texas. And as we look at those numbers, inside those numbers we know that they are coming from our communities of black and brown peoples and a lot of young people. And that, to me, is very distressing for something that doesn't appear to have any end and any strategy.

Earlier this week, Secretary of State Rice said that the strategy was to hold and to clear and to build. But I think the poll numbers would have you--would make everybody understand that Americans are saying, `Well, what are we holding? What are we building? What are we clearing? What's the point of this?'

GORDON: Mm-hmm. John McWhorter, what we did see, is the president come out this week to say that we should expect more what he called sacrifice, translate death, coming from this war. And for the first time, Harris Interactive Poll, which was published by The Wall Street Journal, found that a majority of Americans now, 53 percent, according to this poll, believe the Iraqi War was the wrong thing to do.

Mr. JOHN McWHORTER (Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute): Well, I wouldn't say that and I can say that if I were the 2,000th or 3,000th or 4,000th person to die there, I'd be willing to be maimed there, to die there if I thought that what was going on was a constructive strategy for the, indeed, neo-conservative goal of creating an Islamic country that actually makes sense and provides opportunity for the middle class and isn't committed to the kind of hatred or tolerating it that Iraq and so many of the others have been. That is clearly not the case, and I have gotten to the point, long before the number 2,000, where I have not been able to see what the point of this was. I couldn't send a child to it; I personally would not want to go. It obviously has no end. It could have gone better, I think. I was quite happy about it at first and would have been willing to go myself. That unfortunately based on so many things that we've talked about before has changed.

GORDON: George Curry, John brings up the idea of what neo-cons might have believed. I've not heard, quite frankly, and often you do, from the neo-cons, if we're going to continue to use that lingo, what they thought initially outside of weapons of mass destruction was the first bell that we heard. Outside of that, I haven't heard much other than `stay the course.'

Mr. CURRY: Well, I mean, they're disappointed, too, because first of all you had this administration, basically Rumsfeld, saying that basically when Americans walked through Baghdad, they'll be greeted with American flags and people saying, you know, `Whoopee, you're all here.' And that was not the reaction, certainly not the reaction. And they underestimated the resistance and what it would take to stay there. And so I think that while--even like John said, you know, even the early supporters are saying now that this is a mistake.

GORDON: Callie, let me ask you, some people--some headlines I read today, after the president's speech on--yesterday, are calling this president defiant, defiant in the gale winds of an ever-changing society here in America. That does not agree with the course of this war. How long do you believe he can remain defiant?

Ms. CROSSLEY: Well, that's a good question. I think as long as he has any political support, and even though there are people who are disappointed, who have been a part of his base and have expressed their disappointment, they also are quick to point out that there are what they believe to be successes there, certain parts of the country that are now no longer controlled by insurgents, etc., etc. But I think it's going to be hard for those folks, in Congress, anyway, to keep saying that to their constituents and--when Gallup has shown that 59 percent of Americans say this is a mistake. So who are you talking to to try to bolster some support for a war that is not very popular. And I think as Americans try to pull in to try to figure out how to make it through a hard winter with the high cost, they're looking around, saying, `Why are we sending millions and billions of dollars across the sea, allowing our young men to die, and we don't know what the point is?'

GORDON: All right. Well...

Mr. CURRY: We already have seen within the conservative ranks disenchantment with Bush, whereas--I know I remember reading when he first came to office, I saw an article in The Washington Post where it was saying, `Oh, this guy is every better than Reagan. Reagan talked good; he's actually making it happen.' Now there's total disenchantment not only with the budget, with the war, with the way he's handling the economy. I mean, there's major disenchantment within his own political base. And I think that's going to actually increase.

GORDON: All right. Let me turn our attention now to a statement made by the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus on Capitol Hill and the continued attempt to strengthen the Voting Rights Act; in order to level the playing field, many people are calling it. Congressman Mel Watts said that, "It's necessary to make sure that the strength and the teeth stay in the Voting Rights Act because white people will not consider voting for an African-American candidate," end quote. He said he based that on a 1980s blind poll of North Carolinians, which he said revealed that 30 percent of the whites conducted in that poll said that they would not vote for a black candidate under any circumstance.

John.

Mr. McWHORTER: Well, if Watt is talking about monitoring elections closely, then I don't think we should have any argument with that. But if what he means, as many people mean when they often make statements like that, is that there should be carefully gerrymandered districts where black voters are concentrated. The problem is simply that people who've studied this, and this is regardless of what their politics is, have shown that that actually isn't a good idea for getting black-oriented policies done. There was a famous paper in 1996 in the American Political Science Review, which showed that actually there were more pro-black votes in Congress when black voters were more evenly distributed. And the basic problem seems to be that if you have a black district, it has nothing to do with whether it looks funny on the map or any of those cheap talk radio lines. But the point is: If you've got a concentrated black district, then that means that the ones that are adjacent are basically all white, and then the people in that district have no reason to even pretend to care about anything pro-black.

And as far as the idea that white people won't vote black, and referring to a poll from 20 or 25 years ago, there are many other polls that show, rather unsurprisingly, that that kind of thing is changing. A famous one is in the '90s that showed that 93 percent of white Americans polled said they would vote for a black president. Let's say that some of them were lying. It certainly wasn't that only 10 percent of them would. So I think Watts' statement is a little impulsive, a little theatrical and a little misinformed.

GORDON: George.

Mr. CURRY: I totally disagree. The point--the fact is, what we have seen in exit poll after exit poll is that, yes, a lot of whites say they will vote for black candidates, but when they come out to the poll, it's a different thing. So I think that's not just an '80s poll. I mean, that's what the documentation shows, that many won't, some will, of course, but many will not simply based on a person's race.

Mr. McWHORTER: But not most, that's the thing.

Mr. CURRY: Yeah.

Mr. McWHORTER: You're going to end up having to shave the numbers down. But the fact is, there's no evidence that, for example, seven white people say they'll vote for a black candidate but actually only two will. Things are changing.

GORDON: All right, Callie, let me take you to your state of Illinois and ask you whether Barack Obama is the anomaly.

Ms. CROSSLEY: You mean--I'm in Boston.

GORDON: All right. I'm sorry, Callie. Well, let me take you to Illinois anyway, doggone it.

Ms. CROSSLEY: I think that--I don't know that he's the anomaly. You know what? Let me say this, I think that's a tribute to the work that he did. I mean, he did a lot of coalition-building on the ground, and even then I believe, if you went back and looked inside some of those numbers, there are just some folks, I don't care who he was, how many coalitions he built, they weren't voting for the guy...

GORDON: All right. Let me take you...

Ms. CROSSLEY: ...because he was an African-American.

GORDON: ...to your state of Massachusetts then.

Ms. CROSSLEY: OK.

GORDON: And let's look at Massachusetts and let's even look at Boston, specifically. Will whites there vote for a black candidate statewide and one might even ask the same question in Boston Proper.

Ms. CROSSLEY: I mean--well, and I can answer that. We have for the first time a couple of at-large candidates, who are minority candidates, but it took one of them, who's an incumbent, years and years and years to get elected for the very reasons that we're talking now. It's quite interesting because the second minority candidate in the at-large City Council race is in the fifth position and there are only four that are available. So people are watching this quite closely to see what will happen.

But back to the underpinnings of this act. One of the reasons that there is a lot of interest and a lot of voter turnout, more than minority voter turnout with more confidence in the voting process is because a lot of these communities had to file suit under the provisions of the Voting Rights Act to make certain that, for example, there were interpreters at the polling places, for example, that the polling places were marked correctly so people could get there. These kinds of things will continue to happen in minority communities. So you're blocking people to vote, minority folks, and then you have, you know, white people who are challenged with, perhaps, for the very first time, thinking seriously about voting for a minority candidate in Boston's City Council race.

GORDON: George.

Mr. CURRY: I think it's important to note that, yes, whites will vote for blacks. I mean, you look at Ohio, you look at Maryland and they particularly vote for blacks if they're Republicans. I mean, there's no question about it. I think they have--I mean, you look at Steele in Maryland for example, they're talking about him being the next senator...

GORDON: Douglas Wilder, yeah.

Mr. CURRY: ...and I think that's somebody who'll get the--both black and white votes when he's running. I really think he's going to surprise people, especially with the disenchantment with Democrats. So I don't think we can make the statements that whites will not vote, when they do. But are there that many whites will not vote for a person based solely on their race? Yes.

GORDON: All right. Let's turn our attention to a man that has been in the news for years and years now and that's Stanley Tookey Williams, co-founder of the Crips gang, originally in California. After more than 20 years of waiting, Williams is now scheduled to die on December 13th. Many people have been in this man's corner in the sense of believing that he is the personification of rehabilitation in prison. We should note that he has been vocal since being incarcerated against gang activity and was even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for children's books that he has put together. We should also note that Jamie Foxx played him in a movie about his life. So many people have suggested that he has become a cause celebre, but his time, as we know it, unless clemency is granted by Arnold Schwarzenegger, which does not seem to be the case, many people believe here in California.

After 20 years, Callie, what's your thought about this man's life and whether putting him to death serves any purpose or cause here?

Ms. CROSSLEY: Well, I'm opposed to the death penalty, so for me it does not. And though I try to understand people who feel very strongly about it on the other side. And they look at life, even though it may be rehabilitated and say, `Well, that's all well and good, but what about the convenience store owner that he killed? What about the other two people who were killed and--when he was doing Crips activities? And how can they--those lives are gone forever and they can't come back.' And so, yes, the guy has rehabilitated himself but, you know, what does that mean.

Now for my money, I say, `Leave him in prison. You know, and let him sit there.' And the fact that he has made some strides to articulate against the kind of life that he led should count for something, but should count for something in jail.

GORDON: John, what about that, the idea that we have for so long held on to the belief--albeit a bit naive, I think, with the prison system we know today--that this may be one of the few people that was, in fact, rehabilitated in our systems. Should we not leave room for that?

Mr. McWHORTER: Well, a lot of it depends on how you feel about the death penalty. But I think we just have to remember that there are a lot of people who come to feel sincere remorse when they're in prison and who write books. And I think if we're going to come to a decision about Mr. Williams, then in a way we need to just do a ...(unintelligible) experiment and imagine that he was white. Just judge him not as a brother, not as a victim of the system because of his race, because those things might come into how we evaluate him as individual human beings. And the issue, therefore, is not whether he is African-American and descended of slaves, it's not whether the wonderful and lovable Jamie Foxx played him on TV. It's how do we feel about those convenience store owners and the fact that he presided over a gang of people? And I think that that's just how we would make the decision.

Imagine, for example, if--you know, to make it a black person again, if O.J. had been convicted, and if the evidence were more conclusive, and he's in jail, and after 15 years, he writes a book and he writes some music and he does a rap album and he's reformed and he counsels little kids. How would you feel about letting him off the hook in some way? If you believe in the death penalty, how would you feel about sparing it to him?

So I just say that look at Williams not as some kind of icon, but just judge him as a human being.

GORDON: Can you do that, George Curry? Can you take a race away from--certainly one would question whether you can take it away from death row?

Mr. CURRY: Well, I think you can take it away in terms of looking at the case, because I was confused about whether we were going to use the race or not race there from the previous comment. But let's go back to the case. Look, yes, I think you can say, look, let's talk about where he was. I mean, he helped start the Crips, so he's been very instrumental in bringing about some gang peace. But the record still--I agree with Callie, the record is still, even though he maintains that he's innocent, but he's been convicted of killing a convenience store worker and a motel owner and a daughter. I mean, so if he's, in fact, guilty of that, I don't say let him loose because he's done all these things. Let him stay in jail. But to give him the death penalty, I don't think you're really gaining anything from it.

GORDON: Callie, what of the idea, if you play John's scenarios out, one might say, if you look solely in a race race, or make him white, often we see disproportionately whites who commit the same crimes not necessarily relegated to death row.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Well, that is true. But I think John is correct in this scenario. If you look right at this case, I would have the same position. I would have to say, however, given the high numbers of African-Americans on death row, that there are some of those cases that should be re-examined with the lens of race prominent, because I think that that had absolutely some impact on the fact that they got to the point that they were on death row.

GORDON: All right. Well, I thank you all. John McWhorter, Manhattan Institute senior fellow, who joined us from New York today; Callie Crossley, a social and cultural commentator, who joined us from Massachusetts, but who I'm sure has visited Illinois at some point in time in her life; and George Curry, editor in chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service, joins us from Maryland, I thank you all. Appreciate it.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Thank you.

Mr. CURRY: Thank you.

Mr. McWHORTER: Thank you.

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

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