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Creek Running North

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December 12, 2005

Tookie

Tomorrow, the cordgrass will still sway
bent low by song sparrows toward the mud
that fringes little Corte Madera Creek, where
it opens out into the bay.

Tonight, the stems cast odd, pale shadows to the south.

Tomorrow, the egret will still ply
the pickleweed-choked shallows, and a darting
eye and bob of head will snare a frog
or three-spined stickleback to toss into her hungry crop.

Tonight her pale eyes blink against the glare.

Nothing flows from Sacramento but the river.
Long, shallow waves roll down from Shasta,
silent and submerged. A chain of lights
blinks red and halting past the gate.
a blare of TV trucks, of loud arc lights
a milling of the witnesses.

The traffic tightens like a leather strap around an arm.
One last mile before the freeway, and
the drivers will be home.

Tomorrow starts at 12:01 A.M. And then, in time
the sun will glare against the crumbling masonry.
The walls are coming down, grains at a time,
blasted by callous salt.
Each shard of weathered brick falls to the bay;
one riffle, or the next, will wash it past the Gate.

Posted by Chris Clarke at December 12, 2005 07:38 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.faultline.org/cgi-bin/mt-tb.cgi/1477

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Comments

i really, really hate execution nights.

how did anyone ever get the idea that life without parole is "getting off?"

why, why, why. i always wonder about what went wrong. those answers are so complicated and human -- so unsuited for soundbites. i hate that the victims' families suffer, and also wish we had the sense to know that more killing doesn't right the wrongs.

640 plus people sit on the row in my state tonight, silent, knowing that the only one among them nominated for a nobel prize was found unworthy even of a little mercy -- just enough mercy to keep breathing behind bars.

Posted by: kathy a at December 12, 2005 08:50 PM
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Every time we execute a prisoner in the United States our mask of self-righteousness and alleged enlightenment slips a little bit.

Posted by: The Liberal Avenger at December 12, 2005 09:28 PM
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Did you really just write a poem to a murderer? He killed four people in cold blood and laughed about it afterwards.

Please note: I distinguish principled opposition to the death penalty from the beatification of a monster. I assume you subscribe to the former, but your poem contributes to the latter.

Best, as always,
CP

Posted by: carpundit at December 13, 2005 07:38 AM
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I wimpered a bit when I heard about the execution this morning. I felt...discouraged, to say the least. To me, there's no such thing as justified barbarism.

Posted by: Carrie at December 13, 2005 08:03 AM
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Carpundit, explain to me exactly how the poem contributes to the beatification of anyone.

I despise beatification, even of saints.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at December 13, 2005 08:09 AM
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(o)

Posted by: Pica at December 13, 2005 09:02 AM
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Chris, thank you. At a time when even liberal bloggers are indulging their bloodlust online, it's good to know that there are people who are trying to avoid the easy path of vengeance.

Posted by: Linnet at December 13, 2005 09:15 AM
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Chris,
I meant beatify like exalt. In a more direct way, your poem exalts nature, and the natural processes that continue after a human death.

But the *existence* of the poem, and its titling after a killer, portray him as someone worthy of that exaltation. It is a mark of respect to write an elegy, is it not? To fill it with beautiful natural imagery is to approve of the subject, to raise him up, to exalt him. Respect and exaltation I labeled beatification.

That's how I saw it. If I was unclear, I'm sorry.

(I probably shouldn't try to use Catholic terminology.)

CP

Posted by: carpundit at December 13, 2005 09:29 AM
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I think you're missing the point here, CP.

First off, go re-read this and then see if you think I'm going to exalt a murderer.

But I'm not going to stop granting even the most heinous person basic human respect and dignity. I had no trouble advocating that Williams be incarcerated for the rest of his life. He killed people in cold blood, and at least one of the crimes was likely racially motivated.

And there is no contradiction between reviling that act, recognizing the possbility of at least partial redemption, and lamenting the execution as a tragedy - not so much for ending Williams' life, with which prospect he seemed to have made his peace, but for its dehumanizing effect on the rest of us.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at December 13, 2005 09:43 AM
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i agree, chris. one can despise what happened, and still believe that the state should not imitate the barbaric acts it condemns.

it is very troubling that people forget, or ignore, that the worst among us are still humans. flawed humans, to be sure. very flawed, in some cases. but what makes the news is never the whole story. never.

nor is human decisionmaking always perfect. every last one of us has made mistakes -- we are miscreants all, in greater or smaller ways, and all lacking in excellent judgment sometimes.

just as when other humans die, an execution leaves behind friends, family, and other mourners. and it leaves us all tarnished, as the killing happens on behalf of us.

Posted by: kathy a at December 13, 2005 11:47 AM
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I well recall your experience with a serial killer. It was what led me to your writing. I wasn't going to bring it up, because it seems so personal, but it must inform your feelings and beliefs, which is why I was surprised to see such thought put into something that I read as an elegy.

You're the poet, so you know what it means better than I.

For the record, I am not the least bit dehumanized by his execution. I also disagree with kathy, above, about all humans being humans. Some are monsters. Williams was one.

Sorry if I missed your point, Chris.

CP

Posted by: carpundit at December 13, 2005 01:19 PM
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For the record, I am not the least bit dehumanized by his execution.

I mean this as gently and in as good fellowship as possible, Carpundit, but there is some evidence you actually are the least bit dehumanized by the execution.

Like I said, not a slam. Just an observation. Or opinion. Somewhere in between.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at December 13, 2005 01:26 PM
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It all depends what your definition of dehumanized is, I guess.

I consider the well-placed retributive instinct an element of being human. So, too, I consider the self-defensive recognition that some among us cannot be allowed to remain there not only a human characteristic, but one essential to our development as a species.

The three murderers I highlighted in the post you linked each killed at least one man in cold blood for his own selfish purpose. I want to live in a world without them.

I could point to some dehumanizing influences in society, but an effective death penalty isn't one of them. (I concede the death penalty as applied today is neither efficient nor as effective as it ought to be.)

Posted by: carpundit at December 13, 2005 06:50 PM
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carpundit -- all that said, why isn't life without parole enough?

there are thousands in prison with that sentence, and for all practical purposes, their crimes are just as bad as those who landed on the row. they aren't going anywhere. isn't an LWOP sentence retribution? doesn't it remove certain people from "your world?" doesn't it also allow for redemption?

in my world -- my personal world -- i know that even humans related to me by blood or bad fortune are very flawed. my grandfather died painfully because of the willful and determined medical neglect of his evil second wife. my own mother tried to strangle me in a rage, and i had marks on my neck and arm for months. i am not terribly forgiving on a personal level. neither of these people was prosecuted.

there is a terrific gap between execution and going free, but i don't know that there is much difference in moral terms between tookie and my very lucky relatives. except that tookie tried to send a message to others, to avoid the mess he got into -- that counts, to me.

Posted by: kathy a at December 13, 2005 07:32 PM
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For the record, I am not the least bit dehumanized by his execution. I also disagree with kathy, above, about all humans being humans. Some are monsters. Williams was one.

Am I the only one who sees a contradiction between the first sentence and the following ones?

I think that we are dehumanized when we learn to dehumanize. Williams was not a human being? Why? Because he was a brutal murderer?

I see - that makes sense, because a human being killing other human beings would be so unusual. Unheard of.

Posted by: craig at December 13, 2005 08:49 PM
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Kathy, life w/o parole is never guaranteed. Many violent crimes are committed in prison, or by former lifers who get out.

Craig, "Williams was not a human being? Why? Because he was a brutal murderer?" Yes, that's right. By his deliberate, sociopathic violence he forfeit his right to live among us.

CP

Posted by: carpundit at December 14, 2005 07:45 AM
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Because my pseudonym happens to be his name, I find myself this morning again thinking of Tom Fox, pacifist, blogger, volunteer with Christian Peacemaker Teams, held captive and threatened with execution in Iraq for no cause other than the color of his passport. May his captors find the humanity in him that California could not find in Tookie.

Posted by: TFox at December 14, 2005 09:28 AM
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no one has been released from a life without parole sentence in california. the "without parole" part means "no parole." gray davis routinely denied parole even to murderers whose sentences permitted parole. [people have been released only if their sentences are overturned; meaning the sentence was wrong in the first place.]

it is true that some violence happens in prisons, and the system is set up to deal with that. on death row, prisoners are sent to the adjustment center ["the hole"] for infractions of prison rules or violent activity. lifers who pose a threat of violence are assigned to a security housing unit, such as at pelican bay state prison, where they have virtually no human contact whatsoever.

as is true on the outside, men in prison tend to calm down as they age. most of the folks on death row just do their time without significant problems. it is my understanding that tookie spent a lot of time in the adjustment center earlier in his incarceration, but that for more than a decade before he died, he posed no problems for the institution.

CP, i think our greatest disagreement is whether or not people on the row are human. in order to applaud the killing of a person, i think it is necessary to view that person as "not human." prosecutors often intentionally dehumanize defendants -- referring to them as savages, animals, a cancer on society, as having given up every shred of humanity in the moments of their worst and most thoughtless acts -- for the practical reason that humans do not generally like to kill humans. this is strong and compelling rhetoric, but it not honest.

a snapshot view of the worst things any of us has done is not an honest portrayal of us or our lives. i don't say this to dismiss the horror of a violent crime -- nothing can or should erase that, and obviously as a society we need to prevent and punish violence. i want to be safe, and want my family and friends to be safe, as much as the next person does.

but people on the row -- people who have done awful things, and those who are there by accident because something went wrong in the criminal process -- those people are also human. they have parents and kids and siblings and friends; they may discover music or art or religion or reading, and find ways to share these discoveries; they bleed and cry, contemplate and learn, worry and care for others -- just like the rest of us.

i'm not saying tookie was an angel, or that everyone or anyone else in prison is. just that they are human, and humans are complex beings, and there is more to their stories and their lives than headlines and snapshots of the worst they ever did.

i'm not in favor of cold-blooded killing. it is hard to think of anything more cold-blooded than a state execution, with all its planning and witnesses and rhetoric.

two of my former clients were executed in south carolina. the first was a mentally retarded man, who lived a nightmarish life. if he had survived a few more years, he would have benefitted from the supreme court decision outlawing execution of mentally retarded people. i spent the execution evening with his mother, and it was horrible to see her suffering. the second was a vietnam vet, whose crimes happened when he was very mentally ill. i knew him as a gentle and decent man, utterly remorseful; he called an hour before he died just to say thanks. so yeah, there are some reasons i have the views i do.

when my kids were little, i explained to them that everyone -- even someone who has done something really really bad -- needs someone to stand beside them and help them. they understood. i still believe that.

Posted by: kathy a at December 14, 2005 10:02 AM
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Kathy,
You're obviously a very compassionate person who tries to do good. No one would define you by the worst thing you're done, but your worst thing wasn't forcing a hard-working store clerk to lie face down, shooting him in the back, and laughing. Someone who does that IS defined by it, as he should be.

I do not the deny humanity or the suffering of the condemned's next-of-kin. I can think of few things worse than being the parent of someone watching that countdown clock. I stand by my belief that the Tookies of the world should be executed when properly sentenced to it and given all due process, as Tookie was.

CP

Posted by: carpundit at December 14, 2005 10:37 AM
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While I find everyone's thoughts on the death penalty really interesting to read, what keeps sticking in my mind, and bringing me back here to read, is the flat-out gorgeous poem Chris has written. He's taken something which is horrible on many levels and made art out of it. And that definitely humanizes and uplifts all of us.

Posted by: nina at December 14, 2005 11:04 AM
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Yeah, he's pretty damn good.
That's why I hang around here. Interesting perspectives in beautiful language.
CP

Posted by: carpundit at December 14, 2005 12:15 PM
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Craig, "Williams was not a human being? Why? Because he was a brutal murderer?" Yes, that's right. By his deliberate, sociopathic violence he forfeit his right to live among us.

Carpundit, I have the feeling that at heart you're a good egg, although the post Chris links to is not evidence of same.

I wish I could say I am being flip here: By such standards, the right to live among us must be denied a good portion of the military, high-ranking participants in capitalism, and most of the current administration, among many others.

Probably best for all of us that we don't apply those standards to their extreme...which argues that we ought not apply them at all.

Posted by: Auguste at December 15, 2005 01:05 AM
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Auguste,
I love smart blogs for their facilitation of our ability to disagree strongly with equally well-intentioned decent people.

Let's let this thread drop. I think Chris would prefer less strife in his life, even here. Maybe especially here. This morning, he's given us a lovely essay with a nice laugh in it.

Let's enjoy it.

CP

Posted by: carpundit at December 15, 2005 05:33 AM
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