It is impossible to miss who the Crips are if one is familiar with American gang culture. The idiosyncrasies – the color blue, the graffiti, avoiding the letter “b” – are comprehensive synecdoches.
What however often goes undiscussed in our conversations on gangs is their origin story or even the founders of these organizations.
That is where Stanley “Tookie” Williams comes in. He is one of the founders of the Crips in partnership with Raymond Lee Washington.
More about this
Washington was killed in 1979 shortly after he was released from the Deuel Vocational Institute in San Joaquin County, California.
The popular theory that gangsters are usually individuals who were denied the benefit of growing up in a functional family was true for Williams.
He was born to a teenage mother in 1953 in Louisiana. When Williams was just one, his father abandoned the family and in 1959, the young Williams and his mother moved to Los Angeles.
A single mother’s desire to provide for her son meant that Williams’ mother had to take multiple jobs in Los Angeles. Her son became a latchkey kid, coming home from school to no adult supervision.
In effect, the South Central area in LA where Williams lived, prepared him for the kind of life he would be known for. By his own account, he played with children with similar family situations as his in vacant lots and on the streets.
They saw drunk adults and every sort of debauchery on the streets. The learning curve was mild from that point.
But the 1960s was also a turbulent time in the United States for black people. The argument of civil rights was becoming as forceful as its opposition.
California’s law enforcers became suspicious of the pockets of young black people, especially men. Incidentally, the state record of juvenile crime from those times hit high numbers.
For young black people who were to be found in disenfranchised communities, the future was bleak. But what also happened was that many gangs realized the futility of their crimes.
If the point of crime was for poor black boys to have something on which to live, the Black Power Movement offered a legitimate platform to challenge the system that kept people poor.
This is why some of the earliest affiliates of the Black Panther Party were ex-gangsters.
Williams was, however, caught up in the mess of his time. In 1969, he was jailed two years for car theft.
When he got out in 1971, Williams went back to the life that had sent him to juvenile prison. Only this time, he would gain notoriety as a stout and strong bully tapping from his bodybuilding adventure while incarcerated.
He was known to be a brawn for hire. But the story of his fearlessness against groups such as the L.A. Brims and the Chain Gang unsurprisingly spread.
And so Washington came calling. He had a proposal for Williams – the two of them can come together and cajole other small gangs into their influence and control.
Washington’s idea was a sort of a confederacy of gangs headed by him and Williams. The two of them thought that if gangs had more central control, somehow, and paradoxically, crime would be cleaner.
It is better to have an organized plan to commit crimes that would eliminate free willing marauding gangs. The Crips were thus born in 1969.
But it was a group that was first known as Cribs. When the members of the gang started carrying walking canes to portray their “pimp” status, people in the South Central neighborhoods began to call them “Crips”, as in cripples.
Interestingly, other less popular theories exist as to why they are called what they are.
It is not known how many people would describe themselves as Crips some 50 years on but conservative estimates put them over 50,000. Some Crips have even become quite famous for very non-gang related but legitimate activities.
In 1979, Williams was convicted on four counts of murder and sentenced to death. He maintained that these were not crimes he committed but several appeals were turned down.
In 2005, by lethal injection, Williams’ death penalty was carried out. Before his death, he tried in his own little way to give back some good through his work as a youth counselor.