Brendan McGetrick
Recent works and current obsessions

A Vast Conspiracy

Stanley Tookie Williams awoke for the last time on December 13, 2005.1 San Quentin State Prison’s maximum-security cells had been on lockdown since midnight, as is customary on the day of an execution. Within this environment of intensified imprisonment, Williams was relatively free. He spent the day walking the cell blocks and meeting with friends and family in the prison visiting room.

At precisely 6 p.m., Williams was moved to a death watch cell next to the execution chamber. There, three guards observed him constantly throughout the rest of the evening. Williams was offered a last meal, which he refused. A month earlier, he’d told the San Francisco Chronicle, “I don’t want food or water or sympathy from the place that is going to kill me. I don’t want anyone present for the sick and perverted spectacle. The thought of that is appalling and inhumane. It is disgusting for a human to sit and watch another human die.”

At 11:30 p.m., Williams was given a new pair of denim jeans and a new blue work shirt to wear.

At 11:45 p.m., the first group of witnesses was led into a room adjacent to the execution chamber. They were placed in a half-circle around the chamber 11 in chairs at the window, the rest on risers along the walls. The witnesses included state officials, lawyers, and people who had requested that they observe the execution on behalf of Williams or his victims. At 11:55 p.m., witnesses from the media were escorted in and positioned on risers. Once positioned, no one was allowed to move or speak. In total there were 39 witnesses present, 17 of them from the press.

Among the witnesses were impassioned supporters of Williams, the 51-year-old cofounder of the Los Angeles street gang known as the Crips, who had later renounced violence and written influential books advocating peace. Sharing the room with them were survivors of the four people Williams had been convicted of killing: a 26-year-old convenience store clerk named Albert Owens, motel owners Yen-I Yang and Tsai-Shai Chen Yang, and their 43-year-old daughter Yee-Chen Lin.

At 12:00 a.m., prison officials placed a final call to the headquarters of the state Department of Justice to determine whether a last-minute stay had been issued. That process took less than a minute, and at 12:01 Williams was led into the prison’s lime-green execution chamber through an oval door similar to a submarine hatch.

Williams shuffled in with a green-uniformed guard on each side, loosely holding his arms, and three following behind. His wrists were handcuffed to a waist chain. Williams and the guards barely fit inside the 2.3-meter-wide octagonal chamber. Originally designed for two lethal gas chairs, the room had been retrofitted with a lethal injection gurney in 1996.

Williams slowly lay down and the guard team secured him in place, using black straps with buckles at his shoulders, chest, waist, knees, and feet, and brown leather Velcro straps at his wrists. The process took about two minutes, during which Williams stared at the ceiling, his lips moving rapidly. At one point, a tear slid down his cheek.

A medical technician and an assistant entered and attached a cardiac monitor. They then inserted catheters into two of Williams’s veins. The process usually takes around five minutes, but in this case there were complications. The first catheter slid in at the crook of Williams’s right elbow, taking just two minutes to seat but spurting so much blood that it soaked a cotton swab, which shone deep red before being taped off.

It took the medical technician, a woman with short black hair, 11 minutes of painful probing before the second needle hit home. At the first attempt, at 12:04 a.m., Williams clenched his toes. At 12:05, he struggled against the restraints to look up at the press gallery behind him, delivering a hard stare for several seconds. By 12:10, the medical tech’s lips were tight and white, and sweat was pooling on her forehead as she probed Williams’s arm.

“You guys doing that right?” Williams asked in anger. A female guard whispered a reassuring response. Another guard, his jaw clenched tightly, patted Williams’s shoulder as if to comfort him.

Outside the chamber, Barbara Becnel, Williams’s friend and coauthor of his books, stood with her two companions at the only window with a clear line of sight into Williams’s eyes. They thrust their fists upward in what appeared to be a black power salute. One of them called out softly: “Tookie.” They whispered “I love you” and “God bless you” as they looked adoringly into Williams’s eyes.

Three meters away, Lora Owens, stepmother of one of Williams’s victims, sat stiffly, looking through the thick glass at the top of Williams’s head. Her red hair never moved, and her mouth remained a tight line. A blond woman sitting next to Owens put her arm around her, then removed it and clasped her hands in her lap.

At 12:16 a.m., the second needle was finally inserted. Williams’s hands were taped to the gurney arms. The guards hurried out the door and sealed it, leaving Williams with two clear intravenous lines snaking off his arms and into holes in the back wall of the execution chamber. The prison warden asked Williams if he had any last words to say. Williams declined. The warden left, the door was shut, and Williams was alone.

At 12:18 a.m., a female prison guard loudly read off the warrant proclaiming that prisoner number C29300 had been sentenced to die and that “the execution shall now proceed.” Williams forced his head up one last time to stare into the eyes of his friends. He kept it raised for 90 seconds before passing out.

From behind the walls of the chamber, out of view of the witnesses, a prison official pressed three plungers in succession to send poison through the intravenous lines into Williams’s veins.

The first plunger administered 5 grams of sodium pentothal to put him to sleep. The lines were then flushed with saline solution. The second plunger injected 50 ml of pancuronium bromide to stop his breathing. The lines were flushed again, and the third plunger sent 50 ml of potassium chloride to stop his heart.

Williams’s chest heaved several times as he lay with his eyes closed. Sorrow washed over the faces of Becnel and her female companion as his head sank, and they clasped their hands in prayer.

At 12:35 a.m., a doctor watching the cardiac monitor — again, out of view of the witnesses — determined that Williams was dead. A prison official wrote up a short notice announcing that the execution was over. In the witness room, the audience heard someone behind the walls call out, “He’s flatlined.” A handslid a paper through a slot in the witness room, and a guard read off a brief statement affirming Williams’s death. Thirty seconds later, the room was cleared.

At 12:35 a.m., the prison guards ordered the 39 witnesses to leave. The first to go were the three friends Williams had invited to watch his final moments. The room was so quiet that when one man jangled his pocket change, the sound echoed off the walls.

Just as they crossed the threshold into the chilly outdoors, the three whipped their heads back and screamed in unison: “The state of California just killed an innocent man!” Across the room, a witness for one of Williams’s victims stared at them in horror and then burst into tears.

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I remember reading about Stanley Williams in the days before and after his death. Throughout the winter of 2015, the justness of Williams’s sentence was furiously debated by politicians, lawyers, activists, and ordinary citizens for and against the death penalty. Both sides had a compelling case. For: Williams was a convicted quadruple murderer who also happened to be the founder of one of America’s deadliest street gangs. Against: Throughout his 24 years of imprisonment, Williams maintained his innocence, renounced gangs, and authored a series of books warning children against the life he had led.

On a practical level, the debate was resolved by California’s governor at the time, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who ignored the pleas of his Hollywood friends and rejected Williams’s last-ditch appeal for clemency. It was a masterpiece of Californian spectacle: on one side Williams, a black revolutionary and bona fide killer, backed by Bianca Jagger and Snoop Dogg; on the other side Schwarzenegger, a European bodybuilder turned movie star turned tough-oncrime Republican. The headlines wrote themselves: “Tookie v Arnold” was how The Economist covered it.

The whole episode is a master class in how an infernally complex, multifaceted issue is boiled down to an easy-to-understand opposition: Tookie vs. Arnold; Good vs. Bad; Life vs. Death. But, of course, Arnold didn’t kill Tookie. Not literally. He was nowhere near the execution chamber on that day. Neither were the judge and jury that convicted Williams, nor the manufacturers of the carefully measured cocktail of sodium pentothal, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride that ultimately killed him.

It’s human nature to attribute a complex action to a single actor. The small amount of drama that we’re able to deal with each day is just a glint on the surface of a sea. The great invisible iceberg underneath is the vast association of actors that allow, authorize, and enable anything to happen. Regardless of who administers the process, a state-sanctioned execution is a vast collaboration. To attribute it to any single person or institution is to fundamentally misunderstand political power — and the indispensable roles design and technology play in maintaining it.

As Bruno Latour has pointed out, it is by mistake or through unfairness that our headlines read, “Man flies,” “Woman goes to space.” Flying is a property not of individuals, but of the whole association of entities that includes airports and planes, launch pads and ticket counters. “B-52s do not fly; the US Air Force flies,” Latour has said. “Action is simply not a property of humans but of an association of actants.”2 In this sense, Stanley Williams’s three witnesses were much closer to the truth than any news account: It was the state of California — including its prisons, its hospitals, and gun shops, its governor, and the 52% of its citizens who voted against a 2012 ballot initiative that would have repealed the death penalty — that killed their friend.

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This is a book about tyranny. It joins a tremendous volume of works on the subject, but its contribution is unique in its insistence on the role of nonhuman entities in making and maintaining society. These entities include objects — walls, benches, and bunker busters — as well as operations — controlled demolition, crowd control, slaughter, and execution. In doing so, this handbook closes the escape routes often taken by architects, engineers, and the rest of us to avoid responsibility for the tyrannical features of modern life.

The customer is as culpable for the horrors of the slaughterhouse as the foreman overseeing its operation, the architects who design its form, and the multinational corporation that orchestrates the slew of other agents needed to serve our massive appetite. Instinctively, we know this. But it’s easy to ignore, and this is why this book’s emphasis on nonhuman elements — the tools of tyranny, whether chiseled from stone or genetically engineered — is so valuable.

For hundreds of thousands of years, we humans have extended our social relations to nonhuman entities with which — with whom — we form collectives. This is most obvious in our intense socialization and reconfiguration of plants and animals — so intense that their shape, function, and genetic makeup are changed. This redesign provides previously wild fauna and flora with the social characteristics necessary to contribute to collectives, such as the “defensive landscape” so brilliantly detailed at the end of this book.

When within the collective, all participants lose their individual identities. No one, including the human apparently at the center of it all, has a fixed role. There are no subjects or objects, only composites created when two or more entities come in contact. It is the contact itself, the link between human and nonhuman, that turns a dog into a guard dog and bamboo into a fence.

It can, as shown in the chapter on passports, also turn a surgeon into a suspected terrorist. Regardless of her politics, education or intentions, an Afghan citizen becomes someone else when she holds a passport in her hand.

She is no longer just a person, but a composite — a passport-person — with open access to only 22 countries. Were this surgeon to one day receive German citizenship, the German passport itself would change. Through its contact with someone born in Kabul, the powerful little book that grants German citizens no-questions-asked access to 159 countries would suddenly weaken and in some cases no longer guarantee entry at all.

Nonhumans — whether organic or inorganic — stabilize the social order. They are at once malleable and durable; they can be shaped very quickly but, once shaped, last far longer than the interactions that produced them. Every day, we encounter hundreds, even thousands, of invisible administrators who are remote in time and space yet are simultaneously active and present. The Camden Bench, for instance, a piece of public architecture described as “specially crafted to make sure that it is not used as anything except a bench,” is ultimately not made of matter. It is instead full of engineers and councilors and concerned citizens, commingling their wills and their agendas with those of concrete, limestone, and granite.

The bench is a small piece of a vast ecosystem of urban control described in the Defensive City chapter of this book. For the unseen overseers who produce them and place them in our cities, the tramp-proof, graffiti-proof,skateboard-proof public bench offers a way to control others without giving commands. In today’s most liberal cities, there is less and less need to rely on signs or slogans to dictate what can and can’t be done. The rules are written into the city itself. With the help of their nonhuman collaborators, our leaders have developed a new, postliterate language of control.

To truly understand tyranny, we must expand political and social theory to include these nonhuman agents. We must become conversant in the language of coercive design in both its physical and virtual forms. We must recognize our own roles in the vast collective effort that maintains the scale, asymmetry, durability, power, hierarchy, and the distortion of roles that define the current social order. Doing so is a taxing, dispiriting, indispensable effort for anyone committed to fairness and freedom. Let this handbook be a guide.

1. This account is based on an eyewitness report by Kevin Fagan, published in the San Francisco Chronicle on December 12 and 14, 2005.
2. Bruno Latour, “On Technical Mediation: Philosophy, Sociology, Genealogy,” Common Knowledge, vol. 3, no. 2 (1994), 35.

Originally published in The Handbook of Tyranny by Theo Deutinger. Published by Lars Müller Publishers, 2018.