“The opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice.”Bryan Stevenson Just Mercy
I originally posted this on my old blog in July 2018.
I recently finished reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and watching the incredible documentary 13th. This book and documentary rocked me to my core. Incredibly powerful. Incredibly thought-provoking. Incredibly tragic.
One of the first things I do when I’m so dramatically affected by an experience is try to figure out the root cause. After a few weeks of reflecting on my personal response, I recognize now that the reaction was due to the narrative about “bad guys” I’d been told growing up. You do a bad thing, you go to jail. If you didn’t do the bad thing, your talented Matlock-like lawyer will get you off. If you’re in jail, you deserve to be there. If you’re in jail, you don’t deserve to be treated like us “normal, non-criminals,” you sacrificed that right when you committed the crime you definitely committed. If people could just follow the rules, they wouldn’t end up in jail and if you do, it’s your own damn fault so stop complaining about your punishment. Any of you grow up with that same narrative?
I’m not going to summarize all of the information in either the book or the documentary because there is so much in both that would be diminished by trying to distill those points into a single blog post. Instead, I want to focus on a few points that really stuck with me and broke my heart and lit a fire in me. I think I may zero in on a few of the major issues that really resonated with me in future posts.
In both Just Mercy and 13th, the academics interviewed outline four institutions that have shaped the US’s approach to race and justice – slavery, convict leasing, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. So many white people are under the impression that once the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, all of our racial struggles had been addressed and we could move on (I would also argue that many of us, including me, also believed the same with the election of Barack Obama in 2008).
What has been very helpful to me in understanding how systemic racism plays out is the explanation in Just Mercy that once lynching became less appealing/popular, those violent energies were redirected into our justice system. It was a shift from “illegal terror to legal terror.” In the 1970’s, the era of mass incarceration began. The phrase “war on crime” became a dog whistle for blacks, gays, and women protestors. This eventually evolved into the war on drugs, which made the issue of drug addiction/dependency a crime issue rather than a public health issue. While watching this part, I couldn’t help but think of the pieces I’ve read lately about how differently the current opioid epidemic in suburban areas is being treated than crack use in urban areas in the 1990’s. It’s not a coincidence – it’s yet another example of how issues are treated differently based on the affected population’s race.
Between 1990 and 2005, a new prison opened every ten days in the United States. Between 1970 and 2014, the prison population exploded from 360,000 to 2.3 million. Incarceration became the answer to everything – health care problems like drug addiction, poverty, behavioral disorders, mental disability and immigration. Many of the people filling these prisons were people of color and poor people. One of Bryan Stevenson’s most compelling arguments is our current justice system is “a system that denies the poor the legal help they need, that makes wealth and status more important than culpability.” He supports this argument with so many stories of people who have ended up in prison because they lacked any sort of competent legal counsel. They couldn’t afford their own lawyer and they were depending on the state. They were coerced into accepting plea bargains for crimes they didn’t commit. They were told if they didn’t accept the plea, and this went to trial, they would be found guilty and their punishment would be even greater than the plea was offering. They suffer from mental health or behavioral disorders. They are children.
Poor and urban neighborhoods are more heavily policed than their suburban counterparts. As a result, people living there have an increased likelihood of having multiple encounters with police, an increased likelihood of being arrested for petty crimes, crimes which more affluent children engage in with impunity. People who think poor/urban kids are doing worse things than rich kids are naive and need to work on unpacking the bias in that narrative. I know plenty of white and rich kids who have done many things that should have landed them with some jail time. But they got to grow up. And now that they’re adults and their decision making parts of their brain have developed, they realize how stupid they were and don’t keep acting that way. In Just Mercy, Bryan focuses much of his energy on helping what he calls “adolescent lifers,” those kids who committed crimes as teenagers but were tried, convicted, and sentenced as adults to life in prison, He points out they “had matured into adults who were much more thoughtful and reflective.” Yet, that thoughtfulness and reflection is happening behind bars, with no intention or plan for them to ever be able to return to civil society.
At the end of Just Mercy, Bryan asks a heartbreaking question that I’m pretty sure caused my ugly crying to begin: “Why do we want to kill all of the broken people? What is wrong with us that we think a thing like that can be right?”
This question has stuck with me for the past two weeks since I finished his book and watched 13th. This post is far from my best writing because I’m still muddling through and processing the incredible load of information both resources provided me. Up next, I’ll be reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. I expect it will give me even more to muddle through and process and will generate a good deal more public reflection to share with anyone reading this.
I’ll end this post with one of my favorite parts of Just Mercy, Bryan had been invited to chat with some incredible ladies, including Rosa Parks and Ms. Carr (the architect of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts). Rosa asked Bryan what he was working on and after explaining his work, she responded by saying “Oooooh, honey, all that’s going to make you tired, tired, tired.” To which Ms. Carr replied “That’s why you’ve got to be brave, brave, brave.”
Here’s to hoping that more of us can be “brave, brave, brave” to do the work that must be done.