There’s this guy Bryan Stevenson. He did an interview on Fresh Air a couple of week ago.
When Bryan Stevenson was in his 20s, he lived in Atlanta and practiced law at the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee.
One evening, he was parked outside his apartment listening to the radio, when a police SWAT unit approached his car, shined a light inside and pulled a gun.
They yelled, “Move and I’ll blow your head off!” according to Stevenson. Stevenson says the officers suspected him of theft and threatened him — because he is black.
It was terrifying. One cop kept saying that, over and over, while Stevenson tried to explain that he lived there. Stevenson thought he was about to be killed.
“[It] just reinforced what I had known all along, which is that we have a criminal justice system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent,” Stevenson tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “The other thing that that incident did for me was just remind me that we have this attitude about people that is sometimes racially shaped — and you can’t escape that simply because you go to college and get good grades, or even go to law school and get a law degree.”
Stevenson is a Harvard Law School graduate and has argued six cases before the Supreme Court. He won a ruling holding that it is unconstitutional to sentence children to life without parole if they are 17 or younger and have not committed murder.
Life without parole for children? God this country is horrible. Children are children, not adults; their brains haven’t finished developing yet; that’s why they shouldn’t be treated as adults.
His new memoir, Just Mercy, describes his early days growing up in a poor and racially segregated settlement in Delaware — and how he came to be a lawyer who represents those who have been abandoned. His clients are people on death row — abused and neglected children who were prosecuted as adults and placed in adult prisons where they were beaten and sexually abused, and mentally disabled people whose illnesses helped land them in prison where their special needs were unmet.
In a decent system there would be no need for a Bryan Stevenson. Children wouldn’t be prosecuted as adults and mentally disabled people wouldn’t be prosecuted as mentally robust.
It’s not good for people, being on death row. Stevenson explains:
One of the things that pains me is we have so tragically underestimated the trauma, the hardship we create in this country when we treat people unfairly, when we incarcerate them unfairly, when we condemn them unfairly.
You can’t threaten to kill someone every day year after year and not harm them, not traumatize them, not break them in ways that [are] really profound. Yet, when innocent people are released, we just act like they should be grateful that they didn’t get executed and we don’t compensate them many times, we don’t help them, we question them, we still have doubts about them.
I saw that create this early-onset dementia [in McMillian] that many of the doctors believed was trauma-induced, was a function of his experience of being nearly killed — and he witnessed eight executions when he was on death row. …
One of the things I just wanted to people to understand is we can’t continue to have a system of justice defined by error and unfairness and tolerate racial bias and bias against the poor and not confront what we are doing to individuals and to families and to communities and to neighborhoods. [McMillian] is in some ways a microcosm of that reality. He’s representative of what we’ve done to thousands of people.
Almost as if slavery had never ended.
One desperately sad passage:
One of the first cases I ever dealt with where the man was executed was a surreal case where … I drove down to be with this man before his scheduled execution. … They shave the hair off the person’s body before they put them in the electric chair and we’re standing there, [having a] very emotional conversation, holding hands, praying, talking.
I remember him staying to me, “Bryan, this has been such a strange day. When I woke up this morning the guards came to me and said, ‘What do you want for breakfast?’ And at midday, ‘What do you want for lunch?’ In the evening they said, ‘What do you want for dinner?’ ” All day long he said they kept saying, “What can we do to help you? Can we get you stamps to mail your last letters? Can we get you water? Can we get you a phone to call your friends and family?” I’ll never forget that man saying … “More people have said, ‘What can I do to help you?’ in the last 14 hours of my life than ever did in the first 19 years of my life.”
I remember standing there, holding his hands, thinking, “Where were they when you were 3 years old being abused? Where were they when you were 7 and being sexually assaulted? Where were they when you were a teenager and you were homeless and struggling with drug addiction? Where were they when you came back from war struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder?” And with those kinds of questions resonating in my mind, this man was pulled away and executed.
We kid ourselves about all this.
Our newest project at the Equal Justice Initiative is really trying to change the conversation about race in this country. We’ve done a very poor job at really reflecting on our legacy of racial inequality. … You see it in the South, but it’s everywhere.
And we want to talk more about slavery and we want to talk more about this era between Reconstruction and World War II, which I call “An Era of Racial Terrorism” — of racial terror and violence that shaped attitudes. I want to talk more about the civil rights era, not through the lens of celebration. We’re too celebratory of civil rights these days. We have these 50th anniversaries and everyone is happy and everybody is celebrating. Nobody is talking about the hardship.
It’s almost as if the civil rights movement was this three-day event: On Day 1, Rosa Parks didn’t give up her seat on the bus. On Day 2, [the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.] led a march on Washington. And on the third day, we signed all of these laws. And if you think about that history in that way, you minimize the trauma, the damage, the divides that were created. You can’t segregate and humiliate people decade after decade without creating long-lasting injuries. …
Segregate and humiliate and – never forget – extract labor from. That Era of Racial Terrorism was all about ways of finding alternatives to formal slavery for extracting labor from Those Other People.