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Posts Tagged ‘Bryan Stevenson’

Calls for racial justice and defunding of the police are a constant across our country. Old, arthritic knees of legislators knelt on marble floors in our Capitol for nearly nine minutes yesterday. Eight minutes and forty-six seconds, the exact amount of time Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into the neck of George Floyd. If only restructuring and dismantling militarized police departments could fix hundreds of years of racism – in real estate, in schools, in medicine, in the very fabric of our existence.

No, it can’t, But it’s a start, and we’ve got to start somewhere. Read “Just Mercy; a Story of Justice and Redemption,” by Bryan Stevenson.  https://justmercy.eji.org/  And maybe watch the film, with Jamie Fox. It’s streaming free this month https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/stream-just-mercy-free-june-180975044/

I first met Stevenson back in Charlottesville, VA in 2016. His lecture introduced the idea of taking down a Robert E Lee statue near the courthouse – the same supposed reason a bunch of neo-Nazi, “Unite the Right” zealots decided to march on Cville the following year.  A mostly White audience wasn’t buying it; in fact, that statue is still standing. He warned us, “We will ultimately not be judged by our technology, we won’t be judged by our design, we won’t be judged by our intellect and reason. Ultimately, you judge the character of a society . . . by how they treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated.”  https://mountainmornings.net/2016/03/20/being-brave/

This is what Stevenson had to say in a recent interview about police brutality:

“Now, the police are an extension of our larger society, and, when we try to disconnect them from the justice system and the lawmakers and the policymakers, we don’t accurately get at it. The history of this country, when it comes to racial justice and social justice, unlike what we do in other areas, is, like, O.K., it’s 1865, we won’t enslave you and traffic you anymore, and they were forced to make that agreement. And then, after a half century of mob lynching, it’s, like, O.K., we won’t allow the mobs to pull you out of the jail and lynch you anymore. And that came after pressure. And then it was, O.K., we won’t legally block you from voting, and legally prevent you from going into restaurants and public accommodations.

But at no point was there an acknowledgement that we were wrong and we are sorry. It was always compelled, by the Union Army, by international pressure, by the federal courts, and that dynamic has meant that there is no more remorse or regret or consciousness of wrongdoing. The police don’t think they did anything wrong over the past fifty or sixty years. And so, in that respect, we have created a culture that allows our police departments to see themselves as agents of control, and that culture has to shift. And this goes beyond the dynamics of race. We have created a culture where police officers think of themselves as warriors, not guardians.”    https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/bryan-stevenson-on-the-frustration-behind-the-george-floyd-protests

IF we can transform a police culture from warrior mode into guardian mode, what else could we do? Can we spend the same amount of money on a student’s education, no matter where they live? Some towns see nearly half their budgets go toward policing, and they argue over school budgets. This is truly a function of what we value as a society. Do we want every child in America to reach their full potential, or only the rich and well connected? Should every town have a tank and a SWAT team?

I feel like we are in the midst of a great constellation of events. 2020 went like:

  • I wanted to work to elect gun sense politicians, and evict Mr T from the White House. But we got slammed by a tornado, our neighborhood was torn apart.
  • Then we came under the spell of a deadly virus, a pandemic the likes of which we’ve never seen. We became hermits. Bob started baking bread, we both started making masks.
  • And now George Floyd and his killer cop have changed the narrative, having an almost nine minute video of a murder in broad daylight brought racial injustice home. People of all shades of color did not, could not turn away.

Yes our gun culture intersects with racism. Both are real public health emergencies, capable of killing so many Americans, just like a virus. A virus, as it turns out, will seize the opportunity to infect more poor people. More African Americans, more Latinos. People without the means to stay isolated, people who must work delivering box upon box to the rich people.

A virus likes nothing better than a population that can forget, people with short-term memory loss. It can easily spread its tentacles, just like gun violence, killing without remorse. Imagine voting down a gun sense bill, an assault weapon ban, after 20 children were slaughtered at Sandy Hook.

We cannot defeat a virus or change our gun culture without addressing racism. And our racist president would like us to think it’s all about “law and order.” But it’s about our history. Our tortured history of Jim Crow and Reconstruction, it’s about red-lining voting districts and voter suppression laws, and so much more.

Racism would like us to forget our history, but in fact, we must confront it.

This is our chance, this intersection of public health emergencies, to create a more just and peaceful society. What will you do, which side of history will you be on? Don’t turn away.

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Last night, as part of the VA Festival of the Book, Bob and I attended a program at the Paramount Theatre; a gorgeous art-deco building that once had African Americans sitting in the balcony, a la To Kill a Mockingbird. We were there to hear Bryan Stevenson speak about his book, Just Mercy, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/19/books/review/just-mercy-by-bryan-stevenson.html?_r=0 …and about the injustice of the criminal justice system in our country.

Stevenson graduated from Harvard Law, lives modestly, and runs the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama. He has been called America’s Nelson Mandela, and last night I was a witness in a very spiritual way to his testimony.

The statistics tell only a fraction of the story, but they are a good place to start. In 1970 America imprisoned 300,000 of its citizens. Now it imprisons 2.3 million people. A quarter of a million children have been sent to adult American jails in that time, including 3,000 sentenced to life without parole. One in every three black male babies born today can expect to be incarcerated (for the white population it is one in 15). In some states, including Alabama, a criminal record means disenfranchisement for life. http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/feb/01/bryan-stevenson-americas-mandela

He said some pretty provocative things. For instance, he told us that today Germany is placing memorial stones at the places where Jews once lived; Stevenson would like to see us place stones under the trees where Blacks were lynched. The problem is that we have erased, or denied so much of our Jim Crow history, we just don’t even know where all these killings happened.

Did you know that in Alabama MLK day is officially recognized – probably because it is now a national holiday, mandated by law – and called  “Martin Luther King/Robert E Lee Day?” What if Germany decided to have a holiday and call it “Dietrich Bonhoeffer/Joseph Goebbels Day?” Think about that – a dissenting theologian and a Nazi general.

I have likened our privatized prison system to apartheid before, but Stevenson thinks we can actually change things. By changing our war on drug policy to a public health model, by not privatizing our prisons, by ending capital punishment and appointing, not electing judges…and more. I wasn’t taking notes like a good journalist, because I was actually listening to every word.

As a country, he said, we haven’t gone through a Civil Rights era “truth and reconciliation” period, like Rwanda and South Africa, as evidenced by the fight over the Confederate flag. Many Southern White people see that flag as a symbol of their heritage. All Black and Brown people see it as sign of bigotry and hate. We need to confront the awful truth of enslavement and institutionalized segregation and racism in order to heal as a country.

Listen carefully next week while the Charlottesville City Council fights to remove the statue of Robert E Lee in one of our most beautiful parks, Lee Park. “Robert E Lee never came to Charlottesville and was never part of our local history. This statue was erected for the sole purpose of celebrating the Confederacy and establishing the supremacy of its cause. It has no place in our community.”

Stevenson has gone into the belly of the beast in Alabama, and he is still fighting for social justice. How can we treat children as adults in our courts? He has to be “brave, brave, brave,” as King’s widow once told him.

“We will ultimately not be judged by our technology, we won’t be judged by our design, we won’t be judged by our intellect and reason. Ultimately, you judge the character of a society . . . by how they treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated.”   Photo: Caleb Chancey-Tireless-advocate--Bryan-010

 

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