The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent—strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering. It has the power to heal the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration.
— Bryan Stevenson, "Just Mercy" pg. 510
On a recent episode of Amanpour & Co, a public affairs series which airs on PBS in the United States, Walter Isaacson hosted Bryan Stevenson for an interview conducted over video chat. Isaacson began by asking Stevenson what he felt after watching the video of George Floyd being murdered in broad daylight by a police officer. Stevenson's response was succinct: "frustration and anger". There has been a lot of frustration and anger felt by people in the United States, and around the world, in the wake of Floyd's death but I think Stevenson has more reason than almost anyone to feel this way. Stevenson has worked his entire career to fight the systematic racism that is entrenched into the American justice system. He has been helping people, mostly black men, wrongly or unfairly incarcerated for decades. To see that black people are still being killed by the police in the streets must be deeply saddening. As a lawyer, he can only help those who have been granted a trial—but George Floyd's life was taken before that could ever happen.
Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer based out of Montgomery, Alabama and the founder of a non-profit law firm called the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). Stevenson has ran this organization since its inception in 1989 and its primary purpose is to provide pro bono legal representation to anyone who has been denied a fair trial. The choice of location in the capital of Alabama was not incidental; Alabama is the only state that does not provide legal assistance to people on death row. Montgomery has also been the epicentre of many events related to oppression and slavery in the history of the United States. In the early 19th century it served as an auction site for black slaves who were brought by the boatload up the Alabama river. In the 1860s, Montgomery became the first capital of the Confederacy and then almost a century later it was the centre for protests during the Civil Rights Movement—like Rosa Park's bus boycott and the marches from Selma to Montgomery. Standing on the shoulders of giants, the Equal Justice Initiative is another important step in the on-going fight against inequality and prejudice.
Stevenson published Just Mercy in 2014. It's a memoir of his life as a lawyer for the last 25 years. The bulk of the book is focused on one particular case—one of the first cases that Stevenson took on after founding EJI. It was in defence of Walter McMillian, a man from Monroeville, Alabama found guilty of the murder of a young white woman and sentenced to death. McMillian's story provides a sort of overarching narrative in the book but Stevenson also spends time sharing stories and information about other cases and areas of the judicial system where he has seen cruelty and injustice. After a long and arduous career campaigning for the disenfranchised, Stevenson distills some really important lessons about humanity, and our society, in Just Mercy:
Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.
— Stevenson, pg. 32
The poor and disfavoured are exactly who Stevenson sought to defend and protect throughout his career. From kids as young as 13 being sentenced to life in prison, to the mentally disabled on death row, to the systematic racism perpetrated against black people...Stevenson and the lawyers at EJI fought for their justice. I was stunned by how discriminatory the police, the judicial system, and the prison system could all be. It is important to recognize that these are not historical events either—Stevenson only began his career in 1990 and he is still working today. Just Mercy was only published in 2014, so the cases that Stevenson has worked on and the prejudices he's witnessed are problems that still exist today. The United States has been in turmoil for the past few months, first with the Coronavirus outbreak, and now by the nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd. It has been a trying moment for a country which is already so divided by partisanship. The death of George Floyd has received a tremendous amount of media coverage and it has generated emotional discussion among people of all races and backgrounds. The unfortunate part is that people are psychologically drawn to the story due to the face attached to it and the personal details of those involved. But the discussion should not be about George Floyd, his past life, or his actions on that day, nor should it be about any of the officers involved and their personal lives. Floyd's death, and the immense reaction to it, was catalyzed by two things: the ubiquity of smartphones with videos cameras, and the scope and influence of social media. These new features of modern society, when used together, help to find and amplify the stories and events that people care about. The sad thing is that deaths like Floyd's have happened continuously in the United States for more than 100 years. This was not a singular event that involved one racist cop and a bad situation and the fact that it wasn't an anomaly is the problem.
When you see the amount of people that have participated in these protests against racism and the amount of emotion and anger directed at the police, it is hard to make sense of it. I knew that it was tough to be black in America, but I figured all of the horrific injustices like slavery, lynchings, and segregation were over and they had moved past that. But by reading Stevenson's book, I realized just how incredibly racist and unfair their institutions still are, particularly in the Southern States. All over America, black children are not taught to trust the police, they are taught to fear them. This is not without good reason too—the police have consistently failed to protect the health and safety of black people for years. Reading about all the cases where obviously innocent black men were sentenced to life in prison, or even to their death, was infuriating. Like Will Smith said in an interview on the Late Show back in 2016: "Racism isn't getting worse, it's getting filmed". Maybe if there were smartphones in the South during the 80s and 90s, more of the racism and oppression would have been captured and challenged by society; unfortunately we are only being informed now through the work of Bryan Stevenson.
On November 1st 1986, Walter McMillian was having a community fish fry in his own backyard with dozens of people from his Church. That day, miles away from the fish fry, a young white woman was tragically murdered at a dry-cleaners in town. After months of investigation and mounting pressure on the local police department, they felt like they needed to arrest someone to appease the town. So they arrested McMillian. To make a case against him, the police basically forced another criminal, a white man with a known history of lying and making up stories, to testify at McMillian's trial. The story he told was laughably absurd; it was filled with contradictions and asinine motives, and it refuted McMillian's alibi of hosting a fish fry that day, which dozens of people could attest to. Unfortunately, the people that could vouch for McMillian were also black, so it would not have made much difference to the all-white jury that was deciding his fate. Instead, the judge, jury, and the whole damn town decided to believe the stupid story of a degenerate criminal, just because he was white, and so McMillian was sentenced to death row. Maybe deep down they all knew it wasn't true but they just wanted to arrest someone for the murder and feel better about themselves. The fact that they sentenced a black person just made it an easier pill to swallow.
When Stevenson was finally able to exonerate McMillian and save him from death row, after 6 years of incarceration, he stood in front of the judge at the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, and said this:
Your Honor, I just want to say this before we adjourn. It was far too easy to convict this wrongly accused man for murder and send him to death row for something he didn’t do and much too hard to win his freedom after proving his innocence. We have serious problems and important work that must be done in this state.
— Stevenson, pg. 390
Stevenson was right, and he has been working on solving these serious problems his whole career. EJI's mandate is that they will provide legal representation to anyone that has been denied a fair trial and may have been wrongly convicted. Stevenson has taken on many cases but the ones I found most shocking were cases where a juvenile had been tried as an adult, of which there are an astounding number of examples in the United States.
I always assumed that if a juvenile were to be tried as an adult, they would be almost of age (like 2 weeks away from being eighteen) and they had murdered like 12 people in cold blood or something egregiously violent like that. Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to be the case. Stevenson describes numerous examples of 13 and 14-year-old children that have been sentenced to adult prisons for life with no chance of parole, some of them for non-lethal crimes.
In 1989 in Pensacola, Florida, Joe Sullivan was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Sullivan was black, and Stevenson describes him as "a thirteen-year-old boy with mental disabilities who read at a first-grade level". Sullivan had been found guilty of sexual assault of an elderly white woman, but because of some other past misdemeanours the judge concluded that Sullivan was beyond rehabilitation (as a thirteen-year-old!) and the juvenile detention system would be a useless sentence. So instead, he sent Joe Sullivan to prison:
Joe, just one year into his own adolescence, was sent to adult prison, where an eighteen-year nightmare began. In prison, he was repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted. He attempted suicide on multiple occasions. He developed multiple sclerosis, which eventually forced him into a wheelchair. Doctors later concluded that his neurological disorder might have been triggered by trauma in prison.
— Stevenson, pg. 448
The fate of a thirteen year old boy's life was decided upon inconclusive legal grounds, all within a single day of trial. As punishment Sullivan was sent to a facility where he was subjected to rape and sexual assault for years, and was irrevocably damaged as a result. The entire situation is horrifying to read about.
Because some prison staffs have realized that juveniles sent to adult prisons are five times more likely to be victims of sexual assault, they will place these children in solitary confinement instead to "protect" them from the other inmates. This is exactly what happened to Ian Manuel, also in Florida, in 1990 when he shot a woman while robbing her with two older boys. The woman survived the shooting, but regardless Ian Manuel received life imprisonment without parole at thirteen years old. Manuel was sent to Apalachee Correctional Institution, where he began an eighteen year period of uninterrupted solitary confinement.
Solitary confinement at Apalachee means living in a concrete box the size of a walk-in closet. You get your meals through a slot, you do not see other inmates, and you never touch or get near another human being. If you “act out” by saying something insubordinate or refusing to comply with an order given to you by a correctional officer, you are forced to sleep on the concrete floor of your cell without a mattress. If you shout or scream, your time in solitary is extended; if you hurt yourself by refusing to eat or mutilating your body, your time in solitary is extended; if you complain to officers or say anything menacing or inappropriate, your time in solitary is extended. You get three showers a week and are allowed forty-five minutes in a small caged area for exercise a few times a week. Otherwise you are alone, hidden away in your concrete box, week after week, month after month.
— Stevenson, pg. 263
Now, I am not so naive as to think that any justice system can be perfect. Laws can have unintended consequences, bad precedents can be set, prejudiced individuals will always exist, and innocent people may be sent to jail sometimes. However, when a justice system is capable of completely ruining a child's life because of one mistake, when it has the authority to place a child in a concrete box and hide them away until they die, there is something wrong with that system. Stevenson believed the same, and he worked tirelessly for years to get the Supreme Court to make such decisions a lot harder. He has won landmark rulings to ban mandatory life-imprisonments for children 17 and younger, and to ban them completely for non-homicidal crimes. For his efforts, both Joe Sullivan and Ian Manuel were released in 2016, both of them having served over 25 years of their lives in prison.
Slavery By Another Name
It was hard to hear about the numerous cases of injustice and cruelty that have been adjudicated during Stevenson's career, and long before it, that he has worked to ratify. It's even harder to accept that these aren't anomalous events in many ways—it's just how the system is supposed to work. Stevenson spends some time discussing why so many people, predominantly blacks and other minorities, are incarcerated in the United States and why prison sentences are so severe. It can be boiled down to two main reasons, or possibly just two manifestations of one reason: power. Specifically, it is the desire of the ruling class to maintain the existing power structures.
The most visceral form of power in our society is economic power and prison happens to be a profitable business in the United States. It is an industry worth about $6 billion dollars, due to the rise of the privatized prison system. Since their inception in the 80s, private prison corporations have generated massive profits from lucrative government contracts, prison labour programs, and by having publicly traded shares. The prison industry also spends millions of dollars a year through government lobbying to ensure there are more prisoners to profit from:
Prison growth and the resulting “prison-industrial complex”—the business interests that capitalize on prison construction—made imprisonment so profitable that millions of dollars were spent lobbying state legislators to keep expanding the use of incarceration to respond to just about any problem. Incarceration became the answer to everything—health care problems like drug addiction, poverty that had led someone to write a bad check, child behavioral disorders, managing the mentally disabled poor, even immigration issues generated responses from legislators that involved sending people to prison.
— Stevenson, pg. 449
The prison-industrial complex is a strong part of why America has 25% of the global prison population despite only being 5% of the overall population. There is a vested economic interest in having more incarcerated citizens. That being said, private prisons only house about 8% of prisoners in the United States, so the majority of prisons are still operated by the government. This leads me to the second reason why so many people are incarcerated: racism.
Slavery, as a legal institution, was abolished in 1865 by the ratification of the thirteenth amendment. But the South did not relinquish its socioeconomic systems of power over African Americans; the practices of enslavement and prejudice just changed and became more discreet. Reading Just Mercy was a stark reminder that, nearly 150 years after slavery was outlawed, African Americans and other minorities are still severely disadvantaged, and even targeted, in most of the United States still. There is a long way to go until this inhumane discrimination is removed from society, in America and elsewhere. I certainly don't know how it will end, but I believe it starts with education. I'd recommend everyone read Stevenson's novel because it was one of the most eye-opening books I've ever read.
Truth Before Reconciliation
Near the end of that interview on Amanpour & Co, Stevenson says something quite poignant about what sort of positive action he would hope to see from law enforcement. He would like the police to visit the lynching memorials that EJI has erected in Montgomery. He invites them to go there, in uniform, and just apologize. Apologize on behalf of those that have worn the same uniform and have failed to protect black people for so many years. They may not be personally guilty of these injustices, but by wearing the uniform they are representing the same institutions. They could state, verbally, that they want to see change and they will do better to protect black people. Not acknowledging this history, and not talking about it, will not bring about change. Truth needs to come before reconciliation. There is great power in the oral statement, and to provide acknowledgement of the past is all Stevenson wants. It doesn't require a budget, or a change to the laws, but it requires courage.
I think this path towards change that Stevenson wants can apply to more than just law enforcement. As a white person, to be post-racial is as helpful to society as waking up and not killing your neighbour everyday; it is just inaction. To be post-racial in a world that is still racist is just turning a blind eye to problems. By being white, we belong to the same culture and society that promoted and enforced inequality, much like the police officer that represents the institution of law enforcement. There is power in acknowledgement. Action must be taken, by everyone, to work towards a more equitable future.
"We’ve all been through a lot, Bryan, all of us. I know that some have been through more than others. But if we don’t expect more from each other, hope better for one another, and recover from the hurt we experience, we are surely doomed.”
— Stevenson, pg. 218