Much discussion is devoted to America’s role in the Middle East. Dubbed crusaders by its enemies, the United States often is accused of inciting the violence that it hopes to quell. But Americans needn’t look half way around the world for instances of violence that it fosters. Its criminal justice system’s handling of the Michael Brown shooting exemplifies the system’s role in perpetuating violence. According to Bryan Stevenson, the speaker at Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Town Hall Forum on November 25, 2014, America’s demonization of young people of color particularly demonstrates the “atmosphere of fear” that pervades its criminal justice establishment.
As a public interest lawyer, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, and author of “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” Stevenson has unique experience and insight of a system that has one quarter of the world’s currently incarcerated population (2.3 million people) with six million on probation and another 60 million with criminal convictions on their records. In his home state of Alabama such convictions can never be expunged which means almost a third (32%) of the state’s youth including one in three blacks and one in six Latino boys have become “non-existent kids” who never will regain their right to vote.
Reflecting on ways to rectify such excessive incarceration and create “a more just and hopeful society,” Stevenson recommended a four point course of action. The first was “proximity” by which he meant for “all of us to get closer to the poor.” America’s affluence has created a distance between the poor and the upper classes which impedes discovering those “close interventions that will and will not work.” As the only major power to render the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights not self-executing, the United States has over 3000 children sentenced to die in prison for non-homicidal offenses” without legal recourse.
Stevenson’s second point was “change the narrative.” To understand what sustains the status quo, citizens must examine the “narrative of Ferguson,” i.e. “confront the history of racial injustice in this society.” Black people are angry in Ferguson because “they’ve been menaced their whole lives.” America’s racial legacy can only be ameliorated, Stevenson believes, through a process of truth and reconciliation as occurred in Rwanda and in South Africa after the lifting of apartheid.
Point three involves a question of attitude. To achieve a more just system, Stevenson emphasized the importance of staying hopeful. His anecdote about a hard core Dixie prison guard fulfilling Stevenson’s mentally fragile client’s desire to enjoy a chocolate milk shake demonstrates that “no one is beyond recovery; no one is beyond redemption.”
His last point, “Choose to do uncomfortable things,” Stevenson acknowledged was “the tough one.” Only by people going to places where others are suffering can the justice system’s preference for finality instead of fairness be replaced. His rationale for representing “broken clients” and “working in a broken system” is his recognition of a common humanity. “I do what I do because I’m broken, too.” Given that people cannot be merciful until they need mercy themselves, the only way to judge an entire community’s compassion is “by how it treats [its] poor.”
After his speech which Westminster’s senior minister Timothy Hart Anderson deemed “as riveting and passionate” as he had ever witnessed during his 15 years as moderator, Stevenson received a standing ovation. With Ferguson on everyone’s mind, he observed during the Question and Answer session that he was “not surprised” by the grand jury’s decision. Because “Ferguson is every community in America,” this country needs people in authority “who are responsive to the power of [their] position[s].” To “change the safety parameters of people of color,” he advised black students in his audience to realize “you are more than you are [or] what people think you are. Act on that.” As should all of us.