Monday, February 20, 2017

Bryan Stevenson: Just Mercy

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'Just Mercy' has been on my list for awhile. Bryan Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, which works for the end of unjust incarceration and for racial justice. He works tirelessly to get people off of death row, or to stay their executions, or to get their sentences to match their crimes- the disgusting penalties children receive are one of his projects.

What it is:  'Just Mercy' tells the story of Stevenson's career framed by the story Walter McMillian- a man sentenced to death for a crime he couldn't have committed. A white teenage girl was killed in a small Alabama town while McMillian, a well-known local black character, was at a fish-fry with much of the black community. The local law enforcement community hadn't been able to solve the crime, so they figured out how to pin the crime on McMillian, complete with a lying witness. The crime was considered so heinous that McMillian was housed on death row, even before the trial. The jury sentenced him to life in prison, and the judge overruled the sentence and sentenced him to death. It seems heinous because it is.

Why you should read it: This kind of miscarriage of justice is not unique to McMillian's case. Stevenson has dedicated his life to overturning this kind of injustice, especially in Alabama and the south. "In Alabama, even though 65 percent of all homicide victims were black, nearly 80 percent of the people on death row were there for crimes against victims who were white. Black defendant and white victim pairings increased the likelihood of a death sentence even more." As he writes, "Some victims are more protected and values than others." As Jill Levoy argued in Ghettoside, some victims don't matter to the system: their homicides are never investigated. On the other hand, some victims matter so much to the system that people are unfairly persecuted.

My "aha" moment: Jail is the solution to white people's complacency. I've been thinking a lot about white complacency lately. It's easy to look at Trump and neo-Nazis and conservative racism, but a lot harder to look at liberal racism. We benefit off of systemic racism just like everyone else. Stevenson describes Southern racism like this: "For a hundred years, any sign of black progress in the South could trigger a white reaction that would invariably invoke Confederate symbols and talk of resistance." Now we deal have mass incarceration of black men, women, children and the mentally ill. But it's okay, because crime.

Rating:  Buy it, or get it at the library then donate the cost of the book to EJI.