After listening to an interview with Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy and passionate defender of wrongly-accused prisoners on Death Row, I then watched the 1967 film In the Heat of the Night. The next day I read my daughter’s new piece My Husband Punched A White Man and Nearly Spent 20 Years in Prison. All three of them had three common themes:
1) Our Justice System is more broken than even I thought it was. Mind you, I’m still grateful it exists in the way that it doesn’t in China or Turkey or North Korea. That matters. Even though brazen criminals like Trump, Guilliani, Matt Gaetz and their ilk are still somehow walking free while innocent black men are on death row, still some Capitol rioters may actually spend some (not enough!) jail time and Derek Chauvin, the cop who murdered George Floyd, has been sentenced to 22 ½ years in prison. Still a lenient sentence compared to those given to black men, but a long, long, long overdue tiny step in the right direction.
2) Our Justice System is broken. In spite of “making it” as a successful American who graduated from Harvard Law and argued cases at the Supreme Court, Mr. Stevenson was still accosted by a policeman outside his own apartment, had a gun pointed at him and was told that if he moved, he was dead. For the crime of being a black man getting out of his car in front of a nice apartment building. The Sidney Poitier character is threatened in the same way by a policemen and arrested on suspicion of murder with no other evidence than being a black man waiting at a train station. My son-in-law is arrested for defending himself against three white racists threatening to jump him. And after going through a vicious and indifferent court procedure, has to pay the white man about to do violence to his body $1000. And in so doing, the Court affirms the unspoken understanding that you can threaten to hurt a black man for no just cause and not only get away with it, but earn $1000. And the cop who threatened Mr. Stevenson? No consequence. He gets a free pass.
3) The white folks also get a free pass at having to develop into a decent human being while the black folks have to prove themselves of upstanding character far beyond the norm— still without any guarantee that they won’t get beaten or arrested or killed. The robes the judges wear, the badges the cops wear, the sheets the KKK terrorists wear, the “shaman” horns on the head of the Capitol rioter, are symbols of their freedom to be the worst versions of humanity if they so choose with no consequence whatsoever. In the Poitier movie, the cop who would have wrongly jailed two white men for a murder they didn’t commit were it not for Poitier’s defense of them, smiles at the Poitier character as he boards the train and says, “Take it easy,” leaving us with the feel-good sense that finally he could see the humanity and good character of a black man. And in so doing, takes us all off the hook from having to investigate further what were the systemic causes behind his privilege to dismiss an entire race.
Take a moment to read my daughter’s piece and keep reflecting on the things your school, church, family or government didn’t—and don’t—want you to know, don’t want you to think about. And pass it on.