Bryan Stevenson on amnesia about lynching and Obama on prisons

          Tuesday, Barack Obama spoke to the NAACP in Philadelphia about the immensity of the American prison system and the need for change (Thursday, he will be the first president to visit/bear witness to a prison – El Reno, a federal prison in Oklahoma).  This effort recognizes and perhaps arises out of the wide reception of/action from below about  Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow,  Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy, and other longstanding campaign against the injustice of the prison system Obama emphasizes the growth of the prison population from 500,000 in 1980 when he was in college to 2.2 (or 2.3) million today.  It is four times the rate of imprisonment in China; the US has more prisoners than 35 European countries combined; blacks and chicanos are 30 per cent of the population, but 60 per cent of prisoners…; 1 in 3 black male children can expect in the 2000s (Justice Department, 2001) to have contact with the prison system (1 in 6 Chicanos, 1 in 17 poor whites). Listen to Obama’s speech here (all the talks and interviews are interesting, but the ones with Bryan Stevenson below are memorable…).

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      Many people in both parties have now turned to making some reduction in the prison population.  Obama mentioned Senators Rand Paul and John Cronyn, for example.  And even the Koch brothers, as Democracy Now conveyed yesterday morning in a discussion including Van Jones and Mark Holden, a lawyer for the Koch brothers, emphasize, as a matter of basic human rights, that many nonviolent “offenders” have been thrown away in the prison system.  Listen here.

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     But the chances of black children to be unemployed, to go to jail as opposed to school and the like are, as Obama emphasized, vastly disproportionate (in the huge prison system that is also  America, too many poor white children are thrown away as well – again, recall the comparative statistics to other countries –  and this, too, is a result of racism,  In other countries, such poor people would not be criminalized, for example, for use of marijuana; their being caught up in prison is a direct result of more or less conscious and extreme policies of divide and rule… ).

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     Obama rightly calls for eliminating the box that employers ask for information about criminal record in.  He calls for an end of severe punishment (often of any punishment) for nonviolent “crimes” as opposed to violent criminals and underlines the lack of proportionality of punishments to  crimes: having marijuana or smoking a joint should not lead to 20 years in prison.  There is also the issue, which Mark Holden, the Koch brothers attorney brings up, of prosecutors filing a smorgasbord of charges and forcing defendants to plead guilty to one – and get a criminal record, be expelled from the work force and public housing, and refused the vote – in fear of an even longer sentence. He calls rightly for charging only the crime which the arrestee is actually thought to have committed.  (recall: having a strong record as a prosecutor is often a credential for seeking political office..).  How bizarre the American “legal” system has become is illustrated in this example.

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     Obama is for restoring work and the vote, or in human and also Christian terms, offering a second chance, recognizing the possibility of redemption or at least rehabilitation.

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      His talk is part of a growing movement, bipartisan and in this case, motivated by an objective evil toward young people of destroying their lives – no possibility of reprieve – before they have a chance to get started (Obama spoke about his own luck in not being swept up in this).

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    In addition, the cost to taxpayers of the current gargantuan prison system is $80 billion per year, enough to provide preschool for all the three and four year olds in America or double the pay of all high school teachers…That imprisonment (and Pentagon weaponry used to keep down people in Ferguson, East St. Louis, Detroit and elsewhere across America) is a worthwhile “investment” of resources is increasingly recognized as bizarre and inhuman.

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    But Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer, has an even sadder, deeper, sadder, more eloquent and moving perspective on these matters.  Listen for example to his short TED talk here or his appearance with Jon Stewart here and on NPR here.

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        Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative have  led research into the some 4,000 people lynched across the South: a World War soldier for refusing to take off his uniform, a man hurrying to the train for bumping into a white woman and the like. Listen here; see the New York Times here.   These lynchings – this terror –  was part of picnics and “celebrations” in which racists brought their children to see the murdered and mutilated bodies.  It extended to Chicanos and Mexicanos in Arizona and across the West….

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    The whole history of lynching in the South has previously been erased in what I call a founding amnesia. Erecting large numbers of monuments to well-known racists accompanies this avoidance (in Colorado and Illinois, the celebration of John Evans, an author of the Sand Creek Massacre, is a parallel example).

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      But after the 9 murders at Mother Emanuel in Charleston, the Confederate flag has come down in South Carolina,  and there is, for example, a petition signed by 3,000 people to rename the Jefferson Davis highway in Virginia.  Out of tragedy, new life has arisen.

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    Stevenson, however, mentions the two biggest high schools in Montgomery, 99% black, named for Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis.  There are some 59 monuments to the Confederacy there and none to slave rebels or to those who suffered bondage.

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       Stevenson startlingly contrasts Germany where there are memorials to the Holocaust with the South in which there are no markers to lynching.  The Equal Justice Initiative proposes to establish such markers throughout the South.

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     So far, America is unable to commit to this.  Stevenson will, however, lead a fight, with I think,  increasingly broad support – and fighting resistance from racists –  to begin to do this.

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      Stevenson also invokes a German woman who said, with our history of racism (the murder in prisons and camps of dissidents, Jews, Communists, Poles, Roma, “defective” Aryan children, mental patients and the like – see Stephan L. Chorover, From Genesis to Genocide, pp. 98-102), Germany must not have capital punishment.  Both in its memorials and its abolition of this barbarism, Germany has fought to establish a decent society.

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      But think Stevenson says of the horror of living in a world, where today’s Germany still practiced capital punishment and most of those executed were Jews…

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     I couldn’t bear, Stevenson says, to live in a world in which Germany executes mostly Jews.

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      Stevenson takes capital punishment cases in Alabama.  In his first case, the man had been thrown in prison for life without a trial, even though Stevenson found numerous witnesses who had been with him at the time he supposedly committed the murder  and when Stevenson became his lawyer, the judge – ironically named Robert E. Lee – called him and told him to drop the case. “That’s not the way it’s supposed to work,” commented Stevenson sardonically.

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      In another case, he describes movingly at the end of his Ted talk, for a 14 year old client tried as an “adult,” he submitted a motion for his client to receive the same treatment by the court as a 75 year old white CEO…

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    Stevenson righty thinks that the shame of superiority – of thinking others must be guilty of crimes because of their appearance and the like – is something that needs to be defeated for the sake of everyone.  This is the Socratic point that the masters or tyrants, too, though obviously less so, are eaten away by racism, and that equality and mutual recognition are the keys to a decent society.

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     In the United States, there is not only the history of slavery, segregation and lynching, but a near majority of those executed in today’s prisons (49% – see the Sentencing Project) are black…

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    Stevenson names the mind-heart connection which can take in these dark and difficult things and fight to change them.

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    Stevenson lives in a world for black people – and all of us – which we all should find unbearable.
 
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    Deepening a common theme with Obama, he also notes that everyone is better than the worst thing they have ever done, has possibilities of healing.  A decent system of law and imprisonment and rehabilitation would speak to that.

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    Stevenson spoke with Joanne Carr, a leader of the Montgomery bus boycott and Virginia Durr, a white woman, who was also of gleaming courage in the civil rights movement.  Carr told him that as he often emphasizes, the opposite of poverty is justice.  He has dedicated his life to this.

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      We should all support the Equal Justice Initiative and all efforts to free the innocent (far too many), abolish the criminality of nonviolent offenders, diminish the prison population wherever reasonable, provide employment (ban the box) and guarantee the vote (as they do in California) to former prisoners, and work for a society into which daylight could be shown even into this darkest and most prevalent of systems…

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