Holly Richardson: We must get close to the poor and excluded

Bryan Stevenson speaks at a news conference, Monday, April 23, 2018, in Montgomery, Ala., about the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and the Legacy Museum opening that will honor thousands of people killed in lynchings. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

“Why do we want to kill all the broken people?”

Those are the words of Bryan Stevenson, author of the best book I have read this year, “Just Mercy.”

Recently Stevenson, known for his work with death row prisoners and founder and executive director of The Equal Justice Initiative, came and spoke at Brigham Young University about his lifelong pursuit of a more just nation.

Too many people are suffering, too many are marginalized. Those on the fringes — the poor, people of color, the less educated — are much more likely to end up in jail. Seventy percent of the women sent to prison are single mothers. The Bureau of Justice predicts that one in three black baby boys will go to jail and one in six Latino baby boys will go to jail.

We have allowed our victimization to justify the victimization of others.

“We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated," Stevenson says. "An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others.”

To have a more just nation, Stevenson says, we need to do four things. We need to get “proximate,” or close, to the poor, the marginalized and the excluded; we need to change the narrative underlying the current problems; we need to create communities of hope; and we need to be willing to get uncomfortable.

As a student intern, he was assigned to go to death row for the first time. He felt inadequate and unsure how he could possibly make a difference. He had one message to deliver: “You are not at risk of execution anytime in the next year.” When he shared that information with the death row prisoner, the man burst into tears, thanked him profusely — and then they proceeded to have a three-hour conversation. Even in his ignorance, Stevenson said, being “proximate” allowed him to make a difference.

We have allowed narratives to develop that demonize hundreds of thousands of people. Several decades ago, a narrative developed that began arguing that there was a “new species” of child — a superpredator, unredeemable (and almost all brown and black). With that change in narrative came a change in public policy and in judicial sentencing. We began as a nation to put young children in adult jail, sometimes for life. And we began to put them on death row.

The narrative on race must be addressed. We are burdened by a history of racial inequality, Stevenson said, and it continues to burden us today because we refuse to talk about it. He pointed out that “domestic terrorism” did not begin with Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma. Black people in the United States have been living with it for many, many years. The original U.S. Constitution said that a black person was only three-fifths of a human.

Slavery morphed into lynching, and lynching morphed into a disproportionate rate of black prisoners on death row, speculated Stevenson. As part of changing the narrative, he is the mover and shaker behind the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. The powerful memorial lists the names of each of over 4,000 black people lynched in the 12 states of the South from 1877 to 1950. He is changing the narrative.

Hope is our superpower, Stevenson says. Hope gets you to stand up when others tell you to sit down. It gets you to speak up when others tell you to be quiet and it gives us the ability to fight against things that make us hopeless.

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth,” he says. “The opposite of poverty is justice.”

Echoing Martin Luther King, he concluded with the measure of our character.

“The character of our society cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged and the respected among us,” he said. “The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated and the condemned.”

(Photo Courtesy Holly Richardson)

Holly Richardson is a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune.