Thursday, July 14, 2016
No doubt many of you read Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. Today I completed this powerful book authored by a remarkable man. Mr. Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative located in Montgomery, Alabama. Mr. Stevenson and his colleagues at EJI represent incarcerated men and women who have been mistreated by the justice system in horrific ways. Many of the Initiative's clients live on death row. The stories of the incarcerated men and women were sad, outrageous and inspiring. But the lawyering work is painful and heartbreaking.
I will not be a spoiler and give details, but in one instance Mr. Stevenson describes a personal and professional crisis moment that followed a conversation with one of his death row clients. A reflective man, Mr. Stevenson wondered if he could continue the work. He describes the moment when he realizes that not only are his clients, the legal system and its players broken, but he is as well. How does one continue the work after realizing that "We've submitted to the harsh instinct to crush those among us whose brokenness is most visible." Mr. Stevenson realizes that we are all broken. Maybe we were broken in different ways, but we are all broken.
Not only did these passages bring me to tears, but they made me feel for all of us who engage in human rights work. I admire all of you. While we celebrate our victories and support each other's work, rarely do we stop to discuss the pain that accompanies our work.
Bryan Stevenson ultimately, and rather quickly, found strength in recognizing this shared vulnerability. He recognized that "When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in all of us." He imagines what the world would be like if we all acknowledged our fear, our weaknesses and our brokenness.
Dr. Brian Williams, who treated the shot Dallas police officers has begun that conversation by acknowledging his fear. In one interview Dr. Williams, who is black, said that when he sees a police officer he often thanks them for their work so that his daughter will learn not to be afraid of police. Because, he said, "I am afraid". Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper addressed the way in which police officers are trained to be afraid and to view their community members as enemy.
What is missing are police officers willing to discuss their vulnerabilities that are at the heart of their biases and overreactions to perceived threats.
I think of how vital this acknowledgment is to resolving our race crisis. Both sides are filled with fear, but one side cannot engage that conversation. Until that happens, change will remain out of reach.