Bryan Stevenson

What does your typical posttraumatic white-guy-crippled-by-black-guys audience member do while listening to Bryan Stevenson? Several things.

First, you get stirred by his cause, reinstituting fairness in our nation’s courts and prisons. Then you get stirred up, and in the very opposite direction. At the very least, you experience a flood of anger at what “they” have done to you. And there is a “they,” three black kids with a gun. No doubt about it. Except that they disappeared almost 50 years ago and, most likely, are now dead.

And this assumption concerning their death opens the door of truth just a crack. My attackers were addicted to street violence, which often proves fatal to the addict. And being black, and likely poor, bad diet, lifestyle and poor medical care could also have gotten them. I have always assumed that something did. I have always hoped that something did.

So that is the emotional landscape. Vengeance. Payback. I want them dead or suffering or, if such a thing is possible, both.

Stevenson, the MacArthur fellow who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, makes a most compelling case for fixing our broken justice system. As he puts it, a man who is poor and innocent is much more likely to go to jail than a man who is rich and guilty. Stevenson is full of anecdotes, gleaned from decades of legal advocacy, that readily convince the listener of his essential rightness.

But does he convince me?

On one level, absolutely. The loss of legal authority threatens the nation. Listening to Stevenson speak last night at a local bookstore, I felt ready to man the barricades. His prescription for individual action? Proximity, as he puts it. Getting close to the problem, that is to say, the people who are denied justice. Not giving up hope, but believing in the possibility of change. Taking risks and accepting danger. Yes, it all feels right, makes sense.

Yet for me, there’s the next day problem. Because one evening I’m part of an audience and remembering that all the black kids in America didn’t shoot me. All the black adults in America didn’t shoot me. Yet, to this day, black kids can send an unpleasant shiver up my spine, having sent a bullet down my spine. But, no, not the same black kids. Hardly fair.

And this is the next day problem. After an evening that stirs my sense of justice, there’s a morning that rekindles my personal sense of grievance. After what happened to me, do I really care about black kids, I mean, really? Oh, logically, we should all care about them. We are all part of the same social fabric. Which one loose thread can unravel.

Still, most of these kids we are asked to help are walking around, waving sound arms. Nice to still have a body.

Actually, even this is hardly true. The same Los Angeles hospital where in 1968 I was the lone shooting injury…has flipped reality. The spinal cord injury ward is still there. And now it’s all shooting victims. Black and brown kids mostly.

This is what Bryan Stevenson means when he talks about the convergence of victim and perpetrator. The population, he points out, is really the same. Black kids who come out of poor neighborhoods to prey on white people are themselves prey. What’s the famous statistic? Roughly 90% of the criminal acts perpetrated by black people target black victims.

It’s made a lasting impression on me, the three days in 1999 I spent in workshops with recently released prisoners from Louisiana’s notorious Angola Penitentiary. The parolees told their stories, and with remarkably little self-pity. One kid, all of 18, quietly recounted the afternoon he came home from school, age 9, and found his dead mother’s body wrapped in a carpet. His father had killed her. Grief counseling? Of course not. That’s why he was now a parolee, more or less, and probably more than less.

And years later I recall what those black prisoners said of my presence. That a white guy who’d been shot by black guys was there among them seemed astounding. I was one righteous dude, they said. They understood how deeply people get color-coded, that overused word “prejudice” oddly reinvigorated.

I was there. I had turned up. I hated them…however unfairly…and I was one of them, a fellow victim.

When a war erupts, when they’re gathering troops for the front lines…ambivalence has no place. You either turn up or go missing. Yet there’s ambivalence either way.

Years ago, in the same era of the Louisiana prisoner workshop, I occasionally spoke at a local juvenile offender facility. I did it. I resented it. After a while, I stopped doing it. All those able-bodied kids…and I was giving them a chance no one had given me. So it seemed. Of course, I have had some chances, a few of them rather extraordinary. But that doesn’t matter. The resentment is still there.

That’s how it is. That’s how it will be. Is there a way to talk about it? That is the real question. Can one admit to harboring some bias against blacks…and still decide to work with them? Bryan Stevenson talks about succumbing to the politics of fear and anger. There is no avoiding the latter. Talking about both, without fear of political correctness, would seem to be a great step forward.

As a black attorney, Stevenson has been insulted by judges, mistreated by police, abused by prison guards – yet maintains his equanimity, his focus on the big picture. He speaks fondly of his mother. She always had an answer, he recalls. Which star is that one? The star to the left of the moon. And so on. He started out with a good emotional grounding. I didn’t. But I got mine later. Maybe I can remember this.

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