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Notes on True Justice: Bryan Stevenson's Fight for Equality

Following are my notes from a screening by the American Film Institute of TRUE JUSTICE: BRYAN STEVENSON'S FIGHT FOR EQUALITY, the documentary that opened the AFI Doc Festival in DC on June 19, 2019. Based on Bryan Stevenson's book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, an Amazon bestseller that got 3,603 customer reviews (averaging five stars).

 

There have been four stages of racial injustice in the United States, says Stevenson:
Slavery
Lynching, 1877-1950
Segregation
Mass incarceration.

 
Lynching, 1877-1950. The North prevailed after the Civil War, but the South won the narrative. An 1876 Supreme Court decision allowed lynching to go for decades -- and, in the South, a reign of terror and violence.Between 1877 and 1950, there were 4,075 lynchings of African Americans in 12 Southern States, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. Two hundred bills were introduced in Congress to make lynching illegal, but none succeeded in being enacted into legislation until two decades into the 21st century (2018). See The U.S. Finally Made Lynching a Federal Crime (Brigit Katz, Smithsonian, 12-21-18)


Segregation. In Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), the Supreme Court outlawed segregated public education facilities for blacks and whites at the state level. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 superseded all state and local laws requiring segregation.

 

Mass incarceration and the death penalty. Statistics for 1980 thru 2019 are shocking. Look at statistics on the U.S. state and federal prison population from 1925 through 2017, on this Trends in U.S. Corrections. According to The Sentencing Project "The United States is the world's leader in incarceration with 2.2 million people currently in the nation's prisons and jails — a 500% increase over the last forty years. Changes in sentencing law and policy, not changes in crime rates, explain most of this increase. These trends have resulted in prison overcrowding and fiscal burdens on states to accommodate a rapidly expanding penal system, despite increasing evidence that large-scale incarceration is not an effective means of achieving public safety."
Fear and anger are the essential ingredients of injustice—why we put so many people wrongfully in prison. We spend all that money to keep people in prison in a system where enough money can buy "not guilty."
A 2005 Supreme Court decision made it illegal to give children a death sentence. Instead, many of those in prison for life sentences are children who were tried in adult courts. One in three black male children now expect to go to prison (and the number of black women in prison is increasing, too). Many of these prisons are now privately fun. See What's wrong with America's prisons.

 

Stevenson's focus is on all those black people who are improperly convicted (without a proper defense) or unfairly sentenced. As for the death penalty: "Since 1973, 166 people have been released from death row after evidence of their innocence was uncovered. A shocking rate of error has emerged: for every nine people executed in this country, one innocent person has been exonerated."  One in ten wrongful executions is an unjustifiable standard. We have to do better at winning the narrative battle, says Stevenson. "Truth-telling changes you."



Visit the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice, informally known as the National Lynching Memorial, a national memorial to commemorate the victims of lynching in the United States -- to acknowledge past racial terrorism and advocate for social justice in America. 

 

Excerpt from

The Black Family and Mass Incarceration by Bruce Western and Christopher Wildeman

(see also The Moynihan Report)

"Mass imprisonment of the late 1990s can be traced to two basic shifts in politics and economics. The growth of harsh sentencing policies and a punitive approach to drug control began with a rightward shift in American politics, first visible at the national level in the mid-1960s. Barry Goldwater's ill-fated presidential run in 1964 was pivotal (Beckett 1997; Gest 2001). Goldwater, in accepting the Republican nomination, warned that crime and disorder were threats to human freedom, and freedom must be 'balanced so that liberty lacking order will not become the license of the mob and of the jungle.' The Republican campaign of 1964 linked the problem of street crime to civil rights protest and the growing unease among whites about racial violence.
"Although Goldwater was roundly defeated by Lyndon B. Johnson, conservatives within the Republican Party had brought to the national stage a new kind of politics. Historically, responsibilities for crime control were divided mostly between state and local agencies. The Republicans had placed the issue of crime squarely on the national agenda. What is more, by treating civil rights protest as a strain of social disorder, veiled connections were drawn between the crime problem, on one hand, and black social protest, on the other."

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