Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Charleena Lyles, Shukri Ali, Deborah Danner….and the list goes on. The narrative of the “post-racial era” gained wide popularity after the election of Barack Obama, the first African American president of the United States. However, the myth was shattered as Black Lives Matters brings to our attention the ongoing police brutality and systemic violence against Black people. “Slavery didn’t end in 1865. It evolved” – rightly says Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Historical dehumanization of Black people initiated white supremacy which, according to Stevenson, “was the most poisonous and destructive consequence of two centuries of slavery” in America. White supremacy did not just legitimize lynching, terror, and violence against Black people. It still normalizes new modes of enslavement such as mass incarceration, the militarization of law enforcement, and institutional racism in the US criminal justice system. Through his lifelong pursuits, Stevenson has been questioning the persistence of racism and inequity in criminal justice. His work problematizes the punitive perception of justice that prioritizes criminalization and harsher punishment. He demonstrates how we can nurture what he calls “a loving system of justice” where justice is used as an instrument to achieve the final motive of love.
While growing up in the 1960s as the great-grandchild of slaves, Stevenson experienced what he describes as “Jim Crow segregation” in a working-class rural neighborhood in Delaware. He initially had to attend an all-Black school. When the 1950s and 1960s legal reforms integrated the schools, he was able to transfer to a public school. As a child, he appreciated how the law could be used as a tool to empower marginalized communities. However, Stevenson’s experience at Harvard, where he attended the law school and the Kennedy School of Government, made him realize that the legal education system is often disconnected from struggles at the margins. He closely observed how the justice system treats rich and guilty better than poor and innocent when he began working with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee in Atlanta. His practice in Georgia and Alabama informed him about the severe dearth of legal resources for poor Black people. In 1989, he initiated the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) to guarantee legal defense to anyone sentenced to the death penalty in Alabama, the only death-penalty state that does not provide state-funded legal assistance to death-row prisoners. To date, EJI successfully defended 125 wrongly condemned individuals on death row. The EJI also won the landmark Supreme Court ruling that made mandatory life-without-parole sentences unconstitutional for all children 17 and under, potentially affecting the sentences of 2300 people who had been sentenced to life while children.
Although Stevenson’s social justice activism focuses on challenging discriminatory legal policies, he is equally cognizant of the importance of challenging discriminatory narratives. He says, “The greatest evil of American slavery was not involuntary servitude but rather the narrative of racial differences we created to legitimize slavery.” This historical narrative still normalizes racial and economic disparity in the US criminal justice system. Prison building and expansion now offer profit-maximizing opportunities for prison goods and services suppliers, construction companies, prison labor contractors, surveillance technology vendors, private probation companies, and many other actors that are deeply involved in creating and sustaining what is known as the “prison-industrial complex.” Stevenson’s legal and advocacy career demonstrates that creating laws is not enough to dismantle this prison-industrial complex. Those who have racial, economic, and other privileges should recognize power dynamics, get in proximity of marginalized communities, listen to their narratives, and engage in meaningful solidarity building. As Stevenson points out, “policy work is critically important, but it has to be married with narrative work that does work on the hearts and minds.”
To confront historical and contemporary racialized narratives and to memorialize over 4000 incidents of racial terror and lynching of Black people between 1877 and 1950, EJI opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama in 2018. Initiatives like this urge us to question the mainstream nationalist narrative of “terrorism” which is based on us being targeted by terrorists. It is important to, as Stevenson puts, “understand how we accommodated terrorism in this country in so many communities where African Americans were victimized and brutalized.” If we can recognize our own terrorist history, we will be able to question our contemporary imperialist, capitalist, and racist interventions domestically and abroad, and rethink what we can do to subvert this problematic legacy.