tv Talk to Al Jazeera Al Jazeera January 16, 2016 7:30am-8:01am EST
raped before somebody says "whoa, we got a problem"? >> "faultlines". >> what do we want? >> al jazeera america's hard-hitting... >> today the will be arrested. >> ground-breaking... >> they're firing canisters of gas at us. >> emmy award-winning, investigative series. >> we have to get out of here. >> this week on talk to al jazeera--lawyer and executive director of the equal justice initiative, bryan stevenson. >> we have to stop telling the lies that we tell about who we are. we celebrate our history of slavery. we celebrate our era of terrorism. >> stevenson has spent his career fighting racism in the criminal justice system--the legacy of slavery and times of "racial terror" continue to impact the lives of african americans today. >> what we did to african
americans between the end of reconstruction and world war ii rivals anything we read about in the mideast today perpetrated by isis. >> the lawyer and his staff have worked to help more than 100 wrongly condemned prisoners awaiting death. >> for every nine people we've executed, we've identified one innocent person on death row, who was proved innocent. it's a shocking rate of error. if for every nine planes that took off, one crashed and everybody died, the f.a.a. wouldn't let anybody fly. >> the author of just mercy has also taken on cases to challenge extreme sentencing; to defend children tried as adults. >> we are wrong to use our criminal justice system in the way that we are using it, as a warehouse for the mentally ill, as a repository for the poor >> murder is not an abstract thing in stevenson's life, his grandfather was stabbed to death. >> 86 years old, in a house, kids tryin' to get money-- stabbed him to death. and there's a lot more violence and victimization in my family than i-- than i'd-- that i'd like to even think about. >> i spoke to bryan stevenson in
new york. >> so in the last year, it's been a zeitgeist issue of videos of police shooting young african-american men. and there's shock. there's outrage. but this-- this kind of relationship between police and the black community, this started long before cell phones started capturing it on camera, right? like, how far back do you go with this? >> yeah. well, i think you have to go back to slavery. the reason why young men of color are at risk in too many of our streets is that there is a presumption of dangerousness and guilt that gets assigned to people of color. and we act on that presumption in ways that are sometimes violent. and these police officers are reacting to this narrative of racial difference, this presumption of guilt and dangerousness that you can't understand unless you think about the legacy of slavery. even before slavery, the genocide of indigenous people in this country, where we began to shape our whole worldview based
on color. i mean, for me, the great evil of american slavery wasn't involuntary servitude. it wasn't forced labor. it was really this ideology of white supremacy we made up to make ourselves feel comfortable with enslavement. we said that black people are different. they've got these deficits, etc. we're actually civilizing them by enslaving them. and that was the great evil of american slavery. and we never dealt with that. >> so it's easy for me to fall into the trap of saying, "look, slavery happened so long ago that i don't feel any relationship to it." but in your family you were much more connected to it than i realize even possible in today's times. >> well, that's right. no, my grandmother was the daughter of people who were raised by-- who were born into slavery. i mean, my great grandparents were enslaved. but i think for all of us the legacy of slavery is still around us. because if the great evil of american slavery was this narrative of racial difference, when we read the 13th amendment, it doesn't talk about that ideology of white supremacy. it talks about involuntary servitude, enforced labor.
so we don't actually end slavery and the worst part of slavery in 1865. slavery doesn't end. it just evolves. it turns into decades where we use that same narrative to justify terrorism perpetrated against african americans throughout this country and brutal public spectacle lynchings. what we did to african americans between the end of reconstruction and world war ii rivals anything we read about in the mideast today perpetrated by isis. we strung people up, we mutilated them, we set them on fire, we shot them a hundred times, we cut off parts of their body and took it home as souvenirs. and then we didn't talk about it. we just sort of moved it indoors and created a criminal justice system that perpetuated that same narrative, even civil rights. we haven't dealt with the hard parts of our history of segregation. we like to celebrate the civil rights movement. we talk about it like it's this triumph of heroic black people doing extraordinary things. and heroic black people did do some extraordinary things, but there was opposition to civil rights.
there was resistance to civil rights by elected officials. and if you don't know that resistant story, if you don't know how that continued past the 1960s into the 1970s, you can't understand mass incarceration and excessive punishment today. and at each point of these historical eras, people who identified with law enforcement, they were the foot soldiers empowered to sustain this racial hierarchy. they were the ones who were maintaining the rules of slavery. they tracked the-- >> explicitly or implicitly? do you think they knew that. that "that's one of my jobs here"? >> oh, absolutely. i mean, during the era of slavery, it was the law enforcement that would chase the fugitive slaves into the north and bring them back. they were the ones that would enforce the conflicts. during the era of terrorism, there'd be some accusation of the crime. and the sheriff would make the arrest, and then he would open up the jail doors to the mob, who would engage in these acts of violence. there's been this complicity between law enforcement and this history. in mass incarceration in our contemporary era, it is the
police who are being looked to to keep the public safe, but more than that, to sustain these dynamics, to resist any kind of challenge to this identity that we've grown up with. and so we need in america, truth and reconciliation. we need to kind of reshape our identity. i'm not interested in punishing people for slavery or punishing people for terrorism. i'm not interested in punishing people for segregation or even punishing people for police violence. i'm interested in getting us to a place where we're feeling something that looks more like freedom and justice. >> and we can't get there without truth and reconciliation. go to germany where in less than 80 years, that nation has recovered from the holocaust, not by denying it, but by putting markers in stones at the home of every jewish family in berlin. by directing people who come to germany to auschwitz and the camps to reflect soberly on the history of the holocaust. in america, we do the opposite. we don't talk about slavery. >> so now that we're in this period of our history where one in three black males is expected
to go to jail or prison, where people of color are menaced and targeted on the streets of our country the question really is when will we stop, when will we change direction, when will we confront this legacy that we have created in america by our inaction, by our silence? >> you're talking about much broader racial issues. is that because of a moment in time that-- that we're in? is something happening now where there's a chance for this conversation? >> you know, actually, not for me. i think for me, it's in recognizing that we can only get so far in the legal courts, in the courts, in the legal system. we've got to change-- >> that's a symptom of the bigger problem? >> that's exactly right. we've got to change the broader environment. we've got to actually create some movement in these spaces. so i go into courts. and i say, you know, "this county under represents people of color. you don't let black people serve on juries." i go into courts and say, "there are no people of color in the prosecutorial role or in the judge role or--" you know, and there's this indifference to that. yet, when i start talking about this history and you put it in
an historical context, everything changes >> you draw an incredible parallel there to the american south being as bad as isis, which is incredibly provocative to say. and that the black neighborhoods in l.a. and cleveland and chicago were refugees, not unlike the refugees from crisis we see today in europe. >> yeah, and my critique is not that the south was as bad as that, but the acts of terror that people were allowed to engage in with impunity are no less gruesome and are no less provocative in the acts. i mean, if you hang a person out and you mutilate them and you set them on fire and then you shoot them and then you insist that they hang from the tree for a week and you make black people look at them as a statement to that community, you've done something horrific. and it has the parallels that we talk about in the modern context. and you're right, what happens in response to that is that millions of black people flee-- to chicago and cleveland and detroit, not as immigrants
looking for new economic opportunities, but as refugees and exiles from terror. we have to stop telling the lies that we tell about who we are. you go to the american south and the landscape is littered with the iconography of the confederacy. we celebrate our history of slavery. we celebrate our era of terrorism. we've got to actually create a bigger kind of space to be truthful about this history. >> well, talk about erasing the death penalty, 'cause when you look at death row, there are-- blacks are not the majority that are there. there are actually more whites than blacks. but you have to look past that to find how race really plays into death penalty. explain that. >> sure, it's race of the victim. so that death penalty is the blue ribbon we give to people who murder the folks we care most about. and because there is this hierarchy of whose lives matter 80% of the people on the death row are there for victims who are white. and even though people of color are much more likely to be the victims of homicide, they don't become the death penalty cases. and so it is still incredibly
racially skewed and you find that evidence-- not just in the percentage of defendants of color, which is disproportionately high. but you find it most dramatically with the race of the victim. the court case that the united states supreme court took on that was really designed to end racial bias in the death pen-- to end the death penalty because of the evidence of race was all about race of the victim. the baldus study in 1987 established that in georgia you're 11 times more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white than if the victim is black. 22 times more likely to get the death penalty if the defendant is black and the victim is white. and these data could not be contradicted. and the united states supreme court didn't quibble with the data. they didn't say, "we don't believe you." they simply held that the death penalty is constitutional because of two reasons. one, if we deal with racial bias in the administration of the death penalty, it's gonna be just a matter of time before we start having to hear complaints about racial bias in other forms of the criminal justice system. and justice brennan in his dissent ridiculed the court for its quote "fear of too much justice."
and he was right. the second thing was the thing that i think ought to haunt us, all of us. as the court said that a certain quantum of bias, a certain amount of discrimination in the administration of the american death penalty, a certain level of racial bias is inevitable. and because it's inevitable, we can't do anything about it. this is the court that has "equal justice under law" engraved on its front. it is the court that produced brown vs. board of education. >> you've argued in front of the supreme court a number of times. to your knowledge, any of the justices who are making the decisions about the death penalty and its constitutionality, have they ever actually witnessed an execution? >> oh, i'm certain they have not. i mean, the only justice who had any kind of personal relationship to the death penalty was thurgood marshall, who stood with condemned people, who represented condemned people. and, of course, he was passionately oppositional to the death penalty. i think part of the challenge that we have in this country is that we've created great distance between the people we put in jails and prisons and the
rest of us. we build these prisons out in the middle of nowhere. we don't make them accessible. we make it really hard for people to get inside. you've gotten inside a couple times. you talk about transparency, there's absolutely no transparency with the institutions of confinement and imprisonment in most of this country. and because of that, all we hear are the narratives about crime. >> and the politics of fear and anger have given rise to these policies like treating drug addiction as a crime rather than as a health issue. i've represented people serving life without parole for stealing a bicycle. and i will tell you - as you well know, that whenever you try to make decisions out of fear and anger, you're gonna do some things that are cruel and unjust. we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. and we don't feel especially ashamed about that. you know, the death penalty, we've exonerated now 156 people. that means for every nine people we've executed, we've identified one innocent person on death row, who was proved innocent. it's a shocking rate of error. and yet, we just carry on.
i mean, if for every nine planes that took off, one crashed and everybody died, the f.a.a. wouldn't let anybody fly. and none of us would want to fly. >> to get them closer to the death penalty, 'cause they can't witness it. it's very difficult to get in and witness it. i've witnessed it. you've witnessed it. tell 'em what it's like. for me, the great violence of execution isn't really the moment when someone's put in a chair and the electricity is turned on. that can be brutal and ugly and really graphic. where it's not the moment when we kind of push the needle and the toxins run through someone's body. the real violence of the-- of the death penalty, for me, has been-- it's in those moments, the hour before, when you're seeing someone who's healthy, who's not a threat to anyone, have to say goodbye to the people around him-- because the state says, "we have to kill you." when i started working in alabama many years ago, had a bunch of people with execution dates, who didn't have lawyers. and the guy called me up and said, "mr. stevenson, i heard you opened an office. i've got an execution date in 30 days. will you take my case?"
and i started-- >> 30 days? >> 30 days. and i started saying, "wait, wait, wait. we don't have books. we don't have staff. i don't have anything. i'm not ready to take an execution case." and the guy got quiet. and he said, "but i need a lawyer." and i said, "i'm sorry. i can't." and then he hung up, which just broke my heart. couldn't sleep that night. came back the next day. and the guy called me again. he said, "mr. stevenson, i know what you said." he said, "but i'm begging you, please take my case." he said, "you don't have to tell me you can win. you don't have to tell me you can stop the execution." he said, "but i don't think i can make it the next 29 days if there's no hope at all." and when he put it like that, i couldn't say no. so i said yes. tried very hard to get a stay of execution. and one of the perversities of our system right now is that our courts are more committed to finality than fairness. they're just tryin' to get to the end. >> while that man's alive, it's not too late. that's my view. and it's never too late to do something corrective if we can identify the corrective thing that can be done. the court denied his stay motion. and i went down to be with him. and then i had a conversation with the client, who told me, he said, "bryan, it's been such a
strange day." he said, "more people have said, 'what can i do to help you?' in the last 14 hours of my life than they ever did in the first 19 years of my life." and i was standing there holding that man's hands, thinking, "yeah, where were they when you were three years old and your mom died? where were they when you were six and seven being physically abused? where were they when you were ten, being sexually abused?" i know where they were after you went off to vietnam, got traumatized, and you came back in a really disrupted state. they were lined up to execute you when you committed this crime. and it's that kind of understanding, it seems to me that teaches you something. and when you're up close, you do learn the reality, the brutality of it. if you said to people, "let's rape people who are guilty of rape," you're probably not gonna get much support for that. and that's because we can't imagine how an otherwise healthy public official could be required to go rape someone as punishment. but we say, "let's kill people who are guilty of murder. you know, let's do that." it's because we have this fantasy in our mind that we can
actually kill people with impunity, that we can do it in a way that doesn't implicate us, where we don't feel like we're playing a role in that. and if you can't reconcile it with rape and abuse and torture, then you shouldn't be able to reconcile it with murder. >> you talk about this somewhere, you say, "a lot of people frame the death penalty as, like, 'do they have a right to live after what they've done?' and the question perhaps should be, 'do you have the right to kill?'" >> when you have a criminal justice system where there's no diversity in the decision making roles, where politics plays a huge role in who gets to be the prosecutor and who gets to be the judge, where there is this indifference-- to the lives of some people, where we don't scrutinize the reliability of these convictions, where we make a lot of mistakes, then you don't deserve to kill. i always believe that you have to judge a nation and its character and its commitment to the rule of law, its civility, not by how it treats the rich and the powerful. it's how we treat the people who are in jails and prisons. it's how we treat the poor in the margins of our society that are the true reflection of who we are as a people. >> still ahead, we'll talk about the people in our family who
>> this is talk to al jazeera. i'm josh rushing. my guest this week is bryan stevenson, the executive director of equal justice initiative. >> your grandfather was murdered? >> yes >> my great grandmother was murdered in texas, in her 90s, by a young african american woman who was lookin' for money for drugs. there was-- she thought-- my grandmother was blind. she thought the church bus was there to get her. knock on the door. she opened it. there's a scuffle. the girl goes to prison in texas. and while she was in, she got to complete a college degree. i think almost everyone-- before me and my family didn't get to go to college. and then they see the person who murders their beloved grandmother get to go to college.
from a societal standpoint, i understand that. from a personal standpoint, i understand the pain and how that looks like unfairness. how would you explain to my family that situation? >> yeah. well, i mean, i think there is no right way to feel after you have lost someone you loved. i think it is wrong for any of us to have expectations that you have to feel a certain way or think a certain way. and what the rest of us ought to be thinking is, "why did we allow this child to be roaming in this way, where she is preying on 90-year-old blind people to meet a need? what kind of society have we created where people have that need? and can we do better?" i think we can do better. and i want to disrupt all of the pathologies that put that child at that-- at your great grandmother's doorstep in the first place. and that means, yes, investing in education and, yes, reaching out to people who are otherwise going to suffer and struggle.
it doesn't mean that we're doing that, because we don't care about the victimization. look, my grandfather was murdered. same story. 86 years old, in a house, kids tryin' to get money stabbed him to death. and there's a lot more violence and victimization in my family than i'd like-- than i like to even think about. but it-- what it makes me want to do is to create a nation that's less violent. i hate violence. hate it, hate it, hate it. and if there was somethin' you could do to change that narrative, where your great grandmother doesn't die, i'd want to do that. i want something that is responsive to inequality and injustice. and that is equality and justice. and if that's your orientation, then the world is just full of options. >> what does justice mean to you? >> well, justice is a constant struggle. it is a commitment to doing the things that must be done to create fairness and equality and
opportunity and compassion and hopefulness for everybody. so it's not a one thing that we have to do right now. it's not a moment. it is a commitment. and so that justice thing means saying things like, you know, to the sharecroppers who were dispossessed of their land, who were forced to the urban north, "you know what? we were wrong. we're sorry. and justice requires us to help you recover, in some fundamental way." the red lining that kept black vets after world war ii from experiencing the same movement into the middleclass that white vets were able to experience. >> how do i say "i'm sorry about the lynchings"? or how do i say, "i'm sorry about the red line?" >> well-- >> or how do i say i'm sorry that i'm sorry that when a cop approaches me, i say, "hey, what's happenin' pal? havin' a rough day?" you know, like, "oh, here's my license. how's it goin' today?" >> well, i think that we have to do it in a collective way. i mean, but one way you do it is that you don't vote for people that are tryin' to sustain that same narrative that i'm talking about. that's one thing you can do. that's a very personal thing.
you resist the rhetoric of fear and bigotry. and you start demonizing people and calling them rapists and things of that sort, because of their ethnicity, you say, "no, not gonna have that." you don't celebrate that. so that's one thing you do. and then you support this effort, you know to kind of reshape the landscape. so you say, "you know what? i'm gonna go with the young kids of color, with the meet-- to the meeting, where we're gonna talk to the police chief and say, "how can we implement the 21st century task force recommendations on policing which emphasize changing the identity of police officers in this country from warriors to guardians?" and what does that mean? i'm gonna be part of that conversation. and then you begin to think about the ways in which you challenge the manifestations of this narrative. so when people say, "you know what? let's do something remedial to help the survivors of terrorism and lynching that are now in urban ghettos. let's invest, oh i don't know, half of the money that we'll
save if we reduce the prison population by 50%." let's imagine, you know, we spent $6 billion in 1980. we spent $80 billion last year on jails and prisons. let's imagine we get the prison population cut in half. that's $40 billion. so somebody might say, "well, let's spend half of that $40 billion to help the poor in america recover. let's invest in mental health services for the poor, quality services so that they have the same treatment for bipolar disorder and psychosis and schizophrenia that the affluent do." >> this is talk to al jazeera. when we come back-- what motivates stevenson to dedicate his career to helping the poor and the condemned. the only way to get better is to challenge yourself,
and that's what we're doing at xfinity. we are challenging ourselves to improve every aspect of your experience. and this includes our commitment to being on time. every time. that's why if we're ever late for an appointment, we'll credit your account $20. it's our promise to you. we're doing everything we can to give you the best experience possible. because we should fit into your life. not the other way around. >> i'm josh rushing and you're watching talk to al jazeera. i'm speaking this week with acclaimed public interest lawyer and author of "just mercy," bryan stevenson.
>> i think about your life. you went to harvard. not a cheap degree, right? >> mm hmm you come out. probably had an opportunity for some high-paying jobs. you go to the south, where you're not really from. then you go to defend people that no one cares about down on death row in alabama. and then you defend the mentally ill. then you defend children across america, 13 year olds, who've been given life without parole, all the way to the supreme court, multiple times, u.s. supreme court. why you? >> i think you grow up poor. you grow up in the segregated parts. and then people come in and change things for you. and you just begin to develop some consciousness that you owe something to somebody. and then, for me, it gets deeper, right? and i didn't appreciate this at the beginning when i went to harvard law school, i'd never met a lawyer.
i didn't have any idea what lawyers did, really. i was just tryin' to figure out how to stay in school. and i was really alarmed at the models of advocacy that i was being presented with until i met these lawyers down in the deep south who were animated by the work of defending people on death row. and that starts to kind of accumulate and accumulate. and for me, it just becomes an opportunity to do justice. and i think my whole life, when you experience injustice, when you feel like you're being treated unfairly, when you feel like you're being excluded unfairly, you want justice. and you want to do justice. my parents were humiliated on a regular basis, because of those signs that said "white" and "colored." and they would carry that pain and anguish. and so you want to do justice. and we've taken down those signs largely. we don't lynch people in the same way that we used to. we don't have enslavement in the same way. but we still have injustice. and so i feel like i'm supposed to do something about injustice. and whether it's a little tiny
thing like just sitting with someone who's been victimized because of their race or their poverty or a big thing like arguing a case at the supreme court, they all feel the same to me. they may look big in one space and small in another, but they feel equally important. and for me, that's not, like, somethin' i have to do. it's something i feel privileged to do. >> bryan stevenson, thank you so much. >> oh you're very welcome. >> appreciate it. >> yeah, you're welcome.