Social Justice Rules

Last night I heard the clarion call of justice from the prophetic Bryan Stevenson, death row lawyer and author of Just Mercy, at B’nai Jeshurun with my book club. Here was his message:

1.Get closer to the poor.
2. Change the narratives.
3. Have hope.
4. Do uncomfortable and inconvenient things.

I elaborate on each point below.

  1. “Get proximate,” is the term he used. Stevenson talked about his grandmother’s hugs and how he felt her tight squeeze for hours afterwards.  When they were separated, she would ask,”SnapseedDo you still feel me hugging you?” We must, too,  embrace one another. Even on her death bed, his grandma squeezed his hand.

2. Addiction and dependency are health care problems and the criminal justice system is not equipped to be a healing place for ill people.

We must not be governed by fear and anger, but by compassion for the suffering.

Also, children are not “super predators.” They are worthy of our protection — they must not be tried or sentenced as adults.

And, let’s face it, he said, we must recognize we live in a post- genocidal world. The United States has committed atrocities. Other countries — South Africa, Rwanda, Germany — confess and learn from their crimes against humanity. Citizens of the United States ought to remember and reflect on our history of the attempted extinction of Native Americans and the reality of the slavery of African Americans.

His remark on ‘making America great again,’ — ‘What decade, would, I, as an African American, want to return to?’ — drew applause.

3. “Injustice prevails when hopelessness persists – your hope is your superpower,” Stevenson said. As my friend Jean noted, this makes sense on a personal level, too. After all, we can not seek changes in our lives if we do not believe change is possible.

4. “Why do we want to kill all the broken people?” ‘It’s a broken system. We have to get to know each other — because we are all broken.’ Personally, I have always been against the death penalty because I have known that grace and redemption are possible. We must not look exclusively at what the indicted have done, but what we, as a society, are doing to the incarcerated. As a people, do we really want to kill people?

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth but justice.” And we cannot measure our success the same ways others do (simply by our financial gain).

In answering a question from the group about how to persuade people to our point of view, Stevenson spoke about meeting people where they are. Listening.

He noted that politicians have much trouble apologizing. “Saying I’m sorry does not make you weak. It makes you strong. We don’t do sorry well.” The crowd laughed when he noted that we can learn from couples married for 50 years:  ‘They have learned to apologize.’

Stevenson said that the U.S. needs Truth and Reconciliation like in South Africa. This reminded me of the book, Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority by Tim Wise who starts by saying, basically, that as a country, we are asked to ‘Remember the Alamo’ and ‘Never Forget 9/11,’ but when the topic of systemic enslavement for hundreds of years of African American people emerges, white people, basically, say, “Oh, get over it!” This is why, I believe, his museum, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the lynching memorial, and the study of the history of Civil Rights work in Alabama, is so important. We must never forget. We must make amends.

Another take-away: “Ask not ‘How do I help?’ but, ‘How do I serve?'”

As for the question I asked (and others too) on the new make up of the Supreme Court, he said, “They (the justices) cannot be indifferent to suffering.”

I woke this morning with so much hope — hundreds of people were at this event and the message was energizing. Our book club even talked about heading to Alabama for a long weekend to visit the new museum.

If he’s ever giving a talk in your area, go learn from Bryan Stevenson, an amazing and motivating speaker. His delivery was impassioned; he spoke without notes and without rancor.

His message was clear: “Stay on the side of love.” ‘We cannot go to the side of hate.’  As for me, just for today, I will not give up fighting for justice. My dream is to someday see Bryan Stevenson on the Supreme Court.

Until then, my friend, continue to beat the drum for justice.


Jury Duty

Although I cannot discuss the criminal trial I am being considered for, I can disclose what happened in the hallway.

Apparently, a very large light-skinned bald man (Large Man) ran out of his courtroom and ran towards the elevator bank and a set of open windows.

We were on the 13th floor. (The building does not have a 12th floor, but has a 13th floor? What?)

Earlier, I had been talking to Juliana on the phone from that very windowsill. I had been sitting, taking notes when a glamorous cop told me, shaking her head, “Do not sit on the windowsill.” I complied.

I swear. At that time, I had thought, someone could so easily jump out these windows.

And that, I believe, was the Large Man’s intent. I did not see him run, pursued by cops. I was in a nearby stairwell, (again, on the phone). We were on break from this loooooong jury selection process.

But I did hear and see a cop came running down the stairs next to me. I followed him. There was some police action right in the hallway.

Another juror told me that she saw it all — the Large Man, hand-cuffed, running down the hall with several cops in pursuit. When he climbed up on the windowsill, they pulled him down. I did hear the thump on the marble when the Large Man hit the marble floor.

The Large Man started screaming. Another cop told me later that the Large Man was screaming to get his handcuffs off, but the court officers could not comply. (My fellow juror told me he wore two sets of handcuffs.) Another officer shoo-ed us out of eye shot. But later, he told us, it was for our own protection, and not because Large Man was being hurt.

All 50 or so of us jurors looked at each other, slightly worried, eyeing the elevator bank, where all this commotion was happening, until they wheeled the Large Man on a stretcher out through the service elevator.

I said to my fellow juror, “That must’ve been traumatic to see him up on the windowsill, wanting to jump.”

She said, “Didn’t see much. I got out of the way in case the cops had to shoot him.”

I know I mostly blog about how much I love NYC and how beautiful and safe NYC is. And you can see from my photos of trees, flowers, picnics, museums, and Broadway shows, it’s true. But I guess I must admit there is a seamy side to the city. Fortunately, I only see this side every four years when I serve my stint on jury duty.

This was the surreptitious photo I took of the incident — after the cops told us, basically, ‘Move along. Nothing to see here, folks.’ And this incident is why jury service at the criminal courts in Manhattan is not for the faint of heart.