On Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy.

On Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy.

9780812984965Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy was published over a year ago, but the queue at my local library was incredibly long.  I didn’t get to borrow the book until last week.  Three days later, I was done — if I didn’t have parenting duties to attend to, I assume I would’ve finished within a day.  It’s a phenomenal book, one for which I would’ve been happy to skip class during my student days.

If you haven’t read it yet, you should.  To help you out, why don’t I slather this post with helpful links?

Even if you’ve read Just Mercy, maybe you’d appreciate a link directing you to the “Get Involved” page of the Equal Justice Initiative.

While reading Just Mercy, I felt teary-eyed many times … as early as page 11, when Stevenson describes his experience visiting a death row prisoner as a law student.  At the end the visit, the gruffly manhandled prisoner took great efforts to cheer Stevenson.  Many emotionally-charged scenes appear throughout the book.

One of the most powerful occurs during a judicial hearing for a wrongfully-condemned man.  Stevenson received three days in court to present the evidence that the condemned man was innocent and only a blatant miscarriage of justice had led to his conviction, being sentenced to death, and spending six years on death row.  The State’s judicial team must’ve been shocked by the preponderance of evidence of the condemned man’s innocence, and was clearly shocked by the number of supporters who came to observe the trial — there was little security on the first day, but on the second day black visitors were denied entrance to the courtroom and forced to file through a metal detector and past an intimidating police dog.

For visitors who’d suffered police abuses in the past, this was too much.  Stevenson describes consoling an elderly woman who broke:

          “Mrs. Williams, it’s all right,” I said.  “They shouldn’t have done what they did.  Please don’t worry about it.”  I put my arm around her and gave her a hug.

          “No, no, no, Attorney Stevenson.  I was meant to be in that courtroom, I was supposed to be in that courtroom.”

          “It’s okay, Mrs. Williams, it’s okay.”

          “No, sir, I was supposed to be there and I wanted to be there.  I tried, I tried, Lord knows I tried, Mr. Stevenson.  But when I saw that dog–”  She shook her head and stared away with a distant look.  “When I saw that dog, I thought about 1965, when we gathered at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and tried to march for our voting rights.  They beat us and put those dogs on us.”  She looked back to me sadly.  “I tried to move, Attorney Stevenson, I wanted to move, but I just couldn’t do it.”

march to montgomery 471-030814.jpg

          As she spoke it seemed like a world of sadness surrounded her.  She let go of my hand and walked away.  I watched her get into a car with some other people I had seen in the courtroom earlier.”

. . .

I arrived at the court early the next morning to make sure there were no problems.  As it turned out, very few people showed up to support the State.  And though the metal detector and the dog were still there, no deputy stood at the door to block black people from entering the courtroom.  Inside the courtroom, I noticed one of the women I’d seen leave with Mrs. Williams the night before.  She came up to me and introduced herself as Mrs. Williams’s daughter.  She thanked me for trying to console her mother.

          “When she got home last night, she was so upset.  She didn’t eat anything, she didn’t speak to anybody, she just went to her bedroom.  We could hear her praying all night long.  This morning she called the Reverend and begged him for another chance to be a community representative at the hearing.  She was up when I got out of bed, dressed and ready to come to court.  I told her she didn’t have to come, but she wouldn’t hear none of it.  She’s been through a lot and, well, on the trip down here she just kept saying over and over, ‘Lord, I can’t be scared of no dog, I can’t be scared of no dog.’

          I was apologizing again to the daughter for what the court officials had done the day before when suddenly there was a commotion at the courtroom door.  We both looked up and there stood Mrs. Williams.  She was once again dressed impeccably in her scarf and hat.  She held her handbag tight at her side and seemed to be swaying at the entrance.  I could hear her speaking to herself, repeating over and over again: “I ain’t scared of no dog, I ain’t scared of no dog.”  I watched as the officers allowed her to move forward.  She held her head up as she walked slowly through the metal detector, repeating over and over, “I ain’t scared of no dog.”  It was impossible to look away.  She made it through the detector and stared at the dog.  Then, loud enough for everyone to hear, she belted out: “I ain’t scared of no dog!”

Capture.JPG

          She moved past the dog and walked into the courtroom.  Black folks who were already inside beamed with joy as she passed them.  She sat down near the front of the courtroom and turned to me with a broad smile and announced, “Attorney Stevenson, I’m here!”

I hope this passage helps convince you what a powerful book Just Mercy is, because it cost me a lot to include it.  I do a lot of my work in the snack lounge at the YMCA while N plays in the childcare room, and tears were dripping from my eyes while I typed this passage.  I must’ve looked ridiculous.  And yet, my suffering is small change — think what it must’ve cost Stevenson to write this.  Think what it must’ve cost Mrs. Williams to live it.

Stevenson also describes his work to enact sentencing reform for children.  Before Stevenson’s efforts, many children were condemned to die in prison, even children whose rash actions had not resulted in anyone’s death.

K & I would be fools to organize our lives the way we do if youths weren’t incredibly malleable.  The entire motivation for education is that it’s possible for people to learn and improve.  I think all people, at all ages, are capable of surpassing their past, but this should be blatantly obvious with children.

And yet, if not for the efforts of Stevenson and his team at the Equal Justice Initiative, many children would still be condemned to death in prison for mistakes made at thirteen or fourteen years of age.  Even his team’s eventual victories are bittersweet because so much suffering has occurred … and still goes on today.  From Just Mercy:

          Ian spent eighteen years in uninterrupted solitary confinement.

          Once a month, Ian was allowed to make a phone call.  Soon after he arrived in prison, on Christmas Eve in 1992, he used his call to reach out to Debbie Baigre, the woman he shot.  When she answered the phone, Ian spilled out an emotional apology, expressing his deep regret and remorse.  Ms. Baigre was stunned to hear from the boy who had shot her, but she was moved by his call.  She had physically recovered from the shooting and was working to become a successful bodybuilder and had started a magazine focused on women’s health.  She was a determined woman who didn’t let the shooting derail her from her goals.  That first surprising phone call led to a regular correspondence.  Ian had been neglected by his family before the crime took place.  He’d been left to wander the streets with little parental or family support.  In solitary, he met few prisoners or correctional staff.  As he sank deeper into despair, Debbie Baigre became on of the few people in Ian’s life who encouraged him to remain strong.

Capture
Solitary cell at Alcatraz.  Photo by Wally Gobetz on Flickr.

          After communicating with Ian for several years, Baigre wrote the court and told the judge who sentenced Ian of her conviction that his sentence was too harsh and that his conditions of confinement were inhumane.  She tried to talk to prison officials and gave interviews to the press to draw attention to Ian’s plight.  “No one knows more than I do how destructive and reckless Ian’s crime was.  But what we’re currently doing to him is mean and irresponsible,” she told one reporter.  “When this crime was committed, he was a child, a thirteen-year-old boy with a lot of problems, no supervision, and no help available.  We are not children.”

          The courts ignored Debbie Baigre’s call for a reduced sentence.

It’s hard to read something like that without wanting to reach out to somebody unfairly stuck in solitary.  If you’re near Bloomington, you could volunteer with either New Life New Leaf or the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project.  If you live elsewhere, you could look for volunteer opportunities in your area or donate to Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative.

Bryan StevensonBecause, as Stevenson describes beautifully in his book, we all have an incentive to reach out and help others.  By setting aside time to put the needs of others first, we have an opportunity to be our full selves.  In Stevenson’s words:

It took me a while to sort it out, but I realized something sitting there while Jimmy Dill [an intellectually disabled man with a deep stutter and a rotten childhood who shot someone during a drug deal.  The victim survived.  But then, nine or ten months later, after being abandoned by his wife, the shooting victim fell sick and died.  Which let the state charge Dill with murder and seek the death penalty, since Dill had not yet been tried for the shooting] was being killed at Holman prison.  After working for more than twenty-five years, I understood that I don’t do what I do because it’s required or necessary or important.  I don’t do it because I have no choice.

          I do what I do because I’m broken, too.

. . .

          We have a choice.  We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing.  Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.

I hope some of what I’ve written convinces you to read Just Mercy.  (Did you miss the last few links?  Here’s one more!).

I’d like to end this post by mentioning that Bryan Stevenson is an excellent candidate for inclusion in the Heroic Human Rights Workers trading card game.

Capture
Lydia Cacho, a personal hero. Photo by Steve Rhodes on Flickr.

I’ve previously mentioned that Lydia Cacho, who has been tortured by murderous cartels for her efforts to fight sex slavery, ought to be featured on a trading card.  When I finally set aside Just Mercy for a few minutes to go jogging, I spent a while thinking about what their card game should be like.

I think the game will turn out nice.  It’ll take a year or more to put together, because I’m unfortunately working on too many other projects at the moment, but here’s a sketchy description:

Theodoor_Rombouts_-_Joueurs_de_cartesIt’ll be a cooperative game for a few human players.  There’ll be a central deck with dystopian events & circumstances drawn from our world, things like human trafficking, innocents sentenced to death, police brutality, politicians engaging in politics as usual, etc.  And the players will use decks they’ve put together (subject to certain cost restraints — if you’ve added too many pricey, powerful cards, you’ll be required to fill out your deck with zero-cost public defender cards) to save the citizens of the world.

Maybe that sounds too sledgehammer-y moralizing, but I’m fairly certain that the Ferretcraft team can take the idea and make it fun.  It’ll need trigger warnings and all, what with the bleak, scary things that would have to be included — there are, of course, bleak and scary things described in Just Mercy and Cacho’s Slavery, Inc. — but I think it’s acceptable to depict horror for good ends.

In any case, it’s very clear that the Bryan Stevenson card is one you’ll always be happy to see.

On attempts to see the world through other eyes.

On attempts to see the world through other eyes.

flowers

Most writers spend a lot of time thinking about how others see the world.  Hopefully most non-writers spend time thinking about this too.  It’s easier to feel empathy for the plights of others if you imagine seeing through their eyes.

So I thought it was pretty cool that the New York Times published an article about processing images to represent how they might appear to other species.

The algorithm shifts the color distribution of images to highlight which objects appear most distinct for an animal with different photoreceptors.  I thought it was cool even though the processing they describe fails in many ways to convey how differently various animals perceive the world.

For one thing, image processing can only affect visuals.  Another species may rely more on sound, scent, taste (although perhaps it’s cheating to list both scent and taste — they are essentially the same sense, chemodetection, with the difference being that humans respond more sensitively, and to a wider variety of chemicals, with our noses than our tongues), touch, sensing magnetic fields, etc.

If we assume that other animals will also place maximal trust in the detection of inbound electromagnetic radiation from the narrow band we’ve deemed “the visual spectrum,” we can fool ourselves regarding their most likely interpretations.  For an example, you could read my previous post about why rattlesnakes might assume that humans employ chameleon-like camouflage (underlying idea courtesy of Jesus Rivas & Gordon Burghardt).

The second problem with assuming that an image with shifted colors represents how another animal would view the world is on the level of neurological processing.  When a neurotypical human looks at an image and something resembles a face, that portion of the image will immediately dominate the viewer’s attention; a huge amount of human brainpower is devoted to processing faces.  Similarly, some dogs, if another dog enters their visual field, have trouble seeing anything else.  And bees: yes, they see more blues & ultraviolets than we do, but it’s also likely that flowers dominate their attention. I imagine it’s something like the image below, taken with N and her Uncle Max on a recent walk. Although, depending on your personality, you might have some dog-style neurological processing, too.

unnamed

Even amongst humans this type of perceptual difference exists.  A friend of mine who does construction (ranked the second-best apprentice pipefitter in the nation the year he finished his training, despite being out at a buddy’s bachelor party, i.e. not sleeping, all night before the competition), when he walks into a room, immediately notices all exposed ductwork, piping, etc.  Most people care so little about these features as to render them effectively invisible.  And I, after three weeks of frantic itching and a full course of methylprednisolone, could glance at any landscape in northern California and immediately point out all the poison oak.  My daughter can spot a picture or statue of an owl from disconcertingly far away and won’t stop yelling “owww woo!” until I see it too.

The color processing written up in the New York Times, though, was automated.  Given the current state of computerized image recognition, you probably can’t write a script that would magnify dogs or flowers or poison oak effectively.  Maybe in a few years.

There’s one last big problem, though.  And the last problem is about the colors alone.  There is simply no way to re-color images so that a dichromatic (colloquially, “colorblind”) human would see the world like a trichromat.

(A brief aside: Shortly after I wrote the above sentence, I read an article about glasses marketed to colorblind people to let them see color.  And the basic idea is clever, but I don’t think it invalidates my claim.

glasses

Here’s how it works: most colorblind people are dichromats, meaning they have two different flavors of color receptors.  Colored light stimulates these receptors differentially: green light stimulates green receptors a lot and blue receptors a little.  Blue light stimulates blue receptors a lot and green receptors a little.  The brain processes the ratio of receptor stimulation to say, “Ah ha!  That object is blue!”

A typical human, however, is a trichromat.  This means that the brain uses three datapoints to determine an object’s color instead of two.  The red and green receptors absorb maximally near the same part of the spectrum, though… the red vs. blue & green vs. blue ratios are generally very similar.  So the third receptor type mostly helps a trichromat distinguish between red and green.

This means a dichromat will have a narrower range of the electromagnetic spectrum that they are good at distinguishing color within.  For a dichromat, reds and greens both will be characterized by “green receptor stimulated a lot, blue receptor only a little.”

Now, if you imagine that the visual spectrum is number line that runs from 0 to 100, a dichromat would be good at distinguishing colors in the first 0 to 50 segment, and not good at distinguishing color beyond that point — everything with green wavelength, ca. 500 nanometers, and longer, would appear to be green.

But you could take that 0 to 100 number line and just divide everything by 2.  Then every color would look “wrong” — no object would appear to be the same color as it was before you put on the wacky glasses — and you’d be less able to distinguish between close shades — if two colors needed to be 15 nanometers apart to seem different, now they’d need to be 30 nanometers apart — but a dichromat could distinguish between colors over the same full visual spectrum as trichromats.

That’s roughly how the glasses should work — inbound light is shifted such that all colors are made blue & greenish, and the visual spectrum is condensed).

Of course, even though you can’t change an image in a way that will allow you (I’m assuming that you, dear reader, are a trichromat.  But my assumption has a 10% chance of being wrong.  My apologies!  I care about you, too, dichromatic reader!) and a dichromatic friend to see it the same way.  But you can change your friend.  You can inject a DNA-delivering retrovirus into your friend’s eyeball, and after a short neurological training period, you and your friend will see colors the same way!

Only in the eyeball!
Only in the eyeball!

It’s possible that your friend won’t like you any more if you do this.  But here’s how it works: the retrovirus encodes for the flavor of photoreceptor that none of your friend’s cone cells were expressing.  Upon infection, the virus will initiate production of that receptor… so now a subpopulation of cone cells will be sending new signals to the brain.  They’ll be stimulated by different wavelengths of light than they were before.  And brains, magically plastic things that they are, rapidly rewire themselves to incorporate any new data they have access to.

(If you’re interested in this sort of thing, you should look up biohacking.  Like implanting magnets in your fingers to “feel” electric or magnetic fields.  But I’m not going to link to anything.  Wrestling your friend to the ground in order to inject recombinant DNA into his eyeball?  That makes me smile.  But slicing open your own fingertips to put magnets under the skin?  That’s too creepy for me).

If a brain is suddenly receiving different signals after exposure to red versus green light, it’ll use that information.  Which means: Color vision achieved!  Unfortunately, viral DNA integrates randomly, so a weird eye cancer might’ve been achieved as well.  You win some, you lose some.

What we call “color vision,” though, is still only trichromatic.  With three flavors of cone cells, humans can do a pretty good job distinguishing colors from about 400 to 700 nanometers.  But some species have more flavors of cone cells, which means they can distinguish the world’s colors more precisely.  Even some humans are tetrachromats, although their fourth cone cell flavor is maximally stimulated by light midway between red and green, a part of the electromagnetic spectrum that trichromatic humans are already good at parsing.  And tetrachromatic humans are rare: to the best of my knowledge no languages have a word for that secret color between red and green.  I don’t know any words for it, at least, but maybe this too is a secret guarded by those who see it.

Still, no amount of image processing would allow you, dear reader, even if you’re one of those rare tetrachromatic individuals, to see the world in all the spangled glory seen by a starling or a peacock.  This graph shows the stimulation of each flavor of cone cell receptor by different wavelengths of light.

bird eyes

And even the splendorous beauty seen by birds pales in comparison to the way we thought mantis shrimps perceive the world.  Because mantis shrimps, see, have twelve flavors of photoreceptors, which means that if their brains processed colors the same ways ours do, by considering the ratio of cone cell flavors that are stimulated by incident light, they’d be exquisitely sensitive to color.  Here: compare the spectral sensitivity graph for humans and starlings, shown above, to the equivalent graph for mantis shrimps.  This makes humans look pathetic!

mantis shrimp spectral sensitivity

If you haven’t see it, you should definitely read this cartoon about mantis shrimp perception from The Oatmeal.

oatmealIt’s possible that mantis shrimps process color differently from humans, though.  Instead of computing ratios of cone-flavor activation to determine the color of an object, they might decide that an object is the color of whatever single cone flavor is most stimulated.  In other words, while humans use stimulation ratios from our mere three flavors of cone cells to identify thousands of hues, a species with a dozen photoreceptor flavors might regard every object as being one of those dozen discrete colors.

Indeed, that’s what a recent study from Thoen et al. (“A Different Form of Color Vision in Mantis Shrimp”) suggests.  They trained mantis shrimps to attack a particular color of light in order to win a treat, then tested how well it could distinguish that color from nearby wavelengths.  In their hands, the shrimps needed approximately 50 nanometers separating two colors to distinguish them, whereas humans, with our meager three flavors of photoreceptors, can often distinguish colors as close as 1 or 2 nanometers apart.

Still, it’s hard to know exactly what a shrimp is thinking.  Testing human cognition and perception is easier because we can, you know, talk to each other.  Describe what we see.

With humans, the biggest barrier to empathy is that sometimes we forget to listen.