The phoenix falls into fire, burns, and dies. Then rises again, reborn.
The phoenix triumphs over adversity. Life gets hard, excruciatingly hard. Everything falls to shit. But the phoenix rises again.
Or so we hope.
Sometimes, the fire burns too hot. And then the phoenix dies and stays dead. Sometimes ash isn’t a phoenix egg.
Sometimes ash is only ash.
Here’s a poem by my friend Satish:
COULD I BE
– a peacock, so vibrant
& bright, but vulnerable
for lack of flight, a
turkey that flutters
searching for height.
A dove that flies so
high, so pure & clean.
I’m none of these.
Just searching for a
balance – in between.
Maybe a phoenix, mystical,
reborn from fire &
Satish wrote this poem while he was living inside the dormitory on the ground floor of the Monroe County Jail. This is an awful little space. It’s about the size of my living room. Twelve men lived there. They slept on bunk beds. The fluorescent lights were turned off only from midnight until four a.m. The single window, a tiny rectangle of wire-reinforced glass inside the steel door, faced the subterranean booking desk – no glimpse of the outdoors. There were two steel tables bolted to the floor, and each table had six steel stools curving out from beneath it, like a pair of silver-skinned twice-amputated octopuses where the men could sit to eat their meals.
The jail dorm shared a wall with soft booking – “the drunk tank.” Much of the time, someone with mental health issues would be in there, hollering. If someone in the tank decides to stand there rhythmically kicking the steel door, the noise resounds through your skull like the repeated cocking of a shotgun inside your brain. All thoughts disappear but hate. At least, that was my experience, and I never spent more than two hours at a time inside that space.
Satish was there for months.
But he stayed chipper. It was always a pleasure to go in there with a stack of poems and have the chance to talk with him. On his good days, his enthusiasm was infectious, leaning in close to ask questions or banter about religion, his huge eyes gleaming like polished fishbowls.
The saddest poem he wrote was about cheating on his girlfriend with an old man – “old man” is slang for heroin.
The other men in the dorm loved having him around. In such a small space, where people are going through the worst time of their lives and yet are expected to endure the constant presence of a roomful of other men who’re also going through the worst time of their lives, emotions fray easily. Twice when I came in there, my buddy Max had ugly blue bruises covering his face.
“We had a little disagreement,” Max would tell me. And he’d mention the name of somebody who’d been in the dorm the week before, but had since been moved to a different block.
But nobody had trouble with Satish.
Nobody except the judge.
Max told me, “Judge ______ gave him this deal, Satish was on this drug court thing, and she was going to pretend to care. She said, ‘write me a letter, write me a letter and convince me why I should go easy on you.’ But if she’s going to go easy, why would she need that letter? So Satish wrote this letter, he basically wrote to her, ‘Fuck you, just do what you’re going to do.’ “
The thing is, we all thought he would walk. The case, as far as I knew it, was pretty weak. He had come home, he’d lost his keys, and he was high. He thought he could sleep it off, go look for his keys in the morning, and so he tried to get in through the window.
Except he picked the wrong window. He was climbing in the neighbors’, and they freaked and called the police. The cops came. By then they figured out who he was, everybody was confused, but mistakes happen. Mistakes happen more when people are on drugs, but, regardless, mistakes happen.
The neighbors didn’t want to press charges. They weren’t going to cooperate with a case.
In the United States, prosecutors have a lot of leeway, though. Doesn’t matter what the police report says, doesn’t matter what the witnesses say, the prosecutor gets to decide what charges to file. They get to pile charges on as leverage for plea bargaining. They don’t have to justify which people get dog piled and which people walk free.
The prosecutor’s decisions are yet another place in our criminal justice system where racial injustice creeps in. Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that, in the eyes of the state, Satish was Black.
So, a phoenix. Maybe they’d send him away. But he could overcome adversity.
We thought he would walk. We expected that he’d go to court, then get sent home for time served.
Instead, they gave him seven years.
He was shipped off to the “Reception & Diagnostics Center.” This is where they do psychological evaluations, figure out which prison you’ll be sent to. While at reception & diagnostics, nobody can get a hold of you.
He’d been there two days when his girlfriend – mother of his two children, pregnant with their third – overdosed and died. She’d been clean a while. But after something like that – you think he’s coming out, instead they give him seven years – it’s easy to relapse.
Heroin killed her. But the courts killed her too.
He took it hard.
We volleyed letters for a while – he’d send me folded bundles, six or seven sheets that he’d written over the course of a week, and he stamped the envelopes low to dodge the postmark – but he always said that it was hard to find time to write. He was doing as many programs as he could, trying to get level-headed, trying to get out. Most programs will give you a time cut.
They’d given him seven years, but he was out after another two. Lots of guys have tried to explain the math of criminal justice time to me; I have never understood.
Max said, “He was in a pretty good place, at first. I mean, he had a handle on it, what’d happened with Chelsea, everything that happened. But when he started using …”
He was trying to rise. Twenty-nine, and rebuilding his life.
But sometimes the fire burns too hot. Sometimes it burns and burns and the ash stops being an egg. Sometimes ash is only ash.
Last week, my kids and I visited my father in Indianapolis. We went to a playground near his apartment.
Playgrounds had re-opened the day before, so my kids were super excited. They’d gone almost three months without climbing much. And the playground near my father’s apartment is excellent, with a variety of nets and terraces suspended from platforms near the canal.
When we arrived – at about eleven a.m. on an eighty-five degree day – we noticed a child sprawled face down in the shade at the other end of the playground, apparently asleep.
My own eldest child promptly started climbing toward the highest slide, which was going to be quite difficult for her. I followed her up, ready to provide encouragement whenever she felt too nervous, and to catch her if she slipped.
My four-year-old hopped onto a swing.
My father, temporarily free of supervisory duties, crossed the playground. In addition to us and the sleeping child, one other family was playing – a woman my age with a baby strapped to her chest and a four-year-old careening in front of her.
My father asked if the sleeping child had come with them. The woman shook her head. So my father asked a few more people, calling down to folks who were sitting on benches near the water.
Nobody knew who this child was.
My father knelt down and gently woke him, to ask if he was okay. My father is a medical doctor. Helping people is what he likes to do.
When roused, the child had a seizure. His body shook. His eyes went stark white, having rolled all the way to the side.
My father called 911.
But then, after about thirty seconds, the child’s seizure ended. And, unlike the fallout from a typical epileptic seizure, the child sat up immediately, alert and unconfused.
My father told the dispatcher that maybe things were fine – no need to send an ambulance – then hung up to talk to the child.
“Are you okay?” my father asked.
“Oh, that’s my sugar high,” the child said. “Some people get a sugar high from eating sugar, but I get that when I sleep. It happens a lot, just when I sleep.”
“I think you had a seizure.”
“Well, I just call that my sugar high.”
“Do you take any medications?” my father asked.
“Only a little, sometimes, for my ADHD.” And then the child started to climb up toward the high slide of the playground, near me.
A few moments later, a drone began to hover near us. I’m not fond of drones, mechanically whirring through the air. And I’ve never even had reason to feel traumatized! They must be so terrifying for people who’ve survived contemporary war zones, or who’ve been subject to drone-enhanced policing.
“What’s that noise?” my six-year-old asked.
“It’s a robot,” I said. “A flying robot. See, over there. Sometimes they put cameras in them.”
“It’s called a drone,” the formerly sleeping child clarified. “I used to work with drones. I’m an inventor. But that person should be careful. That drone is over the water, and when drones crash into the water they can short circuit and catch fire.”
“You like drones?” I asked.
“I like to build stuff. Some drones you can control with your mind, like telekinesis, with a strap …”
“Oh, like an electroencephalogram?” I asked. “We played a game at a museum once, you wear a headband and try to think a ping-pong ball across the table.”
“You can make a drone fly that way, too. But those are tricky because if you laugh they crash.”
“You wouldn’t want to laugh while it was over the water!” my six-year-old exclaimed, giggling.
“You wouldn’t,” the child agreed, sagely. And then he turned to me to ask, “Say, do you know where the nearest McDonalds is? My dad wants me to get him something.”
I shook my head, apologizing. “We’re visiting my father, I don’t know where anything is around here. But you could try asking him.”
When asked, my father shook his head, too. His apartment is in a rather fancy part of of Indianapolis, it seems. “I don’t know of one … I don’t think I’ve seen a McDonalds around here.”
“Well, that’s okay, I’ll get something at a gas station instead. Thanks!”
And with that, the child jogged away. I never even learned his name.
My father walked over to me. “I’m worried about him,” he said. “That was a tonic-clonic seizure! I don’t know how he came out of that feeling lucid. I mean, he’s obviously a bright kid, but …”
“It didn’t look like he had a phone with him,” I said. “I don’t know, suddenly needing food … I’d guess schizophrenia, but that’d be really strange for an eight-year-old.”
“I know,” my father said. “But something’s wrong.”
On that, we definitely agreed. A lot of somethings might be wrong if a third grader is napping at a city playground on his own.
And I didn’t help him.
In retrospect, I’m still not sure what I should have done.
When my father thought the child was experiencing an acute medical emergency, he called 911. But then he canceled the request when the problem seemed chronic, not urgent. The arrival of an ambulance probably would’ve caused more harm than good, because a trip to the ER is often followed by egregious bills.
A few weeks ago, my spouse woke up with blurry vision. This might be nothing serious, or it might be the sign of a detached retina, so we drove her to the ER. After two hours of waiting, a doctor spent three minutes with her, visually examining my spouse’s eye while shining a light on it.
Thankfully, nothing was wrong.
We received a bill for $1,600. After requesting an itemized bill, they split the charges into a $200 ER fee and $1,400 for “ED LEVEL 3 REGIONAL.”
To diagnose a child who’d just emerged from an atypical seizure, they might levy poverty-inducing charges, which is why my father canceled with the dispatcher. He volunteers at the free clinic because he knows how many people are priced out of access to health care in our country.
But, if not a hospital, who could we call for help?
Currently, there’s a big push to defund the police. In many cities, the budget for policing is so large, and the budget for other public services so small, that police officers are de facto social workers. Which doesn’t make anybody happy.
In a recent New York Timesconversation, Vanita Gupta said, “When I did investigations for the Justice Department, I would hear police officers say: ‘I didn’t sign up to the police force to be a social worker. I don’t have that training.’ “
Police officers are tasked with responding to mental health crises, despite receiving little training in psychology, counseling, or even de-escalation. Police officers use their budget to combat the downstream effects of poverty – which often includes theft, vandalism, and domestic violence – without a commensurate amount being spent on addressing the poverty itself. Police budgets dwarf the amounts spent on jobs programs and public work projects.
Many police officers join the force because they want to help people. They’re motivated by the same altruism that inspired my father to practice medicine. But just as hospital billing, as a system, undermines the altruism of individual doctors (“In this seminar, we’re going to train you to optimize billing. If you perform diagnostics on a third organ system, we elevate patient care to the preferred reimbursement tier.”), American policing, as a system, exacerbates racial injustice and inequality.
Even a charming, well-spoken, eight-year-old Black child has good reason to fear the police. I don’t think any good would have come from us calling the cops.
And so I’m left wondering – what would it be like if we did have an agency to call? What if, instead of police officers with guns, we had social workers, counselors, and therapists patrolling our streets?
Maybe then it would have been easy to help this child.
As is, I did nothing.
Feature image: photograph of sidewalk chalk by Ted Eytan, Washington D.C.
Recently, my hometown of Bloomington’s farmers market has been covered Fox News and The New York Times. Not because the vegetables sold here are particularly deserving of national attention. The market was deemed newsworthy because one of the farm stands is run by outspoken white supremacists.
Although Bloomington is a fairly liberal college town, this region has a sordid history of hate. The national Klan headquarters is less than 30 minutes away – when I was in college, the campus diversity coordinators warned students not to stop in that town, not even to buy gas. Even right here in Bloomington, there was a fracas at the local high school recently because some students decided to honor a friend who’d died by using cremation ashes to print bumper stickers – but they printed stickers of the Confederate flag.
Teaching poetry in the
local jail has made me much better at recognizing supremacist imagery. Most people know that the Confederate flag is
bad news, but I’ve gotten to see a wider range of hateful symbols tattooed onto
COs bring twelve people to
each week’s class – often two to four will be Black (in a town where the total
population is approximately 4% Black or African-American), and the rest are
usually white guys. It’s pretty common
for one or two of the white guys to have visible supremacist
tattoos. Which doesn’t even include
questionable stuff like the dude who got an poke and stick of the words “White
Trash” in elaborate two-in-tall cursive letters during his time there. Tattooing runs afoul of the jail’s “no self
mutilation” policy, but most COs studiously overlook the guys’ rashy red skin
and burgeoning designs.
When I’m there, we often
read poetry that directly addresses racial injustice. I’ve brought stuff by Reginald Dwayne Betts,
Ross Gay, Terrance Hayes, Adrian Matejka, and Tracy Smith. Sometimes these lead to good
discussions. Sometimes our class gets
In one of the poems titled “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” Hayes pulls off a stunning trick. The same line is included twice, but the word “haunted” changes from a verb into an adjective after the language slides into a less formal diction. It’s a beautiful moment. The first time I brought this poem, we talked about the clinginess of the past, the way not only our own histories but also the histories of our forebears can stalk us through time.
The next time I brought
this poem, several guys reacted by saying that Black people don’t talk right. Then they went off about sagging pants. All this from southern-accented white guys
whose missing-toothed, meth-mouthed mumbles and guffaws I could barely
We had to quickly move on.
Or there was the time when
we read Betts’ “Elegy with a City in It,” a fantastic poem that uses a spare,
stark set of words and sounds to simultaneously evoke both the deprivations of
the inner city and the epic grandeur of The Iliad, which uses a
similarly constrained lexicon.
Many gone to the grave:
by blood, lost in the
of all that is awful:
think crack and
what time steals,
or steals time: black
nights when men offed in
the streets awed
If you read the poem
aloud, you’re chanting the same phonemes over and over, but their meanings
twist and turn as they spill from your tongue.
That’s what I wanted to discuss.
Instead, a few guys
latched onto lines like
Mario, Charles, they all
the inside of a coffin …
and this offended them because “white people have it bad, too!” As though Betts could not describe Black pain without trivializing their own. Soon somebody was saying “All lives matter” and that he’d voted for our current president. This guy was in jail because he’d been caught selling heroin to support his own habit. The president he’d voted for had recently recommended executing drug dealers.
Somebody else shook his
head and muttered, “y’all are fucking [stupid].”
We moved on.
In my classes, I work with a wide range of ages – sometimes guys as young as seventeen, sometimes men in their sixties. My spouse, as a high school teacher, works with younger people – anywhere from fourteen to eighteen years old. But ideology can set in early. My spouse has had students whose families were prominent in the Klan.
At the beginning of the
year, she asks each student to fill in the paper silhouette of a head with
words and pictures of what inspires them to succeed. She then posts these along the ceiling of her
classroom. Several times, she’s had to
ask kids to erase supremacist imagery.
So it isn’t terribly
surprising that some farmers at our local market have hateful beliefs. Right-wing supremacist movements are major
terrorist organizations in this country, and they do a lot of recruiting. As our nation has become slightly less
horrible, though, many of these people learned to be circumspect. They maintain a divide between their private
and public language.
People who rely upon
public, liberal venues like our farmers market can’t be too outspoken with
Indeed, the white supremacist farmers who were recently outed tried to be circumspect. But they must have felt lonely, and they grew too careless. Under a pseudonym, they posted on the Identity Evropa message board. This is a website devoted to the ideologies that have inspired the vast majority of terrorism in the United States. Theoretically, this is a venue where people get to cultivate their hatred anonymously. But one of their compatriots was caught painting swastikas on a synagogue (see image below) and blew their cover. Sort of. The vandal was interrogated by the FBI, and his remark unveiling the farmers’ pseudonym was buried deep in a 200-page sentencing document.
Through assiduous work, a
team of activists was able to prove that these farmers were white supremacists.
The activists who had
worked so hard to gather evidence were obviously against hate. They wanted to take action. But the plan they favored wasn’t very
flashy. They would organize a boycott of
that farm stand. They also proposed that
the city use the sellers’ farmers market fees to fund grants for people of
color, with the understanding that our nation’s long history of racism has
inequitably skewed the demographics of agricultural land holdings.
To stay at the farmers
market, the supremacists would have had to support a cause they loathed … and
they were making less and less money here.
I was told that, during the boycott, the farmers had begun padding their
bins, bringing fewer vegetables each week so that they could still appear to be
selling out their stock.
Unfortunately, the tropes
of social media have changed public discourse in our country. I assume it’s relatively uncontroversial to
claim that social media prizes style over substance. Quiet, careful plans are at a disadvantage in
the attention economy.
As word spread that these
farmers were white supremacists, patrons demanded that they be banned from our
market. People of color now felt unsafe
in that space, for obvious reasons.
There’s a difference between the perceived threat level felt by a
pale-skinned activist and by somebody who is recognizably a member of a racial
The mayor, whose spouse is
a constitutional law professor, rightly argued that the farmers would be able
to sue the city on a First Amendment case.
Still, people felt that we
had to do something more visible. Passively
allowing outspoken white supremacists to hawk their tomatoes at our market would
seem to be tacitly endorsing their political stance.
Everybody has a right to
believe whatever garbage they want. Do
you sincerely believe that people of northern European descent have a genetic
inclination toward greater intelligence?
You’re wrong, and you’re a jerk, but you’re allowed to believe that.
The problem is that white
supremacist organizations like Identity Evropa use terrorism to back their
asinine beliefs. Implicit threats of
violence, delivered by people known to stockpile military-grade weaponry, are
different from “mere” hate.
If these farmers couldn’t
be banned, then we’d hold signs in front of their booth. Eventually, a protester was arrested – the
police had asked her to stand in a designated “announcements” area instead of
in the middle of the market – and, as always happens following an arrest, her
home address was published online.
She was soon inundated
with death threats.
As coverage of the dispute increased, right-wing militia types were also drawn to our town. Three percenters, unaffiliated gun nuts, other supremacists – they began to support that farm, undermining the boycott. And these radical Protestant faux-constitutional terrorists made sufficiently credible threats of mass violence that our mayor had to shut down the entire market for two weeks at the height of the growing season. Other farmers were suffering.
Calm, careful behavior
from the original activists – assiduously combing through those lengthy, dull
documents, not to mention their efforts to infiltrate local supremacists’
in-person social circles – had undoubtably helped. Hateful ideologies were exposed, and efforts
were made to impose consequences.
But then our visible
protests made matters worse. We’ve
helped the proponents of hate to make more money.
And, now that we’ve drawn attention to them, we’ve inadvertently connected these white supremacists with their allies. They will no longer need to post on public forums, which was the only reason that activists were able to prove that they supported these ideologies in the first place. Now these supremacist farmers are invited speakers at right-wing events.
Our audience clapped for
the poems and stared aghast during our banter, which is probably as it should
We closed our set with a
piece from M.G. This poem was written in
February, before the public turmoil regarding our farmers market began. At a moment when so many of us were warily watching
that space, it seemed important to remind people that there have always been
watchful eyes gazing at the market.
The farmers market is just
down the street from our five-story county jail.
Our criminal justice system ensnares people from all walks of life. Occasionally we’ll hear about the arrest of a wealthy sociopath with a penchant for child abuse, like Jared Fogel or Jeffrey Epstein.
But, let’s face it. Justice in this country isn’t applied fairly. If you’re wealthy, your behavior has to be a lot more egregious for you to reap the same punishments as a poor person. If you look white, your behavior has to a lot more egregious for you to reap the same punishments as a black person.
There’s abundant statistical evidence to back up these claims. But the Supreme Court won’t allow any particular individual to petition for reduced punishment based on the statistical evidence. After all, prosecutors, judges, and juries ostensibly came to their decisions based on the unique details of each individual case. Just because people who resemble you are often treated unfairly doesn’t mean that you were treated unfairly, too.
Because we apply punishment so inequitably, our jails and prisons are full of people who’ve been treated poorly by the world. Compared to the average citizen, people in prison grew up with less money, received less education, experienced more trauma. And, no matter what people’s earlier lives were like, if they’re in prison, they’re not being treated well now.
So they have a lot of justifiable grievances against the dominant political, cultural, and religious beliefs of our country. Punished unfairly by their fellow Christians, people sour on Christianity. Inside walls where the demographics make it blatantly obvious that our laws are enforced in a malignantly racist way, racial tensions boil.
At Pages to Prisoners, an organization that sends free books to people inside, we get requests for stuff about Norse mythology, Odinism, and Asatru. Lots of folks ask for material to learn foreign languages – people want to feel like they’ve accomplished something during their time in prison – but I always feel skeptical when somebody wants help learning Icelandic.
Not that there’s anything wrong with Icelandic. And Norse mythology is cool! Unfortunately, a gaggle of violent white supremacists decided that Norse mythology should be the basis for their religion. Starting in the 1970s, a right-wing racist from Florida began sending “Odinist” publications into prisons.
During the thirteenth century, Christian scholars transcribed many of the old Norse myths so that they could better understand the literary allusions of old Icelandic poetry. But they didn’t record anything about ancient religious practice. We barely have any information about most ancient pagan beliefs. Anyone who wants to adopt a pre-Christian European religion now – whether it’s Wicca, Druidism, Odinism, or Celtic polytheism – is basically forced to make things up.
I have nothing against religious invention. All religions were made by human beings – there’s no a priori reason why a religion created long ago, by people who understood much less about the world than we do now, would be better than something you invent today. Sure, ancient religions have been tested by time, suggesting that they possess virtues that their practitioners found helpful over the years, but most ancient religions have their problems, too. Inaccurate cosmologies, scattered hateful passages in their texts, that sort of thing.
So I like the idea of neo-paganism. You want to find a clearing in the woods and
do some moonlit dancing? You’d rather
worship a feminine generative force than a norm-enforcing patriarchal deity? You want to exalt nature as a hearth to be
protected rather than a resource to be exploited? Go right ahead! All of that sounds pretty great to me.
neo-paganism as it’s currently practiced in prison tends to be pretty hateful.
That’s why I’ve been
working on a set of anti-racist pamphlets about Norse mythology. Currently, when people ask for The Poetic
Edda or whatever, we send a friendly letter saying that we don’t have it,
and also that we generally don’t stock that sort of thing because it runs afoul
of our anti-hate policy.
But the Norse myths are
certainly no more hateful than Biblical myths, and we send plenty of
those. The main difference is that
centuries of continued Christian practice have created a scaffolding of gentler
beliefs around the stories in the Bible.
The text of Psalm 137
states that “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little
ones against the stones.” But the
text is a tool, not the entirety of the religion. The practice of Christianity frowns upon
the murder of any human infant. Whether
you like the kid’s parents or not.
We’d be better off if Pages to Prisoners could send warm-hearted material about Norse mythology to people. Sure, you can interpret the Norse myths as endorsing a war-mongering death cult. You can interpret the Old Testament that way, too. But you can also interpret the Norse myths as environmentalist. Feminist. Supporting the pursuit of knowledge. Judging strangers based upon their merits, not their appearance.
Odinism is so entangled with white supremacy, though, our pamphlet will have to
address skin color and genetic heritage directly. It’s a fraught topic. Lots of people in the U.S. don’t like any discussion
of evolution. Some people feel squigged
out when they learn that contemporary birds evolved from the same set of common
ancestors as the dinosaurs. And that’s far
less emotionally charged than a description of human evolution.
Plus, skin color still has huge implications for how people are treated in the United States. Consider, um, those prison demographics I cited above. And so discussions about the evolution of epidermal melanin concentrations are especially tense. Although the underlying biology is simple – some places have more sunlight than others! – because people think it matters, it does.
I’ve found that these conversations are actually a decent way to get people interested in the study of archeology and biology, though. After we’ve discussed this in jail, people have asked me to bring research papers and textbooks so that they could learn more.
Whenever two groups of an organism stop mating with each other, they’ll slowly drift apart. This rift might occur because the groups became physically separated from each other. Maybe one group migrated to an island. In contemporary times, maybe the groups were separated when humans built a new highway bisecting a habitat. Maybe two sets of similar-looking insects mate apart because they’re eating fruits that ripen at different times.
Or the groups might stop mating with each other because a chance mutation caused members of one group to want their sexual partners to smell a certain way. Various species of stickleback are able to interbreed – they identify other members of their kind based on smell. But water pollution has overwhelmed the fishes’s senses, leading the fish to mate indiscriminately.
If humans hadn’t
polluted their waters, though, these sticklebacks would have drifted farther
and farther apart until it became impossible for them to interbreed. No matter how many sense-suppressing
chemicals we dumped.
We don’t know what caused the initial rift between our ancestors and the ancestors of contemporary chimpanzees. About 4 million years ago, though, these groups stopped having children together. By 2 millions years ago (at least 100,000 generations later), these groups looked quite different from each other. Although it’s possible that these organisms could have still mated with each other and raised viable progeny, they rarely did.
One group of these
creatures, which included our ancestors, had a tucked pelvis and mostly upright
posture. This allowed for a good vantage
while scavenging and, eventually, hunting.
The other group, which includes chimpanzees’ ancestors, mostly moved on
all fours. This body plan results in
fewer mothers dying during childbirth.
As ever, there are trade-offs to be made.
Up until about 2 million
years ago, all our ancestors lived in Africa.
But then they began to migrate.
Over the next million years, they explored much of the globe. By about 500,000 years ago, half a dozen
different types of humans lived in Africa, Europe, and Asia. The difference between one population to the
next was not like the racial differences among contemporary humans, but more
like the difference between lions and tigers, or between polar bears and brown
bears. Scientists describe them as
distinct species. Although they were
similar enough that they could have sex and raise children together, they
rarely did – they lived in distinct parts of the world and had begun to evolve
adaptations to their specific environments.
Evolution isn’t easy. Nor is it quick. Just because a certain trait would be
advantageous doesn’t mean that creatures will acquire it. In the desert, it would help to have
adaptations for water retention like camels, or long ears like jackrabbits to
cool the blood. But a trait can only
spread after a random mutation creates it.
And, even if a trait is very helpful, if only one individual is born
with the adaptation, there’s no guarantee that it will have enough children for
the benefit to spread through the population.
Once a beneficial trait has a good toe-hold – present in perhaps 1% to 10% of the population – then we can expect it to flourish. But below that amount, even great adaptations might die off due to bad luck. That’s why it takes so many generations – tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands – before you see organisms become drastically better suited for the environment. Even when scientists do directed evolution experiments in the lab, it takes about this many generations for a population of bacteria to evolve ways to consume a new food source, for instance.
By 500,000 years ago, the various species of humans were recognizably different. Denisovans lived in the mountains, and their hemoglobin genes allowed them to avoid altitude sickness. Their blood was less likely to clot and cause strokes, and they could extract more oxygen from the thin air. These are incredibly beneficial traits. Even though the Denisovans went extinct about 40,000 years ago, about 40% of people currently living in Tibet have copies of the Denisovan hemoglobin gene.
Our ancestors migrated east to the Denisovans’ homeland just before the Denisovans went extinct. To be perfectly honest, we probably killed them. But before or during this genocide, a few of our ancestors must have had sex with the locals. And then the bi-racial children of these Homo sapiens / Denisovan couplings must have been significantly better off for the gene to spread so widely.
The Neanderthal lived at
high latitude. Over many generations,
their average skin color became paler.
In part, this was probably due to the lack of selective pressure. Think about a dodo – there was no advantage
for these birds to lose their fear of humans.
But, because the dodos were living on an island that no humans traveled
to, there was also no harm in the birds becoming fearless.
Dodos lost a beneficial
trait – fear – because their fear wasn’t actively needed. It’s kind of like the airbags in an old
car. If your car’s engine goes bad,
you’ll notice right away. Turn the key,
hear it sputter. You use the engine
every time you drive. But your airbags
could get worse without you noticing … and then, in the moment when they’re
needed, they won’t deploy.
Humans living near the equator need epidermal melanin. If you don’t have enough melanin, you’ll get sunburns, which exacerbate the risk of infection and dehydration; you’ll suffer radiation-induced DNA damage, which leads to skin cancer; and you’ll lose folate, which means that pregnant women will have more birth defects.
The most recent ancestors
that humans and chimpanzees shared in common had pale skin. Contemporary chimpanzees are still pale. They can afford to be – their fur protects
them from the sun. But our ancestors
lost their fur, probably so that they didn’t overheat while running, and this
led to the evolution of dark skin.
High concentrations of
epidermal melanin distinguished humans from the other apes.
As humans migrated to
higher latitudes, though, they gradually lost this indicator of their
humanity. Because the sunlight was less
intense, there was less selective pressure.
Humans could lose their epidermal melanin in the same way that dodos
lost their fear – not because it was helpful to go without it, but because the
trait went untested in their day to day lives.
They had no way to “realize” how important it was.
Your airbags aren’t
helpful until you crash. And then
they’ll either deploy and save you, or they won’t.
Now, it’s possible that the Neanderthal also experienced some positive selective pressure on their skin color as they migrated north. Over thousands of generations, the Neanderthals may have benefited from paler skin because it increased their production of vitamin D. We don’t know for certain that the Neanderthal felt any evolutionary pressure to have more vitamin D – after all, contemporary Inuit people live at very high latitudes but still have a lot of epidermal melanin – but it’s true that vitamin D deficiency is a big risk among people with crummy diets.
In the past, hunter / gatherers typically ate much healthier, more varied diets than farmers. When humans began to farm, they would mostly eat the one type of plant that they cultivated, rather than the wide mix of plants that could be found growing wild. And when Homo sapiens farmers migrated to northern Europe, their diets were so poor that they even developed loss-of-function mutations in a cholesterol synthesis gene, probably so that they’d have higher concentrations of vitamin D precursors. Among these people, pale skin was probably a big advantage. They’d be ready for the cloudless days when their homeland’s feeble sunlight was enough to make some vitamin D.
Around 40,000 years ago,
our planet’s most recent ice age ended.
The world began to warm, and glaciers retreated from Europe. By then, a group of humans living in Africa
were recognizably Homo sapiens.
These were our ancestors. Every
human alive today – no matter what you look like or where your family is from –
is descended from this group of people from Africa. They lived in tribes of twenty to a hundred
people, had darkly pigmented skin, made art, and spoke complex languages.
As the world warmed, some
of these Homo sapiens began to migrate.
These journeys occurred over many generations. Some tribes stayed in Africa; some tribes
ventured north into Europe; others moved east toward Asia. As they traveled, they encountered the humans
who already lived in those places. As
I’ve mentioned, the newcomers occasionally had sex and raised children with the
natives. They probably also killed a lot
of them. Unfortunately, we Homo
sapiens don’t have the best reputation for treating strangers well.
rarely enough that most people living today have about 99% Homo sapiens DNA. Some people, especially if their families are
from Africa, have essentially 100% Homo sapiens DNA. At other extreme, even people whose families
are from Europe have 96% or more Homo sapiens DNA.
Among people living in
Tibet, the Denisovan hemoglobin gene is common, but most other Denisovan genes
Like the Neanderthal
before them, the Homo sapiens who ventured north into Europe began to
lose their epidermal melanin. People who
hunted and fished probably became paler simply because there was less risk of
sun damage. Remember, this didn’t happen
all at once. Average skin color would
change only over the course of hundreds or even thousands of generations, not
during the course of a single journeying Homo sapiens’s lifetime.
Our ancestors spent almost
all their time outdoors, which is why even dark-skinned people could probably
synthesize plenty of vitamin D. Among
contemporary humans, vitamin D deficiency is such a big problem because we
spend too much time inside. As I type
this, I’m sitting at a table in the YMCA snack room, lit up by flickering
fluorescent bulbs. This low-quality
light won’t help me make vitamin D.
Instead, I take a daily
supplement. But that doesn’t come near
matching the health and psychological benefits of time outdoors.
Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that people in jail – places not known for providing a rich, high-quality, varied diet – typically get to go outside no more often than once a week. At our local jail, their hour of “outdoor rec” occurs in a little courtyard at the top of the jail, a cement space covered with a chain-linked fence. Outdoor rec often happened at night – a friend who was recently released told me that “This was still nice. You could see some stars. And there’s that restaurant, Little Zagrib, down the street? Sometimes we’d smell foods from their kitchen.”
Treating people that way
is unlikely to help them get better.
But back to our migrants! Descendants of these pale-skinned Homo sapiens continued to explore new territories. Some reached North America about 12,000 years ago, and some of their descendants continued farther, all the way to South America.
As people traveled –
journeys that lasted many generations – they continued to evolve. Indeed, skin color was a trait that came
repeatedly under selective pressure. As
people migrated south into the Americas, they were living progressively closer
and closer to the equator. Compared to
their grandparents, they were bombarded by more intense sunlight. They needed more epidermal melanin.
This is a process that
takes a long time. A family might have
six kids; maybe the two palest kids get sunburned, which makes it more likely
that they’ll develop skin infections and die before they have children of their
own. If this happens again and again,
among many different families, then eventually the whole population will wind
up with slightly darker skin.
Because human skin color
has changed during each of the many prehistoric migrations, it isn’t correlated
with other traits. As we entered the
modern era, people’s skin color was lighter or darker based on how close to the
equator their recent ancestors lived.
But human populations migrated so often that there were many different
groups, each with unique cultural and genetic heritages, living at every
latitude. Because skin color is so
closely linked to latitude, this means many different groups shared similar
concentrations of epidermal melanin. And
there’s no evolutionary pressure linking a trait that protects skin to brain
size or intelligence.
As it happens, there are
major events known to have caused a decrease in human brain size (and probably
intelligence). After all, human brains
are costly. Even though there’s a
benefit to being clever, there’s also been constant evolutionary pressure against
Large brains kill
mothers. Because humans walk upright,
childbirth is riskier for human mothers than for other primates. Our posture constrains the width of our hips
– both male and female – but a baby’s whole head has to pass through that
Having children is so
risky that we evolved to give birth about 3 months prematurely. Human gestation takes about a year, but most
mothers give birth after only 9 months.
This allows a baby’s head to continue to grow outside the mother’s body,
but human babies are totally helpless at birth.
We have to be very devoted parents to keep them alive.
Also, our brains require a
lot of fuel. Human evolution occurred
over such a long, long time that our ancestors lived through many droughts and
calamities. During the hard years, our
ancestors would struggle to get enough to eat, and a large brain makes that
A person with a smaller
brain requires fewer calories, making that person less likely to starve in lean
times. And, again, it’s worth
remembering that evolution happens over so many generations, among so many
families, that even small changes can add up.
If mothers who have small-headed children can survive a dozen
pregnancies, but mothers with large-headed children die after only a few, then
the trend will be to have people with smaller brains. Intelligence has to be extremely
beneficial to overcome this sort of evolutionary pressure.
Similarly, if people with
small brains are more likely to survive and raise children during droughts,
then, after hundreds of generations of people who have survived dozens of
extended droughts, you’d expect to see more people with small brains.
Many of us have the bad
habit of reflexively thinking about evolution as the gradual development of
more and more complexity. But that’s not
what it is. Evolution is the process by
which things that are better suited for their environment become more
abundant. If the environment is a hard
place to live in, then evolution tends to push for more and more simplicity. When it’s hard to get enough calories, why
waste calories on anything that you don’t really need?
Starfish are descended
from organisms that had brains. But
starfish are brainless. The ancestral
starfish that weren’t wasting energy thinking were more likely to survive.
Which should make you feel
pretty good about your own brain, actually.
Your ability to think is so fabulous that your ancestors evolved larger
and larger brains … even though these brains were sometimes causing us to
starve to death, or kill our mothers.
That’s a valuable thing
you’ve got inside your skull. It cost
our ancestors so much for you to be able to have it.
But, right. Because the cost was so high, human brains did shrink sometimes. Like when we first domesticated dogs. Our ancestors began living with dogs about 30,000 years ago. Dogs were willing to do some thinking for us – they’d sniff out prey and listen for predators at night. Based on the behavior of my family’s dogs, I bet that they licked the faces of screaming children. Maybe that doesn’t seem essential for survival, but I certainly appreciate every time our dogs calm the kids down.
Because we could slough
off a few mental tasks – I don’t need to be so observant if the dog will
help me hunt – our brains could shrink, making childbirth less deadly and
reducing the caloric cost of maintaining our minds each day.
When humans switched from hunting and gathering to agriculture, our brains shrunk further. A hunter / gatherer has to know so much about every plant and animal living nearby; the work asks more of a person’s brain than farming. This evolutionary trend was exacerbated by the fact that people’s diets became way worse when they began to farm. Instead of getting nutrition from a wide variety of different plants and animals, a farmer might eat meals consisting mostly of a single type of grain.
There’s nothing we can do now about these evolutionary trends. Dogs and farming swayed our ancestors’ evolution toward smaller brains, but it’s not as though you can get those neurons back by deciding to take up hunting, or never living with a pet.
But, honestly, our brains are so plastic that our genetic heritage matters less than how we choose to spend our time. By nature, neither gorillas nor parrots will speak human language. But individuals from both these species have been able to learn to communicate with us after we taught them.
Nobody is born with an
innate understanding of mythology, religion, science, or mathematics. None of that can be encoded in your
genes. If you want to understand this
stuff, you’ll have to make an effort to learn it.
Neuron count only suggests
a brain’s potential. You could do
incredible things with a low number – consider, by ways of analogy, the feats
that 1960s NASA accomplished using computers much smaller than a contemporary
telephone. And, conversely, sensory
deprivation will make it much harder to get things done, no matter what your
That’s why I volunteer with Pages to Prisoners. Our brains are capable of wonders. At any age, we can learn and grow. And yet, we lock people into prisons that seem designed to make them worse.
Investigators are searching for incontrovertible proof that our nation’s current president has conspired (or is conspiring) with an enemy nation to undermine the United States of America.
So far, there’s no public evidence that 45 is knowingly employed as a Russian saboteur, nor that he knowingly engaged the aid of other Russian agents to win the presidential election. His intentions are occluded from us.
But his actions are plain to see. 45 has obstructed investigations into the connections between his administration and the Russian government. The dictator of Russia wanted for him to be elected, and devoted significant resources toward either bolstering his chances or directly manipulating the vote. Numerous whimsical actions taken by 45 have caused strife among nations that were formerly allied in their opposition to Russia. As with his personal businesses, 45 is using kickbacks to bankrupt the United States – we won’t have the financial resources to fix future calamities.
And the punishment he’s being protected from? He’d lose his job. The Senate would step in to say “You’re fired.”
When the threatened punishment is 20 years in prison, however – somewhere between 25% and 40% of a poor person’s total lifespan – we don’t require proof. In those cases, if something looks like a rat, we call it a rat. Honestly, things don’t have to look all that rat-like – four legs, a tail, a too-pointy nose? We call it a rat.
We’ve passed laws outlawing various molecules in this country – it’s illegal to sell them, it’s illegal to possess them, it’s illegal to have them floating through your bloodstream. But we don’t stop there – it’s also illegal to possess objects that might be used to ingest those molecules.
Usually, hypodermic needles are legal. As are glass pipes. And soda straws.
But we’ve decided that it’s illegal for certain people to have soda straws. If a person looks suspicious, he can’t drink through a straw. If a suspicious-looking person foolishly does receive a straw along with his soda, he can be sent to Rikers, where he might receive permanent brain damage when actual criminals wail on him.
45 sowing discord among America’s allies isn’t enough – we need proof that he’s acting at Russia’s behest to undermine our position in the world. But possession of a soda straw? That’s sufficient evidence for us to ruin somebody’s life. Not even his accompanying soda could absolve the man of presumed guilt.
The punishment for possession of methamphetamine is far less severe than the punishment for possession with intent to sell. Again, we don’t require proof that somebody’s selling drugs. If you buy in bulk, you must be selling. Never mind how many people love shopping at Cosco (or my own propensity to purchase restaurant-sized jars of pickles because each would be a wee bit cheaper per).
Our criminal justice system routinely divines intent from a person’s actions. When people’s lives are on the line, our suspicions are enough to convict. Yet now, as our country plunges toward disaster (climate change, nuclear war, or economic collapse could do us in), we need proof.
I’ve been teaching poetry in the local jail for over a year. The guys are great students, and I love working with them… but there are differences between these classes and my previous teaching experiences. Not just the orange attire or the chance that somebody down the hall will be rhythmically kicking a cell door all hour.
When I was teaching wealthy pre-meds physics & organic chemistry at Northwestern & Stanford, none of my students died. Nobody’s boyfriend or girlfriend was murdered midway through the semester. Nobody was sitting in class with someone who had ruined his or her life by becoming a police informant. Sometimes people got teary eyed, but only over grades.
Whereas… well, when we were discussing Norman Dubie’s “Safe Passage” last December – a beautiful poem about riding in the snowplow with his grandfather the night before the old man died – we wound up talking about our families. A forty-year-old man wept: he had thought that this year, for the first time in years, he would get to spend Christmas with his kids … but, even after they let you out, they take away your license … and make you show for blow-and-go some fifteen miles away, every single day … and charge you for the classes, but those classes mean you have no way to schedule regular work hours … so they put you on warrant when you can’t paid … and then, if you make one tiny mistake …
Christmas was in two days. He’d spend another month inside.
The accumulated trauma that these guys shoulder from their past lives is heartbreaking. One of the best lesson plans my co-teacher and I have come up with uses several poems from Ai to prepare for writing our own persona poems. A former student – now released, & still sober after two months – says he still feels changed by the experience of writing in someone else’s voice. In that space he was made to feel so small, but taking a few minutes to ponder the world from another perspective let him escape. And it gave him a new view of the consequences of his own choices.
But a lot of Ai’s poetry is very difficult. She writes from the perspectives of murderers and rapists. We’ve discussed her poem “Child Beater” with several groups of men, and at least a third of the guys, every time, shared harrowing stories of their own.
On a good day, these men have long histories of suffering weighing them down.
And on a bad day? My co-teacher and I might show up with a stack of poems, start teaching class, and, mid-way through, learn that another of our students’ family members has just died. Over the course of a year, at least two had wives die of overdose, another’s partner was murdered … and, in that case, one of the killers was placed overnight in a cell adjacent to his own …
And, half an hour after my second class there ended, one of my students died.
The men do great work, both interpreting poems and writing their own, but, just think for a moment: what could they accomplish if they weren’t oppressed by so much misery? Compared to my experience teaching at wealthy universities, the emotional toll is excruciating. And I am just a tourist! After every class, I get to leave. A guard smiles and opens the door for me. I walk away.
This is their life.
And it’s my fault. All citizens of this country – all people who benefit from the long history of violence that has made this nation so wealthy – bear the blame. As beneficiaries, the suffering caused by mass incarceration is our responsibility.
So, the guy who died? He was just a kid. Nineteen years old. And he’d gone over a year without medication for his highly-treatable genetic condition. I’ve written previously about the unfair circumstances he had been born into: suffice it to say that his family was very poor. He’d been in jail awaiting trial since sixteen – he was being tried as an adult for “armed robbery” after an attempted burglary with a BB gun – and then, when he turned eighteen – please ignore the irony of this age constituting legal adulthood – the state said he had to pay for his own medication. With beta blockers, people with his genetic condition have a normal life expectancy. Beta blockers cost about $15 per month.
No, a dude whose family is so poor that he attempted robbery with a BB gun can not afford $15 per month. Sitting in jail, it’s not like he could help pay.
A few weeks after his death, I remarked to one of the other guys that he probably wouldn’t have been charged as an adult if he’d been a white kid. I told two anecdotes from the local high school: a student with psychiatric trouble amassed weapons in his locker and planned a date to do something violent. Another student participated in a food fight during the last week of school. The former was welcomed back; the latter was told that he’d be arrested if he returned to school grounds. And he hadn’t taken all his finals yet! If all his teachers had known about this disciplinary ruling in time, he wouldn’t have received a degree.
The first student was white; the latter black.
There’s no universal standard. Maybe there can’t be – we are all “beautiful unique snowflakes,” and so every case will be slightly different. But unfairness blooms when so much is left up to individual discretion. Black students are punished excessively throughout our country. Black children as young as 4 or 5 are considered disproportionately threatening and are treated unfairly.
Prosecutors in the criminal justice system have even more power. There’s no oversight and often no documentation for their decisions. Charges can be upgraded or downgraded on a whim. A white kid might’ve been sent to reform school for his “youthful indiscretions”; this dude sat in jail from age 16 until his death.
“Yeah, but _____ always said, ‘I’m not black. I’m mid-skinned.”
(You can also listen to a podcast about his unfair treatmeant and premature death here.)
This spring, I said to one of the guys whose trial date was coming up, “I feel like, if I’d done the exact same thing as you…” I shook my head. There was no reason to go on. “But black guys get the hammer.”
He disagreed. Not with the idea that black people are punished disproportionately in this country, just that it would be his burden, too.
“Well, but I’m not black,” he said. “My family is from all over the place … I’m Native American, and Caribbean, and …” He listed a long pedigree. Indeed, his ancestors had come from around the globe: Europe, India, Africa, the Americas …
“My apologies,” I said. “And, I guess … so, my wife teaches at the high school in town, and one of her kids, his family is Polynesian … but at school everybody assumes he’s black. So he mostly identifies with Black culture here.”
“I get that,” the guy said to me, nodding. He’s a really kind and thoughtful dude. “Cause, yeah, some of it is just who other people think you are.”
His words stuck with me: who other people think you are.
We were sure he could walk. Probation, rehab, that kind of thing. We’d seen other people with equivalent bookings go free.
We were wrong. Dramatically so: he was sentenced to seven years. His family was devastated. You don’t even want to know the extent.
Soon after, I was looking up his prison address to send him a letter and a few books of poetry. On the page of “Offender Data” provided by the Indiana Department of Correction, it read,
MARK SCHLERETH: Everybody’s done it — it’s depending — depending upon how much cheating you think it is. And again, I think to me it’s setting your cruise control in a 65 mile an hour zone at 72 and think “I’m not gonna get a ticket for that because nobody’s gonna give me a ticket for going, you know, 6 or 7 miles an hour over the speed limit.”
STEPHEN A. SMITH: Well, to touch on your last point, Mark Schlereth, as just a fun way of getting into it, most brothers that are behind the wheel, we anticipate we may get pulled over if we go seven miles over the speed limit. Let me just throw that out there as an aside.
— ESPN First Take Podcast, May 21st, 2015
When I was nineteen and visiting a high school buddy at his college, a cop tailed me for two miles, flashed his lights after I parked, then sauntered up and complimented me on my impeccable driving. I’d ferried a carload of friends down from Northwestern for the weekend, and by way of a “thanks for letting us crash on your couches” offering for my (twenty-one-year-old) buddy, we’d stopped at a liquor store to pick up a case of beer and a bottle of rum just after hitting town.
Unbeknownst to me, a recently-passed law made it illegal for minors to operate any motor vehicle being used to transport alcohol, even in the trunk1. Since I’d driven, then sat chatting in the car with a friend while our twenty-one-year-old companions ducked into the liquor store, the cop who spent his evenings idling on a ridge overlooking the parking lot (fighting crime one entrapment site at a time!) pegged me for an easy mark.
It’s true. I’m a privileged dude. I grew up in a wealthy suburb outside Indianapolis. At nineteen, I was having my first interaction with the police. I answered the cop’s questions because I naively thought that’s what you do, with the denouement being confiscation of our alcohol and citations — six hundred dollars all around — doled out to me, the underage driver, and my of-age friends, accomplices to the crime.
Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that my friend riding shotty had a baggie with a quarter ounce of pot in his coat pocket. To my suddenly paranoid mind the whole car seemed to reek from the furtive smoking he’d done during our drive, but I was a wealthy-looking white kid — the cop yoinked our sack of booze from the trunk without asking to search the car.
I’m less oblivious now. My high school was pure Wonder Bread, roughly what you’d expect in a suburb full of Republican doctors and lawyers served by an illegally-bigoted real-estate association2. Big houses and pale bland robot kids. I had black friends in college, but my mild touch of Asperger’s meant I never noticed their treatment by the outside world. Hell, we were college kids. We mostly walked around campus or hung around the student housing co-op, smoking pot and playing chess. We rarely even saw the outside world together.
During graduate school my big-C Consciousness score bumped from dead zero to something I hope is at least passable. My brown-skinned colleagues were routinely belittled by their advisors, and there weren’t many of them, and all the janitors were black and Latino, and the verbal abuse showered upon them was worse. Very frustrating to see. Although it’s shameful that it took me so long to notice.
White-looking white dudes in this country are free to be placidly oblivious. Maybe a bit less easily now — shortly after I finished my Ph.D. the national media started giving some coverage to the most egregious police abuses, like murdering people in the street3 — but, given all the “War on Police” coverage rolling on Fox News4, it can’t be that hard to remain ignorant.
As far as my own blindness goes, I’m trying to atone. I’ve done a lot of reading lately; I went through twenty-three years of education without picking up a single book by Hurston, Baldwin, Ellison, or Morrison. I’d blame my teachers but, at some point, didn’t it become my own damn fault?
Still, better late than never. I teach now, twice a week at the local jail. I volunteer with Pages to Prisoners, an advocacy organization that sends free packages of books. I run a correspondence writing program for inmates across Indiana, hoping that I can help some of our nation’s most stigmatized citizens find an audience for their stories.
And I drive really, really slowly. Like 27 in 30 m.p.h. zones. Like consistently below the speed limit, even downhill. Because heartbreaking work from contemporary thinkers like Michelle Alexander got me thinking about the Fourth Amendment.
When it comes to harping about the Bill of Rights, Democrats yelp most about the First Amendment, Republicans about the Second … although Republicans will invoke the First, too, when it comes to their right to emblazon courthouses with religious iconography, or to deny pizza to homosexual weddings (only tasteless straight people would even consider serving greasebomb pizza at a wedding, but still), or to banish mandatory medical information from their “pregnancy crisis centers.” The First and Second Amendments bogart all the big press.
But it’s the Fourth Amendment that actually needs our help. Protection from unreasonable search and seizure. As you may have noticed, I have at times had non-zero quantities of marijuana on or around my person. My youthful indiscretions were less egregious than those of any sitting president of the last sixteen years, but they were certainly prosecutable offenses. And yet. I got to finish college, earn my Ph.D., marry, raise my children. No police officer thought to poke his nose into my pockets, cluck what have we here, and charge me for the eighth that I was holding. But just last month I sent a care package to a dude my age, my height, my weight, who has been in prison since he turned 19, six years of that in solitary, all stemming from a conviction of “possession with intent to sell” a very ordinary quantity of marijuana.
Dude has no beautiful wife. No beautiful life. I sent him, among other things, some erotic stories to read5. In his letter he apologized for even asking for them, but explained that after six years in solitary he felt so achingly lonely.
All of which he earned by being black. Caught with less pot than I’ve at times had in my own vehicle.
But he was searched. I was not.
In a world with real Fourth Amendment protections, he would’ve been safe. His life could’ve been like mine. He’s my age, my height, my weight! Except for more melanin and shorter dreads, his picture even looks like mine.
The heart of the problem is that you can’t do much in this country without a car. And the illustrious members of the Supreme Court have issued a series of rulings that cumulatively result in our Fourth Amendment rights evaporating almost as soon as we step into a car6. These are lucidly described in David Harris’s George Washington Law Review essay, “Car Wars: The Fourth Amendment’s Death on the Highway.” Unless you’re prone to high blood pressure or apoplectic rage, you should give it a read.
The Supreme Court reasoned that the Fourth Amendment was designed to protect innocents. As soon as you break a law, you give up your rights. Doesn’t matter that incorrect use of a turn signal is totally unrelated to the likelihood you’re dealing drugs — once you slip up, any cop who wants can nab you. Question and answer time! Trawl for outstanding warrants time7! Stroll around your vehicle with the drug-sniffing dog time!
The tangle of laws on our roadways is brutal, too. At times it might seem impossible to know and follow them all. Worse, it is often literally impossible to follow them all.
That’s why white people should drive more slowly.
Almost every road has a posted maximum speed. In most states, if you drive one mile per hour above that limit, you’re breaking the law. Fourth Amendment rights? Gone!
I’ve got itchy feet. I listen to music in the car. I plan out stories in my head. What can I say? Sometimes my mind isn’t totally focused on the driving. So it’s pretty common for my speed to fluctuate a few miles per hour here and there. To stay consistently under the limit, I have to aim for something like eighty or ninety percent of the maximum speed. 27 m.p.h. in a 30, say. 49 in a 55. Then my slight moments of inattention won’t bump me over.
But most states’ vehicle codes also contain a clause stipulating that you are in violation of the law whenever you drive at a speed “that impedes or blocks the normal and reasonable movement of traffic.” 8 The normal movement of traffic in most places I’ve lived is about ten miles per hour above the posted limit, which means that any driver below the limit will be in technical violation of the “impeding traffic” clause9. Which means, again: Fourth Amendment rights? Gone! The courts have ruled that technical violation is all it takes. And, yes, I’ve been stopped for driving “suspiciously slowly.”
The driving habits of the majority ensure that there is no speed at which minority drivers will be safe from harassment.
You might wonder, am I ranting about all this just to protect criminals? After all, if a dude doesn’t have marijuana in his car, or coke, or pills in somebody else’s name, then he’s got nothing to fear. Right?
Let’s set aside the sheer degradation of being searched, being presumed to be and treated like a criminal, and simply point out that this supposition is incorrect. The innocent are not safe. From Douglas Husak’s Overcriminalization I learned that some states prohibit “the possession of paraphernalia — items used for a variety of purposes, such as storing or containing drugs. Defendants may be convicted without knowing that the items that qualify as paraphernalia are typically used to commit drug offenses.”
This is by no means a toothless prohibition. Did you know that some people use soda straws to store or transport heroin? I didn’t. Not until I read about Tyrone Tomlin, who was arrested in 2014 in New York City — and beaten severely, causing irreparable brain damage, during his 21 days at Rikers — for possession of a soda straw. The soda in his other hand was insufficiently mitigating evidence to keep him safe and free.
Have you ever driven with a soda straw in your car?
Or, how about money?
Seems ridiculous that it would be illegal to have U.S. legal tender in your vehicle. But, for some people, it is. Why? Because money is sometimes used in drug transactions. Which means that if a police officer stops someone — perfectly legal whenever any stipulation of the vehicle code has been violated, which, given that every speed technically violates either the posted maximum or the “impeding traffic” clause on most roads, means roughly whenever the officer wants — and searches the car, and finds money, that money can be confiscated. Especially if the driver looks like someone who might’ve intended to use that money to buy drugs. Or if the driver looks like someone who might’ve earned that money by selling drugs. Basically, if the driver looks black.
Police officers have seen MTV. They’ve seen videos with young black men flashing bills and braggin’ ‘bout the bricks they moved to get ‘em. Doesn’t matter that these videos are fiction, that many were produced and disseminated by white people, that studies have shown that the vast majority of both drug users and drug dealers in this country are white10. Facts are trifling things compared to how people feel.
Without Fourth Amendment protections to contend with, police officers have enormous latitude to make their prejudices come true. If the police think a certain type of person looks like a criminal, they can focus their attentions on similar-looking people, which will lead, lo and behold, to the capture of many criminals who fit that description.
To me, this sounds unfair. But because the unfairness is visible only through aggregate statistics, the risk that any particular driver will be stopped, searched, and incarcerated unfairly is considered to be merely “conjectural” or “hypothetical.” No young black male can know in advance that he will be the unlucky driver discriminated against today. So the Supreme Court has ruled that individual citizens do not have standing to introduce these statistics into any court case, even though anyone glancing at the data can see that they’re unfair11.
I’ll admit, the stakes here may seem small. When you next find yourself behind the wheel, you might feel an urge to goose the engine, nudge over the legal limit, get where you’re going a little sooner. After all, as long as you personally are not a police officer unfairly targeting minority drivers, are you causing any harm?
Yes. I would argue that you are. By contributing to the “normal” flow of traffic above the designated limit, you preclude the existence of any legal speed. This is a harm we cause collectively. But there is more: by arriving at your destination early, you profit from injustice. Those who profit from injustice are tainted by it. As a white person grappling with these issues, I find these words from Jim Wallis’s America’s Original Sin particularly instructive:
White people in the United States have benefited from the structures of racism, whether or not they have ever committed a racist act, uttered a racist word, or had a racist thought (as unlikely as that is). Just as surely as blacks suffer in a white society because they are black, whites benefit because they are white. And if whites have profited from a racist system, we must try to change it. To go along with racist institutions and structures such as the racialized criminal justice system, to obliviously accept the economic order as it is, and to just quietly go about our personal business within institutional racism is to participate in white racism.
Acting alone, neither you nor I can cure the ailments of our society. But each and every one of us, individually, can forgo those perquisites allotted to us unfairly. If you, like me, look white, you could choose to violate the speed limit. You would probably face no penalty. But others, through no fault of their own, do not have that choice. They pay for your privilege.
In a world where others are required to drive slowly, shouldn’t I?
1. Indiana Code 7.1-5-7-7 stipulates, among other things, that “It is a Class C misdemeanor for a minor to knowingly transport [an alcoholic beverage] on a public highway when not accompanied by at least one (1) of his parents or guardians.” In case you were wondering about the retrograde pronoun usage, an earlier passage of the legal code stipulates that “the masculine gender includes the feminine and [sic] where appropriate, the single number includes the plural.” Equivalent laws are on the books in several other states, such as Massachusetts, but for the life of me I can’t imagine that any of these laws has made the world a safer place.
2. Harsh words, but true. It’s rumored that a company in the area once issued permits for black employees to display on the outsides of their cars because the police, knowing that black people couldn’t possibly live there, would otherwise pull them over for a little casual harassment. As recently as 1996, a black state trooper was stopped a block from his own home because a cop thought it inconceivable that he belonged anywhere nearby. The Indianapolis chapter of the NAACP brought a class action suit — this was by no means an isolated incident — that was settled in 1999, at which point the local police department claimed they would no longer systematically target older cars and black- or brown-skinned drivers.
3. You could argue that Eric Garner’s death in the arms of Daniel Pantaleo was somehow accidental. But Walter Scott was clearly murdered. And these are only the men whose deaths, like horrifying low-res snuff films, were captured entirely on camera. Of the thousands of black men killed by police in the past few years, some hundred of them unarmed, it’s hard to believe — grand jury judgments aside — that no other instances constitute murder. I’d list names — they deserve remembrance — but do you realize how long that list would be?
4. Yes, the shootings in Dallas were frightening. And two officers were senselessly murdered in New York City. But the “War on Police” coverage began long before Dallas and has been incommensurate with the actual harms suffered by our men in blue. I’m not sure violence wreaked by one or two unhinged individuals constitutes a war. After the tragedy at Sandy Hook, nobody claimed there was a “War on Elementary School Children.”
5. Every prison has a unique set of regulations as to what type of books they’ll allow inmates to receive. Some prisons set a limit on quantity, others specify “no hardcovers,” or “no spiral bindings,” or, and this is trickiest for a volunteer-run organization struggling to send out free books, “no used.” This dude was at one of the “no used books, no hardcovers” facilities. Let me tell you, not many people have donated pristine paperback copies of My Secret Garden lately. I wound up sifting literotica.com for tasteful stories (I have no problem with Saxon-derived language, but no way am I sending anything with violence or the word “slutty” in it), then spending half an hour in front of our one-page-at-a-time-or-it-jams, single-sided-only printer to put together a forty-page pamphlet for him. Hopefully the guards let it through.
6. I’d like to blame this development on the usual suspects, the quintet of crusty hate machines appointed by the political right, but I can’t. Whren v. United States, for instance, was decided unanimously. This case hurts most, setting a precedent that the police may stop any driver who violates any stipulation of the vehicle code, even if that violation alone, independent of an officer’s preexisting desire to stop a particular driver, would never be considered sufficient cause to pull someone over. Because most states’ vehicle codes span many hundreds of pages, everyone commits a technical violation sooner or later. After I finished my Ph.D. and was driving a U-Haul full of books and furniture from California to Indiana, I was tailed for several miles by a Utah state trooper who eventually dinged me for failing to signal for the requisite two seconds before passing a truck. I’d signaled for only a second and a half. Of course, after he stopped me he saw past the dreadlocks, army green cap, and sunglasses to my pallid skin and nice-as-pie wife and declined to even glance in the back. So it goes.
7. Even in Justice Sotomayor’s scathing dissent to Utah v. Strieff, in which the majority seems to have been bamboozled by recent quantum mechanical evidence from dual slit experiments about time-traveling information, ruling that the future discovery of a warrant makes illegal behavior by a police officer retroactively become legal, Sotomayor acknowledges that we have a long history of permitting suspicion-less warrant trawling of anybody driving a car. “Surely we would not allow officers to warrant-check random joggers, dog walkers, and lemonade vendors just to ensure they pose no threat to anyone else,” she writes, although she knows already that she is wrong — the majority would allow this. But Sotomayor has no beef with the haranguing of drivers: “We allow such checks during legal traffic stops because the legitimacy of a person’s driver’s license has a ‘close connection to road-way safety.’ ” Make no mistake: although she writes “legal traffic stops,” the modifier is redundant. Given the state of our roadways, all traffic stops are de facto legal.
8. This is true whenever you drive so slowly that “three (3) or more other vehicles are blocked.” In the small college town where I live this takes no more than a quarter mile driving dead on the speed limit. At two or three miles per hour below, that many cars can pile up within seconds of turning from my street onto the main road.
9. Not to mention the serious risks you incur by driving at or below the speed limit on a three- or four-lane highway; outside of rush hours, traffic flows at fifteen or more above on every city-circling interstate I’ve driven.
10. This claim is obviously subject to numerous assumptions. It’s difficult to accurately assess the frequency of illegal activities: I’ve lied on surveys before, and I can’t be the only one. Even though every survey indicates equivalent rates of drug use across ethnicities, disparities could exist. But it seems unlikely. Among people I’ve known, use of all drugs seems to be roughly correlated; I haven’t met people who never smoke, never drink, but are willing to drop acid or snort a line of coke. And the abuse rates for legal drugs, for which I imagine the data are more trustworthy, suggest that white people are slightly more interested in escaping reality than other ethnicities. As far as the racial distribution of drug dealers goes, the data are even more fraught. Total numbers are lower, which by itself means less trustworthy statistics, and it must seem even riskier to admit on a survey that you’ve been selling. So this conclusion is based instead on data that suggest people buy drugs from dealers who look like them. Again, there are caveats — even if everyone uses drugs at the same rate, and everyone buys drugs from dealers who share their ethnicity, it may be that some populations of dealers serve far more customers than others, which would mean fewer individual dealers.
If this were the case, though, we might expect incarceration rates to even out in the end. A naive expectation would be that high-volume dealers would receive longer sentences. That’s not what’s happened, though. Instead, black people are incarcerated at a much higher rate for nonviolent drug crimes, and they receive consistently longer sentences than white people for seemingly-identical infractions. Despite the fact that the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project serves a set of fourteen states where the population is only between five and ten percent black, about a third of the inmates we help are black (setting aside what it even means to be black in this country, a question far too tangled to be dealt with in a footnote).
11. This case, City of Los Angeles v. Lyons, really was decided by a quintet of hate machines. A black driver was stopped for a minor traffic violation, dragged from his car, and choked until he passed out. In an ensuing court case, the driver sought to change Los Angeles police department policy such that future drivers would not be choked. His lawyer documented that most drivers choked this way were black. The Supreme Court threw out that evidence and dismissed the case. Justice Marshall wrote a dissent that clearly describes the harm caused by willful blindness to this type of statistical evidence: “Since no one can show that he will be choked in the future, no one — not even a person who, like Lyons, has almost been choked to death — has standing to challenge the continuation of the policy.”
We like to see ourselves as special. “I am a beautiful and unique snowflake,” we’re taught to intone.
Most of the time, this is lovely. Other than the U.S. Supreme Court, hardly anyone thinks you should be punished for being special. Of course, the Court’s opinion does matter, since the ignorant claims of five old rich white men have an inordinate sway in determining how U.S. citizens will be allowed to live. And they, the conservative predecessors of our lockstep quartet (soon to return to a quintet) of hate machines, oft feel that the beautiful snowflakes should melt in prison. In McCleskey v. Kemp, the court decided that statistical evidence of injustice should not be admissible as evidence; they would only consider documentation of deliberate bias in individual cases.
Which means, for instance, that if a police force decides to systematically harass black drivers, and winds up stopping hundreds of black drivers and zero white drivers each month, they’re in the clear as long as each black driver stopped was violating some portion of the traffic code. At that point, each black driver is a unique individual lawbreaker, and the court sees no reason why their experiences should be lumped together as statistical evidence of racial injustice. Adolph Lyons, after being nearly choked to death by an L.A. police officer, could not convince the courts that the L.A. police should stop choking innocuous black drivers.
So it can hurt if others see us as being too special. Too distinct for our collective identity to matter.
At other times, we humans might not feel special enough. That’s when the baseless claims get bandied about. For instance, K recently received a letter from Stanford’s Graduate School of Education pontificating that “Only humans teach.” A specious example is given, followed by the reiteration that “Only humans look to see if their pupils are learning.” Which simply isn’t true.
But people feel such a burning desire to be special – as individuals, as fans of a particular sports team, as people with a particular skin color, or as people who follow a particular set of religious credos – that an ostensibly very-educated someone needed to write this letter.
That’s why the occasional correctives always make me smile. For instance, research findings showing that other animal species have some of the skills that our sapiens chauvinists oft claim as uniquely human, or other data indicating that humans are not as exceptional as we at times believe.
Consider our brains. For many years, we thought our brains were anomalously large for the size of our bodies. The basic rationale for this metric was that more brain power would be needed to control a larger body – this seems tenuous if you compare to robots we’ve created, but so it goes. Recently, a research group directed by Suzana Herculano-Houzel counted how many actual neurons are in brains of different sizes. Again comparing to human creations, computer scientists would argue that more neurons allow for more patterns of connections and thus more brainpower, somewhat comparable to the total number of transistors inside a computer.
As it happens, no one knew how many neurons were in different creatures’ brains, because brains are very inhomogeneous. But they can be homogenized – rather easily, as it happens. I did this (unfortunately!) with cow brains. These arrived frozen and bloodied; I’d smash them with a hammer then puree them in a blender till they looked rather like strawberry daiquiri. For my work I’d then spin the soupy slushy muck so fast that all the cell nuclei pelleted on the bottom of centrifuge tubes, ready to be thrown away.
Alternatively, one could take a sample of the soup and simply count. How many nuclei are here? Then stain an equivalent sample with antibodies that recognize proteins expressed in neurons but not the other cell types present in a brain: what fraction of the nuclei were neurons? And, voila, you have your answer!
(Perhaps this leaves you wondering why gorillas rarely best us on human-designed IQ tests – as it happens, the other great apes are outliers, with fewer neurons than you would expect based on the primate trends. Some of this data was presented in a paper I discussed in my essay about the link between “origin of fire” and “origin of knowledge” myths. In brief, the idea is that the caloric requirements of human-like brainpower demanded cooked food. The evolutionary precursors to gorillas instead progressed toward smaller brains – which happens. The evolutionary precursors to starfish also jettisoned their brains, making themselves rather more like zombies.)
Perhaps all these brain musings are an insufficient corrective. After all, humans are very smart – I’m trusting that you’re getting more out of this essay than the average hamster would, even if I translated these words into squeaks.
So let’s close with one more piece of humility-inducing (humiliating) research: archaeologists have long studied the migration of early humans, trying to learn when Homo sapiens first reached various areas and what happened after they arrived. Sadly, “what happened” was often the same: rapid extinction of all other variety of humans, first, then most other species of large animals.
All the Neanderthal disappeared shortly after Homo sapiens forayed into Europe. There are reasons why someone might quibble with the timeline, but it seems that Homo erectus disappeared from Asia shortly after Homo sapiens arrived. The arrival of Homo sapiens in Australia brought the extinction of all large animals other than kangaroos. The arrival of Homo sapiens in South America presaged, again, a huge megafaunal extinction.
On evolutionary timescales, we are a slow-moving meaty wrecking ball.
And our spread, apparently, resembles that of all other invasive species. This is slightly less derogatory than the summation given in The Matrix – “[humans] move to an area and … multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way [they] can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet.” – but only slightly.
Upon the arrival of Homo sapiens in South America, we quickly filled the entire continent to its carrying capacity, and then, after the invention of sedentary agriculture – which boosts food production sufficiently for an area to support more human farmers than hunter gatherers – resumed exponential population growth. Although the switch to an agricultural lifestyle may have been rotten for the individual actors – the strength needed to push plows makes human sexual dimorphism more important, which is why the spread of agriculture heralded the oppression of & violence against women throughout human history – it’s certainly a great technology if our goal is to fill the world with as many miserable humans as possible.
We’ll be passing eight billion soon, a population inconceivable without modern farming technologies. And likely unsustainable even with.
Not, again, that this makes us unique. Plenty of species are willing to breed themselves into misery & extinction if given half the chance. Almost any species that follows r-type population growth (this jargon signifies “quantity over quality”) – which oft seems to include Homo sapiens – is likely to do so. My home town, wolf-less, is currently riddled with starving, sickly deer.
A few years ago, my little brother got one of those fancy new telephones. This prompted me to spend hours extolling the virtues of my own phone – it flips open and shut so that I won’t call anybody by mistake, it has big buttons that depress satisfyingly when I dial a new number, the battery stays charged for days, the maximum volume is very loud.
My brother soon grew sick of my paean. “How much do you think your phone is worth?” he asked me.
“Oh, I don’t know, I mean, I bought it for thirty dollars, but that was a few years ago… twenty, maybe?”
“There it is.”
We were walking through the grocery store at the time. He’d pointed and, sure enough, a display cabinet offered telephones identical to my own for $4.99.
Not that this makes me like my device any less. It’s amazing that such a splendorous piece of technology can be bought for under five bucks. But it did startle me enough for my brother to accomplish his intended goal: getting me to shut up about it already.
Anyway, I joined a friend, briefly, while he was playing Pokemon Go. I flipped open the phone, aimed the camera at a promising spot, then typed an “8.” It looked something like a decapitated snowman.
“Look!” I shouted. “I found an Acephalous Frostychu! That’s a good one, right?”
My friend was unimpressed. Apparently the game is more fun when played using other people’s telephones.
Unless you’re playing in a minority neighborhood, that is.
Not just because it can be unwise to stroll blithely unaware of your surroundings in some areas. To play the game, there are apparently various resources you have to obtain. In some places, especially wealthy neighborhoods, these resources (like the traps you’ll need to enslave new gladiators) are easy to find. You can play the game for free. In other places, including many black neighborhoods, those resource centers are sparsely distributed. The game items you need won’t be found free. To play the same way in these areas, you’d need to shell out a bunch of money.
This does not mean that Niantic, the company that developed Pokemon Go, had any racist motivation. There was a perfectly reasonable explanation for why game resources were distributed the way they were: they based the new game’s maps off user-generated data from a prior game that was played most in wealthy areas.
The motivation was not based on racial prejudice. But the outcome was consistent with it.
I’d argue that outcomes, visible to all, matter more than professed motivations. Not that I think Pokemon Go matters much, but the designers should fix this. I imagine the correction wouldn’t be very difficult to implement, and inadvertent racism probably hurts almost as much as the maliciously-intentioned real thing.
Plus, if Niantic fixes their game, they’d send an important message to the U.S. Supreme Court: you have to consider the consequences of an action, not just its motivation.
For instance, policing. Black- and brown-skinned people are far more likely to be incarcerated than white-skinned people who engage in identical behaviors. In the United States, this disparity seems racially motivated every step of the way; black Americans are treated worse by the police, by prosecutors, by judges, by parole boards, and by future employers whose jobs will be needed to stay out.
But there are always arguments that some of the disparity isn’t racially motivated. Consider, as an example, the first foray into that long slide: an encounter with the police. Well, no matter what you might be doing, you’re more likely to run into a police officer in minority neighborhoods. The rationale is that police officers are more heavily concentrated in areas with “higher crime.”
We’ve assessed which areas are “higher crime” incorrectly, though. For many years, police officers were distributed based on the number of prior arrests in an area, not the number of crimes that had been committed there. This issue is discussed in Elizabeth Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime:
The discouraging figures did not necessarily reflect actual crime on the ground as much as they did the flawed criminal justice data-gathering that accompanied the intensification of federal law enforcement programs. Arrests were counted as part of the crime rate regardless of whether they produced a conviction, meaning, for example, that if a group of black youth were arrested for robbing a liquor store, all of those youth would be recorded as burglars and counted as part of the crime rate, even if they were subsequently released for lack of evidence. Since black men under the age of twenty-four had the highest arrest rate in the United States – a result of the targeted law enforcement encouraged by the federal government – they were seen as responsible for the majority of the nation’s crime and skewed reported rates accordingly, even though crime was increasing faster in suburban and rural areas in the mid-1970s.
Racist decisions in the past produced bad data. If we blithely use that data now, it doesn’t matter whether our motivations are good or evil: the outcome will be unfair.
Of course, many of us, in our day to day lives, do not choose where police officers are deployed. But I’d argue that most white people make choices that might inadvertently abet our country’s racial injustice. For instance, while driving: because minority drivers are stopped so much more frequently for minor infractions (at times with nightmarishly awful consequence), it is unfair for white drivers to take advantage of their implicit privilege. After all, driving fast is more fun than following the speed limit. You get places faster. And some people can speed with the knowledge that they’re very unlikely to be stopped by the police.
Which would be fine if you were blithely ignorant. But as soon as you know that others would face serious consequences over the indulgences permitted to you – for speeding, for smoking a jay, for questioning a teacher’s or police officer’s authority – carrying on with your life unchanged is (inadvertently!) racist. In the words of Reverend Jim Wallis,
“To go along with racist institutions and structures such as the racialized criminal justice system, to obliviously accept the economic order as it is, and to just quietly go about our personal business within institutional racism is to participate in white racism.”
Bryan 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?
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.”
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!”
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.
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.
Because, 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.
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:
It’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.