Last month I made my way to Into Action –– a free nine-day festival of art, music, and activism –– at a warehouse space in downtown L.A. Other than wanting to check out the artwork and what the event was about, I was intrigued to check out founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative Bryan Stevenson and singer and songwriter John Legend for their panel “The Criminal Justice Moment in Los Angeles.”
You can read my coverage of Legend and Stevenson’s panel for L.A. Review of Books here.
Here are *MORE* words from Bryan Stevenson and John Legend from that evening because they dropped so many gems and the whole conversation between the two was so powerful.
Bryan Stevenson on our obligation to talk more about America’s history of racial inequality in order to change the current oppressive narrative:
We have an obligation to do more to talk about our history of racial inequality and a lot of times that doesn’t get added into the conversation when we talk about criminal justice work but I am persuaded that we’re not free in this country –– not just those who are in jails and prisons but none of us are free because of this history of racial inequality that haunts us –– it’s like smog in the air. We have to do something to change the narrative of racial inequality in America. We’re a post-genocide society and we haven’t done the things we’re supposed to do when you’re a post-genocide society –– what happened to native people in this continent was a genocide. When settlers came, they killed native people by the millions –– famine, war, disease –– and they justified it because they said these native people were different. That’s when they created this narrative of racial difference, they said these native people are “savages” and we use that narrative of racial difference to sustain that abuse and it’s that same narrative that allowed this country to get comfortable with two centuries of slavery. […] I really do think the true evil of American slavery was the narrative of racial difference we created and the ideology of white supremacy that we made up to justify it. I don’t think we ever dealt with that. I don’t think slavery ended in 1965, I think it just evolved.
John Legend on his –– and a collective –– role as artists:
My role as an artist, as Paul Robeson once said, “Artists are the gatekeepers of truth. We are civilization’s radical voice.” We have a responsibility, to be honest with the folks that share our music, that share our art, we have the power to tell stories, we have the power to connect people, to help them see each other’s humanity, to empathize with their plight, and we need to see each other’s humanity if we want to solve this problem as well, it’s important that we tell the truth about what’s happened and it’s also important that we see the value in every human being that’s here right now because if we don’t we’ll continue to put people in cages, we’ll continue to dehumanize them, we’ll continue to [uphold] this system that’s so oppressive that it destroys families and destroys communities. We can’t continue with that, we have to see each other’s humanity, love each other and then act on that love in a way that makes a difference.
Stevenson on staying hopeful:
One of the challenges that I think we have to meet as we start dealing with this problem of mass incarceration, I really am persuaded that we have to stay hopeful. When I go into jails and prisons, I meet a lot of people and they’re fighting a battle –– the battle they’re fighting is whether they can stay hopeful enough to survive, to do the things that allow them to keep their heart where their heart is supposed to be. To keep themselves healthy. It is this struggle between hopelessness and hope.
We need to model a kind of hopefulness for people coming out of jails and prisons, for children being sent to jails and prisons and if we’re not talking about hope, if we’re not modeling hope, I actually think we’re part of the problem. I believe that hopelessness is the enemy of justice. Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists. We’ve got to stay hopeful if we’re going to do the things that end mass incarceration. I believe your hope is your superpower. Your hope is what gets you to stand up when other people say ‘sit down.’ Hope is what gets you to speak when other people say ‘be quiet.’ Without hope, we’re not going to do the things we need to do. So, when we’re having our conversations, when we’re talking about what we’re going to do, it is really important that we root our activism in an idea that we have to believe things we have never seen. […] We haven’t seen the prison population drop by half in a matter of eight years but we have to believe we can achieve that, we do.
Legend on staying involved in local and state politics in order to keep our elected officials accountable:
We do need to celebrate when we have success, we need to look at those examples of success and keep carrying those things forward. I know it’s frustrating when we know who’s in the White House, when we know who’s in the Justice Department right now, and their visions of taking this country in a backward direction because they think somehow it was greater back when our society was even more segregated, when our system was even more unjust, when there was even less opportunity –– they think that’s when America was great and they harken back to that era, they want more of that. We know better, we know that we need to keep making America greater, and the way to do that is not by going back.
The interesting thing about our criminal justice system is that so much of the decisions, the laws, and the policies and the policymakers that have a lot of influence are on the state and local level. So when we’re thinking about our activism, we have to make sure we’re paying attention to our local elections. Who are we electing as district attorney? Who are we electing to run our cities? Who are we electing to run our states? Because so much of the prison and jail population is in the local jails. We need to make sure we’re paying attention to those lawmakers, to those policymakers, and saying ‘we want to hold you accountable for having a system that’s more just and more loving.’
Stevenson on the litmus test we have subject every elected official to:
There’s a litmus test that we need to be subjecting every elected official to. What I do is, I go in and I say: do you know that the prison population in America was 300,000 in 1972 and is now 2.3 million, do you know that? Do you know that the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world? Do you know that we have 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s in prison? Do you know that there are 6 million people on probation and parole in this country? Do you know that there are 70 million Americans with criminal arrest, which means that when they’re trying to get jobs or loans they’re disfavored? Do you know what we’ve been doing to women over the last quarter century, when the percentage of women going to prison has increased 646%? Do you know that 70% of the women we send to jails in prisons are single parents with minor children? Do you know what happens to those children when we take those moms away? Do you know that people coming out of jails and prisons in many states lose their rights to vote? Do you know in states like Alabama that 30% of the black male population has permanently lost the right to vote? Do you know that we have 13-14-year-old children sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole? Do you know that we have hundreds of thousands of mentally ill people in our jails and prisons? Do you know that the Bureau of justice now predicts that 1-in-3 black male babies born in this country are expected to go to jail or prison? Do you know that the statistic for Latino boys is 1-in-6? And if they don’t know, we have to tell them “you should know.” If they do know, we have to ask them “what are you doing to change this?”
Legend on how we should treat our children in order to put an end to our school-to-prison pipeline:
Part of our kids being free is allowing them to be kids. That should not be a luxury that our kids are allowed to be kids. Kids make mistakes all the time, kids respond to trauma in ways that aren’t always pretty. Kids are going to mess up, and part of what it means to be privileged in America is you’re allowed to mess up sometimes as a kid. We need to make it so that all of our kids are allowed to make mistakes and be treated with love, treated like they have a future, and not feel discarded. We discard so many kids right now, and it’s so painful [..] to see how many kids we’ve just discarded, disregarded, inflicting more pain on them after they’ve been through so much already. We can’t keep doing it.
Legend on getting close to the issue of mass incarceration if we want to help solve it:
Part of the reason why I connect with this issue [of mass incarceration] is because it was in my family, too. It’s still in my family. My mother was locked up for a time, I have cousins that were locked up for a time, I had close family friends who were locked up for a time. I know what it’s like for them to be incarcerated, but also to have to come back home and figure out how they can get a job, how they can take care of their families, how they can reintegrate into society, how they can vote in some states where they’re not allowed to vote. We all have to get close to the issue if we want to help solve it, we have to listen to people. It’s about amplifying the voices of activists that are already doing a lot of the work, it’s not about me getting the glory, it’s about me using my platform to raise other people up, to lift other voices up. There’s so much great work happening but we have to be the storytellers that connect the rest of the population to what’s happening and encourage them to listen, to see each other, to value each other.
Stevenson on staying on the side of love:
We can’t change the world with just the ideas in our mind, we’re going to change the world when the ideas in our mind are fueled by the conviction in our heart. It’s what’s in our heart that can actually get us to do the difficult things. When you’re doing hard things like this, stay on the side of life. Don’t let the struggle, don’t let the anger, don’t let the controversy push you away from the side of love because love is the thing that allows you to stay human. It’s the thing that allows you to see beauty when people see ugliness. It’s love that allowed enslaved people to keep holding on to their humanity when they were being chained and trafficked. It’s love that allowed people to survive lynching and terrorism. It’s love that allowed my parents to be humiliated every day by segregation and still teach me that I’m better than what society tried telling me I am. It’s love, and we have to love our young men and women, our children, that are caught up in this world. I think it’s important we hold on to that. Every great movement that has accomplished justice in this country, in this world, has been rooted in something that has understood the power of loving one another, caring for one another, being committed to compassion and mercy –– that’s the thing that distinguishes us from those who try to oppress, those who to try to abuse. You know who’s taught me about love? My clients. It’s the condemned. They’re the ones that have taught me we’re more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.
Image Credit: Baha Danesh for Into Action