“We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and-perhaps-we all need some measure of unmerited grace.”
I, like many of you, have read more than a handful of books on race and anti-racism this year (along with all the intersectional issues that accompany them), but none of them got me as worked up, as angry, as this one did. Just Mercy isn’t really a book about race, as many of those others were, but in working with and writing about people who are on death row, and people who are in prison, as Bryan Stevenson does, and as centered as this book is on the legal system and the prison industrial complex/mass incarceration, race and poverty and all of that are absolutely inescapable.
I feel underequipped for the task of summing this book up, and the ways that it affected me. Stevenson is a passionate writer, and he writes so eloquently about what he believes in, about the people he meets in his work, and how the work he does affects him, you just can’t help but be moved.
Why I responded so much to this book, and I’m sure a reason it has been as well-received and well-read as it has, is because Stevenson takes it out of the realm of statistics and probability, out of academic theory, and makes it first and foremost a book about individual people. This is very much in line with the overarching theme of this book, that the justice system in the USA in particular, and the way we think about crime and punishment in the US, is inhumane, and not only does it harm those caught in the justice system, it harms society as a whole. Harm and lack of compassion to an individual is harm to the whole. Once you know and care for these people, Stevenson uses their stories to show just how broken the justice system is.
The main story told in this book, which acts as the book’s backbone, is that of Walter McMillian: a black man in Alabama wrongly accused and convicted of murdering a white woman, who spent decades on death row despite having an extremely strong alibi (a party at his house with dozens of witnesses), and overwhelming evidence of corruption and racism in his arrest and conviction. Stevenson works as a part of the Equal Justice Initiative to free Walter from death row and overturn his conviction. Along the way, he also tells the stories of others who are on death row, or who are wrongly convicted, or given sentences that are out of proportion to their crimes. The parts where he talks about the adolescents sentenced to execution or life without parole was so awful. If I wasn’t already against the death penalty, reading the scene where a thirteen year old boy (most likely innocent!) was executed in Alabama by electric chair, would have changed my mind.
When we say books are must reads, we often mean that the goodness of a book compels a response, and that it deserves to be read. I think that is the case here, also, but what I really mean when I say this book is a must read is that what it reveals about the world we live in are things that every person needs to know. I’m going to keep reading anti-racist books, and I don’t mean to say here that the others I’ve read are inferior to this one, just that this one affected me emotionally in a much different way than say, Stamped from the Beginning, which while essential in helping to reframe the discussion around the history of racism, is still at heart a history book and thus has different means and motives.
I’m going to watch the movie this weekend; hopefully it lives up at least a little to the book.