Bob Bates —
During the morning of April 12, 2018, in a Philadelphia Starbucks coffee shop, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson were arrested for trespassing while awaiting the arrival of a business acquaintance. They had not been there long and the shop was not crowded, but they had not made a purchase. The Starbucks manager called 911 to summon police to remove the two 23-year old well-groomed, polite, young black men, ostensibly for violation of company policy. Without incident, police handcuffed the men and removed them from the premises. Nelson and Robinson would spend about nine hours in custody, part of the time in a jail cell with no outside contact. They were released just after midnight with no charges filed. The incident, captured on cellphone video, went viral, prompting a range of questions and rippling consequences. Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney, who is white, stated that what happened “appears to exemplify what racial discrimination looks like in 2018.” Nelson later said, “When you know that you did nothing wrong, how do you react to it? You can either be ignorant or you can show some type of sophistication and act like you have class. That was the choice we had.”
Subsequently, Nelson and Robinson reached an agreement with Starbucks that includes an undisclosed financial settlement “as well as continued listening and dialogue between the parties and specific action and opportunity.” Additionally, Nelson and Robinson reached an agreement with the city of Philadelphia that includes a symbolic payment of $1 each and a commitment from the city to fund $200,000 for a grant program for high-school students aspiring to become entrepreneurs.
Placing this incident in historical context, in the America that existed between 1877 and 1950, few African Americans had an opportunity to show the class exhibited by Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson. During this earlier period, across 805 counties in the United States, more than 4000 known lynchings took place, mostly with impunity in the Deep South. Last month in Montgomery, Alabama, on April 26, 2018, the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened, its exhibits documenting this unconscionable brutality with the names and circumstances of the victims engraved on steel markers hanging from a vaulted ceiling. A 15-minute feature was broadcast in the April 8 edition of 60 Minutes, with museum director Bryan Stevenson giving a guided tour.
Stevenson observes that over the three centuries of the American history of slavery, lynchings, segregation, and an incomplete civil rights movement, a troublesome legacy endures. Lingering deep psychological damage—to white people as well as blacks—haunts our nation today. African Americans have been inflicted with an experience of “terrorism through menace, traumatization, and intimidation” not just committed on individuals, but affecting the entire black community. Stevenson stresses that because Americans in general have not educated themselves on this history, a pervasive “narrative of denial” still poses an ominous obstacle to engaging in meaningful dialogue and bringing forward corrective measures to be put into universal societal practice.
Bryan Stevenson was born in 1960 and grew up in a poor, rural, racially segregated region of Delaware which had, in his words, “a racialized hierarchy that required symbols, markers, and constant reinforcement. Confederate flags were proudly displayed throughout the region, boldly and defiantly marking the cultural, social, and political landscape.” The grinding daily reality for African Americans was one of marginalization and exclusion, with no choice but to live in “colored sections” in cities, towns, and rural areas, often without indoor plumbing, regular employment, or independent means of transportation. He reflects: “It seemed that we were all cloaked in an unwelcome garment of racial difference that constrained, confined, and restricted us.”
Nonetheless, with perseverance, family support, and making the most of available opportunities, Stevenson completed college and was accepted at Harvard law school for post-graduate studies. Through an internship with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee, which advocated for competent legal representation for condemned poor prisoners on death row, he found what would become a lifelong commitment: establishing and progressively expanding the services of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).
The initial purpose of the EJI was to help wrongfully convicted prisoners on death row in the South. Gradually this evolved into working to eliminate the death penalty, then into addressing prison conditions and excessive punishments. Broader initiatives would follow: nationally addressing criminal justice racial bias, ending unfair and inequitable sentencing, aiding the poor and indigent with needed legal services, helping mentally ill prisoners, stopping children from being put into adult jails and prisons, confronting abuses of power by police and prosecutors, establishing reentry programs for released offenders, and educating people about racial history and the need for legal system reforms and racial justice.
Over the course of 30 years, EJI influence has significantly expanded and become recognized as a major leader in addressing injustices and inequities in the US criminal justice system. Stevenson himself has won a half-dozen cases argued before the US Supreme Court and several hundred in State and US District Appeals courts. He zealously continues to crusade for more basic changes in attitudes and policies, pointing out that since the late 1970s America has gone overboard on “law and order” mentality and become the world’s most shameful “incarceration nation.” Most jarringly, over the past four decades, the US prison population has increased more than seven-fold, from 300,000 to 2.3 million. Of every three male black babies, one will be incarcerated; overall, it’s projected that one of 15 Americans born in the 21st century will go to jail or prison. State and federal governmental spending on incarcerations has risen from $7 billion in 1980 to $80 billion. The cascading effects of such national realities are devastating to individuals, families, communities, and wider society.
As Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. noted, the long arc of history tends toward justice. For indigenous, racial, and ethnic groups in America since the 16th century, however, the rise has too often been both blunted and bloody—especially for African Americans who, after all, never asked to come to the North American continent, but once here against their will have endured injustices for more than 300 years. It is a far cry from slavery and lynchings to coffee-shop arrests and detainments, but a pernicious strand of racism remains obstinately woven into the social fabric. Institutional progress comes slowly, but with educational and attitudinal nurturing, individual change can take place relatively quickly. In this instant-information age, let us hope that injustices occurring before the nation’s eyes prompt take-home lessons enabling us to weave an improved and diversified social fabric.