Just Mercy —An altar call to grant those without power the dignity, grace and just mercy they deserve

Amid the world-wide “Black Lives Matter” protests over the death of George Floyd and the police brutality, the sales of books that cover racism and race relations have gone through the roof, along with the viewership of movies on the same subject. While you can feast yourself on fantasies like Django Unchained, or get lulled by the lies of Greenbook, there are some movies such as Selma or documentaries such as 13th that address this subject in a much more authentic fashion. I want to discuss such a film today, Just Mercy(2019). Just Mercy is based on a true story adapted from a memoir written by civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson who fought to exonerate Walter McMillian who was on death row in Alabama.

I am not black and I am not qualified in any sense to talk about what black people endure on a daily basis, but as a citizen of America, who’s been living in this country for 24 years now, I witnessed with my own eyes how a white person is treated, how I was treated, and how black people are treated, in public places, in courts (yes, I’ve been to court :)), and in casual conversations. I was in multiple traffic stops by the police (mostly for speeding), most of the time I was able to talk myself out of trouble without even a ticket. Once I was driving on a highway in California (not my home state) and 2 police cars stopped me and asked me to step out of my vehicle. I wasn’t perturbed at all because my experience with police has never been adversarial. When they saw me, they visibly relaxed because they profiled me to be a guy out on a holiday. I was driving a rental and I think I was speeding, but once the officer saw my license and insurance card, we started joking around about what kind of car I really owned and they let me go without a ticket. I am sure many white people can relate to that story, how many black people can even begin to fantasize about something like this? I have so many stories like that whenever I interact with the police because they never see me as a threat, that counts as privilege.

The snap judgement the police make when they see a guy like me vs a black person behind the wheel is day and night. Now, look at what happened to Sandra Bland in Texas, she was new in town just like I was, but she got profiled because the officer suspected that something fishy about her and she didn’t comply with his demands that she needs to put her cigarette out, she ended up taking her life while in police custody.

Take the case of Terence Crutcher of Oklahoma. Unlike me, he wasn’t speeding, in fact his car broke down in the middle of the road and was waiting for help. A police helicopter flew over and the conversation recorded in the chopper clearly says “That looks like a bad dude, too. Probably on something”, the officers in the chopper haven’t even interacted with him and he clearly needs help and with that attitude when they approached him, you can guess what happened. A woman cop named Betty Shelby shot him and screamed into the radio the most awful words that police yell “Shots fired”, (I don’t know why they keep doing that, because that doesn’t say what happened, it doesn’t say “I fired my gun”, if anyone hearing on radio would think someone fired at her and would open fire without thinking). Just in the last 5 years, 1,252 black people have been shot and killed by police, according to The Washington Post’s database tracking police shootings; that doesn’t even include those who died in police custody or were killed using other methods.

What was the difference between my traffic stop and Sandra Bland’s or Terrence Crutcher’s? The police profile us instantly and the main problem is that the police rely on “gut instinct” too much and according to the data, gut instinct doesn’t work. The UK even enacted laws to scrap the gut instinct based stop & search, in the USA however, these laws are not universally adapted and applied. As Malcolm Gladwell writes in his “Talking to Strangers”, the so-called gut instincts, kinesiology, micro expressions are not an exact science and even so called “experts” can’t tell truth from fiction with just observation, the reliance on suspicion vs “defaulting to truth” (to borrow a Gladwell expression from the book) only exacerbates the situation.

Let me recount another of my experiences: A few years ago, I had to go to the traffic court to appeal for a ticket. I could’ve just paid the fine but I wanted to speak to the prosecutor to reduce points on my license, which I was able to do without trouble, as I said, I am an Indian :) However, in these cases, you need to appear in front of the judge and plead to make it official.

Before my traffic case could be brought up, there were a few other cases, so I had to sit through them. I remember this so clearly like it was yesterday, a black man was brought before the judge with a charge of possession, he said he wants to plead not guilty and said he never seen that weed before. Judge took one cursory look at him and asked him if he has a lawyer, he said no, Judge said one will be appointed for him, however he needs to pay the public defender, he said he has no money, Judge asked him, if you want to appeal for bail, you need to pay $200 for the public defender, the man said, I don’t have $200, so the judge says to him, I have no choice but to send you to county jail. The man said, “Judge, if you send me to jail, I can’t work, if I can’t work, I can’t pay for the lawyer for the trial”. The judge coldly told him there’s nothing he can do for him, and the police dragged him away. I could see the entire legal loop play out right in front of me and understand firsthand how people who are not even convicted of crimes can end up in jail. Without a proper defense, he has to take whatever “deal” that the prosecutors offer him to avoid trial. Do you think he will have a job when he comes out? I highly doubt that.

My story is not done though; after a few more cases, a white man was brought in front of the judge. This man was charged with drunk driving, possession of meth and resisting arrest. He of course had a lawyer at the ready, the judge, the same cold judge who was all about upholding justice looks at this white man, takes off his spectacles, smiles and transforms into an avuncular joking mood and says “Mr. X, it just wasn’t your day, huh? That’s what happens after a hard night of partying, anyway, I hope you don’t get into trouble again”, waves his finger playfully and turns to the prosecutor and says, “So what are we doing?”. Needless to say, the guy walked away with just a fine. The judges demeanor towards the black man, hispanic man, white man spoke volumes, these are not even trial by jury hearings, these are quashed right at the prosecutor level, if the state doesn’t bring up charges, nothing happens.

I am not suggesting that the judge throw everyone into jail, but as the judge was able to see the human being behind the crime with the white man, he failed to do so in the case of the black man. The prosecutor could have refrained from adding the charges of possession with intent to distribute (which is a far more serious crime), the judge could’ve waived off the public defender fee, giving him a fighting chance to prove his innocence. At every level, the police, prosecution, judge, nobody wanted to see the human being behind his skin color, and that’s why it’s referred to as institutionalized racism.

There are 2 problems at work here:

1. Implicit aka unconscious bias. There’s no question the racial element plays a role here including anyone who is physically strong/big is a threat and especially if they are black, the threat level in their mind automatically goes up a few more notches. If you approach a person with this bias already in mind, you already judged them so whatever happens after that it’s purely automatic. With exalted immunity they enjoy within the legal system, most police actions are never prosecuted and they can’t even be sued in civil courts because of precedents or lack thereof. If children are to be taught from childhood not to see police as someone who will protect them but someone to be scared of, and to be told to keep their head down, not to talk back even when they are being subjected to injustice, if that’s what it takes to survive, then clearly the system is not working for them.

2. “Obedience”. I do not understand why someone should obey the police? They are here to protect and serve us, why should anyone be obligated to comply without question? Most incidents when police are charged with violence against unarmed black people, police say that they were not co-operating (polite word for obeying), or resisting or being threatening (because of how they look, not to mention their skin color). This and the violence based training that police receive clearly tells us that police see themselves as predators who are here to rule so they obviously must be obeyed, why is it so hard for you to understand? Especially if it’s a white police officer (who has all the power and authority in his mind) and a black person who is on the other end, obedience is expected that includes keeping your eyes down.

Obedience is also expected of colored people in terms of where they live (African-American people live among the most racially segregated neighborhoods), who they have relationships with (i.e., don’t mingle with folks above your station), and even where they pray. You might think this happens only in the south, but New York City is no better.

These 2 concepts form the crux of the story in Just Mercy. As we travel with Bryan Stevenson’s character in the film, we try to learn more about the details of the case of an 18 year old white girl who was murdered. While what happened to her was heinous, by the evidence that Stevenson is uncovering, it’s clear that Walter didn’t commit the crime. As he is trying to understand why this particular individual was framed, we learn via a casual mention that he had an affair with a white woman in town and that made him a villain to the white community. This is a story that played out so many times in real life, it’s sickening. As one of the characters say in the film, “this is nothing but legalized lynching”, indicating that Walter was being punished by death for his dalliances with the white folk. We don’t know whether the police were under pressure and chose this guy who the white people had a grudge against so they could easily sell the story that he is a killer, or they just chose him at random, but the fact that he was black played a huge role with the prosecutor, judge and jury.

While the story focuses on Walter McMillian, we do see 2 other people whose cases that Bryan tries to reopen that bookends McMillian’s case. While McMillianan spent 6 years on death row before finally being released, another of Bryan’s clients on death row did not get a retrial and was executed. Finally in the 3rd case of Mr. Hinton, he spent 28 years on death row before finally being released by the US Supreme Court. It’s endearing to see that the hero of the story is a black lawyer who fought with the system alongside another strong, convicted black man teetering on hope and despair with every legal move and counter maneuver.

Often in Hollywood, the movies are told from a white perspective, where a heroic white savior who single-handedly solves racism and this is made fun of in a tongue in cheek way in Just Mercy. When Bryan Stevenson moves to Alabama from Delaware, everyone asks him whether he visited the “To kill a Mockingbird museum”, dedicated to a fictional white hero (Atticus Finch) who fought against racism by defending a black man. To everyone who suggests that Stevenson grunts a non-committal “hmm”, I can only imagine what he might be feeling. I do love the book To kill a mockingbird but once you see it from his perspective, you understand the underlying reinforcing narrative that’s often told of racism. In real life, Steveson’s EJI did establish a museum in Montgomery, AL dedicated to the real legacy of African Americans ‘Enslavement to Mass Incarceration’.

This is a serious film that gets the production design just right, portrays the environs of 80s Alabama authentically. The characters are not shown to be overtly racist to promote a caricature but the racism just boils under the surface in both the racists and the victims. The performances by Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx are subtle and brilliant as Bryan Stevenson and Walter McMillian respectively. Others including Brie Larson are adequate with no standouts. Although both of them didn’t win any major awards, their performances were well received by everyone. The film was a low budget, independent movie but ended up doing well at the box office. I love director Destin Daniel Cretton’s previous film “Short Term 12” which I felt deserved much more recognition than it got, but that dealt with a subject that’s close to my heart so I may be biased. Short Term 12 left me in tears whereas Just Mercy left me with hope and sense of action and conviction that there’s work to be done.

If I have anything against the film, that is its sheer predictability. It is formulaic and you know what’s coming from a mile away, we know this Harvard trained lawyer is going to face obstacles, he is going to surmount them, some dramatic uncovering of evidence, there’ll be some powerful speeches in the court that ends in justice being served. Though the drama is foreseeable, the chilling indignities that even the lawyer faces including strip searches, unlawful traffic stops, all of them remind us how precarious their lives are and how they need to be on the razor’s edge when living in a society where they have no power makes an altar call to grant them the dignity, grace and just mercy they deserve.

I am sad to report that even after taking the civil lawsuit against the Sheriff (who framed McMillian) all the way to the US supreme court, no consequences were faced, no financial compensation was awarded and he was elected Sheriff 6 more times and retired recently. McMillian’s family did settle for an undisclosed amount out of court with other officials for the wrongful conviction, but compared to what they put him through, it’s nothing. 1 in 11 cases on death row are wrongful convictions and that’s a shockingly caustic error rate, and thanks to efforts like the Innocence Project, DNA evidence is helping overturn some of these convictions.

I can’t proclaim to have any solutions to any of the systemic problems, but supporting the reforms that are currently being proposed in US Congress is a good start including supporting organizations like Equal Justice Initiative, Innocence Project, NAACP Legal Fund, etc.

Many talk show hosts including Trevor Noah, Hasan Minhaj, John Oliver have covered the systemic problems with policing in the last few weeks, I urge you to watch them on YouTube.

Written On June 9, 2020

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Bhaskar Gandavabi

Bhaskar Gandavabi

I love to build software and write.

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