Sunday, December 14, 2014

(Un)Clear Narratives

Everything isn't as clear as it seems. And, well, sometimes everything seems pretty clear.
Over the last few days, I've been reading Bryan Stevenson's book, Just Mercy. Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and a professor of clinical law at NYU. He works for the fair treatment of people of color and the poor, specifically those on death row. The book gives a good explanation of what his organization does, the context of doing said work in Montgomery, AL,, and some of the roadblocks they often come up against. More than that, the book uses a story of a man who was convicted of murder and put on death row in an obviously botched trial with all sorts of corruption at play. I'm only half-way through the book but I can go ahead and recommend it as a good read. Thus far, it has been disheartening to see the systematic injustices that have been and still are in effect - the particular case explored in the book happened in the late 1980's and early 1990's.
As I continue to read Just Mercy, I reflect on the other dominant narratives in our culture this year, true life or otherwise. The book version of Gone Girl easily gets my "favorite novel read in 2014" award and the movie captivated audiences all over as well. For those unfamiliar, the fictional story revolves around the disappearance of a woman (Amy) and the suspected guilt of her husband (Nick). The narration comes from both Amy and Nick's perspective, jumping back and forth in time. While I contend that the crux of the story is the marriage between Nick and Amy, the relationship is explored via murder mystery, leaving the reader/watcher unsure of who and what to trust from start to finish. The second major phenomenon of captivating narrative would be NPR's Serial, the 12 episode podcast about a true life murder case from 1999 in which an 18 year old high school student from Maryland goes missing, is later found dead, and then her ex-boyfriend is convicted of the murder. The episodes - well, the last one airs this week - explore the case from every angle imaginable. We get reports from close friends, from law experts, from the ex-boyfriend himself. From my perspective, the major take-away is not necessarily that he did it or he didn't do it but rather that, sometimes, I may not know who did it.
This leads me to the events that have been happening in Ferguson and NYC and Cleveland and, well, all over. There are as many opinions as there are people when it comes to these incidents of police brutality (or if one considers them brutality at all). It would be easy for my white, suburban raised self to cite these as isolated incidents that don't reflect the "true" nature of our justice system; that, for most people, justice is guaranteed and provided. But then I see the stats of unarmed, African-American men and boys who have been killed by police and suddenly things aren't quite so clear.* And, if the other narratives I've been consuming this year have been teaching me anything, perhaps each of these cases aren't as clear as I'd like for them to be. That then puts the burden on me (read: all of us) to expose myself to a diversity of stories. I'm going to listen when the underrepresented students and colleagues with whom I work share stories of feeling unsafe in situations where I don't give a second thought. I'm going to cheer on and encourage those protesting in NYC as they fight to have their voices heard. Ultimately, I hope we all take the time to go out of our way to hear peoples' stories, and specifically those that are not in places of power.

*I want to be clear that there are certainly many fantastic, sacrificial, fair, justice-oriented police officers out there and they make up the majority of the force. I'm more concerned about systems we have in place (or don't have in place) that provide a check for police officers as they engage people of color. Without some of these checks, I fear the cultivation of a culture among certain police officers that ignores the fair treatment of underprivileged people.

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