Now more than ever…


Now more than ever, with the news that the Grand Jury has declined to vote an indictment against the cop who applied the deadly choke hold to Eric Garner during an attempted arrest for selling loose cigarettes; I urge everyone to purchase Professor Bryan Stevenson’s book “Just Mercy”. Read it. Read the section where Professor Stevenson, a Harvard Law graduate, talks about being stopped and having his car illegally searched in Atlanta when he was a young attorney fighting death penalty sentences and harmful prison conditions in the deep south.

To the officer who ordered him out of his car with gun drawn he was just another black man; someone to be suspected, violated and threatened. It didn’t matter that he was parked down the street from the apartment where he lived, that he was merely listening to the final strains of a favorite Sly and the Family Stone song in his car, or that he didn’t make any aggressive actions towards the police. If he didn’t have the wherewithal to assure the officer who was threatening to, “…blow his head off,” that it was okay over and over with his hands visibly raised above his head, we might not have the opportunity to read this moving and important story.

We all owe it to ourselves and our communities to hear Professor Stevenson’s words; to learn from his years of work as a death penalty lawyer and by doing so to cultivate empathy and understanding so that we may more powerfully address the issues of injustice within the criminal justice system which threatens all of our humanity.

Buy one copy for yourself (from a local/independent bookseller please! See link below.) and purchase another as a holiday gift for a friend, family member or loved one. Give it to those who are already ‘on our side’ and give it to those who scoff skeptically at cases like Garner’s and Michael Brown’s in Ferguson. If you are a lawyer doing defense work; give it to your favorite family member who asks of your chosen profession at holiday gatherings, “…so, how can you defend those people?” Give it to those who think if only black Americans would follow the law they wouldn’t be at such risk of death by the police. Let’s open some eyes and some hearts this holiday season. Let’s “beat the drum for justice”.

In Memoriam: Herman Wallace, October 13, 1941 – October 4, 2013


Herman Wallace photographed in September in the prison hospital. (c) Amnesty International

Herman Wallace, a 71 year old man who spent more than the last four decades in solitary confinement in a Louisiana prison, passed away yesterday as a free man. Wallace was one of the ‘Angola 3′, three prisoners who were convicted of the murder of a prison guard at the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary known as ‘The Farm’ or Angola. Angola has over the years been forced to address some of the inhumane conditions and violence against prisoners who at one time were housed in former slave quarters. Angola itself sits on the site of a former slave era plantation; the very land itself is steeped in the misery and exploitation of humanity.

At the time of Wallace’s conviction he was a member of the Black Panther party which was in part seeking to end the culture of rape and violence within the prison. In those racially charged times it was his association with the Black Panthers which supporters say led to Wallace and two other men being framed for the murder of a guard. Wallace maintained his innocence until the end, an end which came in his sleep at the home of a long time friend, surrounded by family and friends.

He was released from prison October 1, 2013 after a federal judge overturned his indictment based on the exclusion of women from the grand jury panel which indicted him. The momentous news came after countless failed attempts to appeal his conviction and repeated denials of compassionate release even after being diagnosed with liver cancer in June of this year. Only after the cancer ravaged his body and his health continued to deteriorate was he finally moved from solitary to a prison hospital. Inside the hospital, simply having a door he could walk through was but a small restoration of humanity for a man who had existed inside a locked 6 foot by 9 foot cell for more than half his life.

Wallace’s humanity and character were shared with the world through a documentary, “Herman’s House” released last year which chronicled his friendship with artist Jackie Sumell who began writing to him in 2001 and eventually asked him what kind of home a man in a 6×9 cell dreams of. The resulting collaboration between Wallace and Sumell is heartrending in its portrayal of a human spirit that never loses its capacity to dream of something better despite the most bleak circumstances. Wallace is a kind, giving soul who even includes in his dream house requests a garden for guests to wander through and enjoy.

Upon hearing of Wallace’s long delayed release the words of Langston Hughes’ powerful poem, “A Dream Deferred” kept echoing through my mind. What had the delayed dream of freedom done to Wallace, did his soul wither and dry up, did it fester and rot his goodness? Or would it cause an eruption, an explosion of a soul finally breaking free of its shackles? We will never truly know what those years in solitary confinement did to Wallace but we know how he left this world. He kept his positive spirit until the very end, an indomitable figure of strength of character, of humanity in the face of the inhumane. I like to think that when Wallace let out his last breath his deferred dream ignited an explosion inside the hearts and minds of all those who followed his story. An explosion fueled by injustice, sorrow and pain. An explosion which clears a way for something better and drives forward a fight for humanity.

I believe Wallace would have wanted it that way.