I recently met a grizzled panhandler walking along 16th Street in downtown Washington. He was cursing that nobody would hire him because of his criminal record. He told me that he slept in an alley, and pointed to a trash can that he had searched four times that day.
He was afraid of dying in the cold, but didn’t feel safe in homeless shelters, so he carried a knife. Somehow I was less concerned about a convict with a knife walking beside me than about the fellow five blocks south, without a conviction, who joked and complained on the same afternoon about being impeached.
Why did that homeless man return to the same trash can several times a day? It was beside a stream of people who could afford to waste food. Not only was he familiar with the most promising trash cans, he knew the locations of several ATMs where kind souls could get him cash. Such is the life of a street survivor in our throwaway culture.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” So said Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch to his daughter Scout in 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird. His performance as the quintessential white savior defending a wrongly accused black man won him an Oscar and inspired many people to become lawyers. His halo was snatched away when Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchman, published in 2015, revealed that Atticus served on the white supremacist Maycomb County Citizens’ Council.
Speaking of points of view, Mockingbird was perfectly designed to make white people in the civil rights era feel better about themselves. Six decades later, there is more diversity among filmmakers. The current movie Just Mercy, starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx, which also concerns an unjustly accused black man, is partly set in Monroeville, Alabama, the real place that inspired the fictional Maycomb. This true story, however, is told from a black perspective. A black sensibility permeates the film.
The contrast between Bryan Stevenson‘s meeting with the wrongly convicted man’s family and the comparable scene in Mockingbird is telling: in Just Mercy, the defense attorney is not just paying his respects but seeking input. In Mockingbird, polite Negroes are plentiful on the porch and in the courtroom balcony. In Just Mercy, black people are active participants: they have agency. The danger Stevenson faces as a black attorney from Harvard, just by being there and persisting, is palpable. The portrayal of the prisoners whose cells are next to that of Foxx’s Walter McMillian is as humane as I have seen.
Stevenson says, “We have a system of justice that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.” According to the Equal Justice Initiative, which he founded, “Mr. Stevenson and his staff have won reversals, relief, or release from prison for over 135 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row and won relief for hundreds of others wrongly convicted or unfairly sentenced.”
Reform is hard. As Paul Butler describes in Chokehold, “Ban the Box” policies (for which I myself testified in 2012) “prohibit employers from conducting criminal background checks until late in the application process. The hope was this would give people coming home from prison a better chance at landing an interview, but studies have shown that BTB policies have actually done more harm than good for black men. When employers don’t have actual information about whether people have a criminal background, they tend to assume that young African American men do.”
Butler writes, “The truth is that the vast majority of black men have never committed a violent crime. It’s a stereotype that … can be supported by a selective view of the evidence.”
The homeless, including former prisoners, transgender people, and veterans with PTSD, represent systemic failures, as in criminal justice. Filmic truth-telling like Just Mercy can further efforts like Stevenson’s to change the narrative.
Things are not always as we imagine. If we stop throwing our fellow human beings away, all of our streets can better reflect the society we have long told ourselves we are.
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist at email@example.com.
Copyright © 2020 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.