Bryan Stevenson on the Frustration Behind the George Floyd Protests

Published June 8, 2020

Below is an excerpt from an interview by The New Yorker with Bryan Stevenson, a civil-rights lawyer, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, and Global Leadership Summit faculty alumni. In this article, Bryan talks about the roots behind police violence, and how to address the change needed in our culture. To read the original article by The New Yorker, click here.

 

What has been your biggest takeaway from the past week?

We need to reckon with our history of racial injustice. I think everything we are seeing is a symptom of a larger disease. We have never honestly addressed all the damage that was done during the two and a half centuries that we enslaved black people. The great evil of American slavery wasn’t the involuntary servitude; it was the fiction that black people aren’t as good as white people, and aren’t the equals of white people, and are less evolved, less human, less capable, less worthy, less deserving than white people.

That ideology of white supremacy was necessary to justify enslavement, and it is the legacy of slavery that we haven’t acknowledged. This is why I have argued that slavery didn’t end in 1865, it evolved. Next month will be the hundred and fifty-fifth anniversary of when black people gathered to celebrate the end of slavery: Juneteenth. They believed they would receive the vote, and the protection of the law, and land, and opportunity, and have a chance to be full Americans. They were denied all of those things because this ideology of white supremacy would not allow Southern whites to accept them, to value them and to protect them, and so, immediately after 1865 and the Thirteenth Amendment, violence broke out. We are going to be releasing a report next month on the horrendous violence that took place during Reconstruction, which blocked all of the progress.

So, for me, you can’t understand these present-day issues without understanding the persistent refusal to view black people as equals. It has changed, but that history of violence, where we used terror and intimidation and lynching and then Jim Crow laws and then the police, created this presumption of dangerousness and guilt. It doesn’t matter how hard you try, how educated you are, where you go in this country—if you are black, or you are brown, you are going to have to navigate that presumption, and that makes encounters with the police just rife with the potential for these specific outcomes which we have seen.

[…]

 

Should the protests be oriented toward a specific agenda, and, if so, what should that agenda be?

I don’t think it would be fair to ask protesters to solve the problems created by this long history. In many ways, protests are a reaction of frustration and anger to the unwillingness of elected officials to engage in the kind of reforms that need to happen. The protests are a symbol of frustration and despair. I think the answers have to come from elected officials. We can change the culture of institutions in this country. We have done it time and time again. In the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties, if you look at the laws, there was hardly any punishment for people convicted of driving while drunk. We tolerated it. Even though it was catastrophic, it wasn’t something we saw as a priority. Then Mothers Against Drunk Driving began lifting up new narratives, and all of a sudden, the political will shifted. We created a new culture, and we now take stronger steps.

Regardless of the wealth or affluence of the offender, we do more. That is a cultural shift that has made death from drunk driving much less frequent than it was fifty years ago.

With domestic violence, it is the same story. In the nineteen-sixties, a woman who called the police could not expect that her spouse would be arrested. The police would come and pull him outside and tell jokes. There was a sympathy for the frustration that led to violence. And then we began changing that narrative. Women and victims of domestic violence started lifting their voices, and the political will changed. And today we have a radically different view of people who engage in domestic violence. Even our most prominent athletes and celebrities, if accused credibly, are going to be held accountable in ways that weren’t true even ten years ago. That is a cultural shift. And we are in the midst of a cultural shift about sexual harassment in the workplace. There is a different tolerance level. In New York, people need to take tests to make sure they can recognize sexual harassment.

We have not engaged in that kind of cultural transformation when it comes to policing. Now, we have the tools. We know how to do it. I spent several months on President Obama’s task force on policing, in 2015, after we had a period of riots. We have forty pages of recommendations. That can change the culture of policing. It begins with training. It begins with procedural justice, and policies, and changing the way police officers are viewed and opening up communities.

To read the rest of the article by The New Yorker, click here.

About the Author
Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson

Founder & Executive Director

Equal Justice Initiative

Bryan Stevenson, a highly acclaimed activist and lawyer, has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned through his leadership of the Equal Justice Initiative. He has successfully argued several cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, and his TED talk has more than three million views. The best-selling author of Just Mercy, Stevenson was named to Fortune’s 2016 World’s Greatest Leaders list.

Years at GLS 2017

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