Last week I was in Washington D.C. with my son, Jaelan. He was moving items out of his dorm. In March, on short notice, he’d had to vacate the premises due to the COVID-19 outbreak. While there, we went by Lafayette Square, the park in front of the White House that was the center of demonstrations sparked by the killing of George Floyd. The park has a storied history as a soapbox for social and political expression. That day was quite a contrast from the scene at the park a week or so earlier. Unlike the tens of thousands of protesters who were there in early June, a couple hundred people were in the park. The most prominent reminders of what took place just a few days earlier were the signs on a building across the street from the White House, a small tent plastered with slogans and the words of the First Amendment of the U.S Constitution. Otherwise, it was relatively quiet and serene.
There is a question I and others have been pondering: Were the protests just a moment in time, or the start of a movement? Will every human being be treated with the respect and dignity they deserve? Only time will tell. As always, in addition to changing laws and implementing new policies, a critical change must take place in consciousness; in which we believe in the inherent value of all people and the demonstration of the better angels of humanity’s character.
Stories give us hope. One story is about Bryan Stevenson. Bryan is the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organization in Montgomery, Alabama. As an African American public interest lawyer, he has dedicated his career to helping the less fortunate, incarcerated, and the condemned. Mr. Stevenson shares a story in an interview about his work. The story is about the time he went to visit a new death row client imprisoned in Alabama. Parked outside the building was a pickup truck draped in a confederate flag, with a bumper sticker that read: "If I had known it was going to be like this, I would have picked my own cotton." Bryan said he had never seen a bumper sticker like that before. Stevenson walked up to the building, and a white guard met him at the door. When Bryan Stevenson said he was there for a legal visit, the guard said, "You're not a lawyer." Bryan responded, "Yes, I am." And the guard said, "Well, where's your bar card?" and made Bryan go back to his car to get his card to prove he was a lawyer.
Although the demand that Bryan show his bar card was an unheard-of request in such circumstances, Stevenson complied. To add insult to injury, the guard then told Bryan that before he could see his client, he had to undergo a strip search. Lawyers don't get stripped searched. But the guard said Mr. Stevenson would not be permitted to see his client unless Stevenson agreed to the invasive procedure. After enduring the search's humiliation, the guard then told the attorney he had to sign a book, something attorneys also were not required to do. Although infuriated, Bryan complied, to fulfill his responsibility to his client. While escorting Stevenson, the guard asked Bryan, "Did you see that truck out there?" Bryan replied that he did, and the guard said, "That's my truck." Bryan was beyond angry but reminded himself why he was there.
When the client arrived, he asked Stevenson, "Did you bring me a chocolate milkshake?" Stevenson is taken aback and thought to himself that this was the strangest day he'd had in a long time and said, "I'm your lawyer; I'm here to represent you." It was Attorney Stevenson's first interview with the client. When he asked the client questions, the client barely paid attention because he was pre-occupied with the chocolate milkshake. Finally, Stevenson said to his client, "I'm sorry, I didn't know you wanted a milkshake. The next time I come, I'll bring you a milkshake." The client smiled. Stevenson noted that his client had a horrific background: 29 foster homes by the time he was ten, severe mental challenges, was schizophrenic, bipolar, and addicted to drugs by the time he was 13 years old. His client was homeless and had no medical care. During a psychotic episode, his client committed a brutal crime. The previous lawyer did a terrible job defending the man. As a result, the client ended up with the death penalty.
Stevenson went to court to defend the client. Each day he saw the guard that sent him through the humiliating procedures the first day he arrived. The guard glared at Stevenson everyday court was in session. Despite all that transpired, Stevenson had several good days defending his client and successfully saved his client from the death penalty. A month later, the attorney saw the guard, and something amazing happened. The guard uttered these words: "Hello, Mr. Stevenson, how are you?" Stevenson, stunned by what came out of the guard's mouth, replied, "I'm fine." As Bryan started to head to the bathroom expecting to be searched by the guard, the guard told him, "We're not going to do that today." Then Bryan said, "I'll go over and sign the book.” The guard stopped Bryan and told him, "Mr. Stevenson, I saw you coming, so I signed you in." By now, Bryan is more confused than ever by the guard's one hundred eighty-degree about-face.
When the guard attempted to unlock the door, his hand was shaking, and he had a difficult time getting the key in the lock. After he finally opened the door, he turned to the attorney and said, "Mr. Stevenson, I have something to tell you. I was in that courtroom and listening. And I want you to know you are doing a good thing. I hope you keep fighting for justice." Stevenson never predicted anything like this. Bryan then shared that the guard put out his hand and said, "I came out of the foster system, too. I thought no one had it as bad as me. But your client had it worse. Can I please shake your hand? I hope you keep fighting for people like your client." Before Stevenson left, the guard wanted him to know one more thing. He told Bryan he did something on the way back from the courthouse, while transporting his client to the prison. He decided to take an exit, went to a Wendy's, and bought Bryan’s client a chocolate milkshake.
The moral of the story: Anyone can transform. Any situation can change for the better. We need to know each other and listen to one another's stories. We will find we have more in common than we have differences. This point in history does not have to be a mere moment in time. It can be the beginning of a movement in awareness, in which we live as one human family that recognizes we have more in common than we do differences. Hope is always present. So maybe this is a movement and not just a moment.
Peace and blessings,