Racial Police Brutality in Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
In his book Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson tells the reader short stories about the cruelties he has witnessed as well as the cruelties his clients have encountered. Stevenson discusses many troubling stories about police brutality as well as inmates on death row that he has helped. In his book, Stevenson talks about the first inmate that he meets on death row and his encounter with him, and by introducing this story he gives a part of his personal experience and ends the story by telling the reader how the guard put the handcuffs extra tight on the inmate. Bryan Stevenson seems like a person that is dedicated to his job and looks forward to his work because he genuinely likes helping people.
Becoming an Attorney
In his book, Stevenson explains to the reader that he didn’t have much of a plan when he was in college and explains that he was a philosophy major, but wasn’t sure what his life would be like except that it would have to do with the lives of the poor. Post-graduation Stevenson realized that most advanced degrees require certain prerequisites while law school didn’t have any, so he decided to attend law school at Harvard. He later took an internship in Georgia dealing with a man on death row and decided that becoming an attorney was the way to go. All this information is in Stevenson’s book Just Mercy, but why did Stevenson decide to write this book? Stevenson wrote Just Mercy in a bibliography format, but he wrote his book with the intent to raise awareness of racial police brutality and to look for an end to it.
Throughout his book, Stevenson tells several stories about his encounters with inmates and police officers as well as some of the cases he took on during his career, but they all tend to have the same object. He wants to raise the emotion of the reader and depending on where he is heading next in his book he will determine what type of emotion he wants the reader to experience. In chapter 1 Stevenson talks about Walter McMillian one of his clients who against all odds was working for himself and was respected by many white people in his town which at the time was very uncommon. However, Walter made the mistake of adultery and that ruined his reputation around town and eventually implicated him in a crime he didn’t commit. The end of chapter one is summed up by saying, “But there was no evidence against McMillan-no evidence except that he was an African American man involved in an adulterous interracial affair, which meant he was reckless and possibly dangerous.” (Stevenson 34)
What Stevenson is saying is that because McMillan was involved in an adulterous interracial affair that was enough to convict him of a murder. The townspeople were pressuring the police to find the murder of the Morrison case and with that, the police found McMillan guilty of murder. Although, the man providing the information had sent them on a wild chase that resulted in nothing, and had proven that he didn’t even know what McMillan looked like. Furthermore, there was no evidence to prove the ridiculous theory that the police were looking in to. Stevenson told this story to set the mood for the book as the reader I felt an emotion of anger because I don’t think that just because you were involved in an act of adulterous interracial affair you should be condemned on murder. Stevenson decides to continue to enrage the reader as he proceeds on to chapter 2 by talking about another one of his clients.
As Stevenson is talking about his life he brings up this recent case he has just received, “The parents of a black teenager who had been shot and killed by police.” (Stevenson 38) When he writes about this he is attempting to appeal to the emotions of the reader because he wants the reader to be mad about what is going on with police brutality towards African Americans. Stevenson explains that the teenage boy had just gotten his license and ran a red light, so he was pulled over by a police officer. The teenage boy very nervously reached into his bag for his license but was shot by the police officer because he thought he was reaching for a weapon. The way Stevenson writes this is very effective because when I read this part it really upset me and infuriated me at the same time. As I read the book I found it clear that Stevenson wanted to bring out these types of emotions in the reader, so that the reader would fully understand why racial police brutality is an issue.
Letting into His Personal Life
From the very beginning, in Stevenson’s introduction, he lets you into his personal life as he talks to you about the time he was in school. He lets the reader into his life by telling us exactly what he was thinking, “Not long after I started classes at Harvard I began to worry I’d made the wrong choice.” (Stevenson 4) Lawyers are very confident people, so I don’t think any lawyer would tell you that they doubted themselves while in law school.
After this Stevenson goes on to reveal more information about his personal life to gain the trust of the reader so that he can later ask them to be a good ethical person. Stevenson continues to talk about his early years of law school and then he asks the reader to be a good ethical person. He says, “He looked immediately familiar to me, like everyone I’d grown up with, friends from school, people I played sport or music with, someone I’d talk to on the streets about the weather.” (Stevenson 9)
Although, Stevenson doesn’t ask you in written to trust this man because you should be a good person or an ethical one he does ask you. He describes this man as a regular person who you could know in your life because he seems like a friend or a very approachable person. This being despite that he is on the death row for a crime he was convicted of. Now for Stevenson to be able to do this he had to earn your trust which is why at the beginning of the introduction he opened himself up to the reader and shared personal information. Stevenson lets the reader into his life very early on, so that in later chapters he can ask the reader to trust him and persuade the reader to make an ethical decision.
Throughout his book, Stevenson talks about his cases and tends to through in facts so that he can assure the reader that what they are reading is the truth and to strengthen his argument. For example, Stevenson is talking about the McMillian, “The legislator shall never pass any law to authorize or legalize any marriage between any white person and a Negro or descendant of a Negro.” (Stevenson 29) Since the McMillian case was basically breaking that law he thought it would be important to include this fact to show that although this seems like a ridiculous law it was in fact real. Stevenson also includes that Alabama didn’t remove this ban until 2000 when it received enough votes to have it placed on a ballet and have it removed.
I myself did not know about that ban so when he wrote about it I was a bit skeptical but as I continued reading and he provided facts about it I realized it to be true and that it was something very serious. As Stevenson begins to build up his argument about how police officers tend to respond differently to a typical call depending on the race of the suspect he includes facts to strengthen his argument. Stevenson writes, “I found that Bureau of Justice statistics reporting that black men were eight times more likely to be killed by the police than whites.” (Stevenson 43) This shows that the argument that Stevenson was beginning to formulate was very accurate, so by adding this fact it strengthened his overall argument. Also, he tells the reader that he got it from the Bureau of Justice and not just some website that he found online. By showing the reader that he got this fact from a credible source show that Stevenson did his research before throwing around claims that might not be true.
Overall, I strongly feel that Bryan Stevenson wrote his book Just Mercy because he wanted to raise awareness of racial police brutality and in hopes that people would learn to take this seriously and find a way to stop it. In a recent interview, Stevenson is asked, “Do we need to more actively address the full truth about racial inequality in the justice system? How can we begin to do this?” to which he responded with, “I do believe we have a history of racial injustice in this country that we have failed to address or to discuss adequately.” (Seaman 9) This shows us that Stevenson does feel that racial police brutality is an issue in the United States and it needs to be resolved. Which suggest that Stevenson may have written Just Mercy to talk about police brutality towards African Americans.
However, I am not the only one to think that this could be the purpose of this book, “More than a memoir, Stevenson’s book provides a vivid picture of the systemic injustice that often persists in the administration of criminal justice, particularly in the South.” (Berry III 331) William W. Berry III wrote a book review about Stevenson’s book Just Mercy talks about the corruption throughout the justice system. Berry is saying that the book outlines a lot of the problems with the justice system and how it is unfair towards African Americans. I fully agree with his claims because I also feel that Just Mercy was written to bring attention to racial police brutality.
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