Politics & Government

Activist: Baltimore shows poverty’s costs

Attorney-activist Bryan Stevenson speaks during "Our Times Re-Imagined: A Distinguished Speakers Series, presented by Bank of America,Levine Museum of the New South and the Charlotte Observer held at McGlohon Theatre at Spirit Square April 29,2015.
Attorney-activist Bryan Stevenson speaks during "Our Times Re-Imagined: A Distinguished Speakers Series, presented by Bank of America,Levine Museum of the New South and the Charlotte Observer held at McGlohon Theatre at Spirit Square April 29,2015. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

Attorney Bryan Stevenson brought his campaign against racial injustice to Charlotte on Wednesday night, saying the eruption of violence in Baltimore this week should be understood as a “health crisis” involving poor inner-city black youths who have grown up surrounded by violence, deprived of opportunity and menaced by police.

They’re left, he said, with symptoms of hyper-vigilance and hopelessness that suggest post-traumatic stress disorder.

“If you’re a young kid growing up in West Baltimore, you are going to be threatened and harassed by police throughout your life,” he said. “We’re so focused on a burning store or a burning car that we’re not looking at the lives that have been burning in pain and anguish for years.”

The Alabama civil rights activist, whose clients have included death row inmates and juveniles sentenced to life without parole, spoke to a sold-out audience of nearly 600 that included Charlotte police Chief Rodney Monroe. His national profile has rapidly ascended after recently appearing on CBS’ “60 Minutes” and being named one of TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People.”

The event was at the McGlohon Theater as part of the “Our Times Re-Imagined” series sponsored by Bank of America, Levine Museum of the New South and The Charlotte Observer. It also included Ted Shaw of UNC-Chapel Hill Law School’s Center for Civil Rights.

Stevenson, who heads the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, urged his audience to do what he had to do in becoming a lawyer: Get closer to society’s problems, including a criminal justice system that he said is friendlier to wealthy, guilty people than those who are poor and innocent.

Nationally, Stevenson said, the prison population has grown exponentially in the last three decades. And things have gotten so bad in Alabama, he added, that 31 percent of the black male population has lost the right to vote because of court convictions.

“It’s created hopelessness and despair,” he said. “This despair has given rise to a lot of challenges we have to face.”

‘Shaped by slavery’

Stevenson said that slavery’s legacy lives on today, creating a presumption in many minds and institutions that blacks are dangerous and guilty.

“I contend that slavery didn’t end in 1865,” he said. “It just evolved. It turned into something else,” including “lynching and violence and terror.”

Stevenson’s Equal Rights Initiative recently released a report counting 4,000 lynchings in the South, including North Carolina, between 1877 and 1950.

“We need to talk about this” history, Stevenson said, following the example of countries such as South Africa and Rwanda that have dealt with the national traumas with truth and reconciliation commissions.

And instead of romanticizing its Confederate past, Stevenson said, the South should honor those who did the morally right thing even though it was uncomfortable – or worse.

He told the story of meeting an aged man in a wheelchair who pointed to the various scars and wounds on his body that he sustained fighting for voting and other civil rights.

“He said, ‘These are my medals of honor,’” Stevenson recalled, adding that the man urged him to “keep beating the drum for justice.”

Stevenson is the author of the best-selling “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” about his efforts for death-row inmates over the years.

His work on behalf of two convicted 14-year-olds led to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2012 barring life-without-parole sentences for killers under 18 – a ruling that changed the law in North Carolina and other states.

And this month, Stevenson escorted another of his clients, Anthony Ray Hinton, out of an Alabama jail after serving 30 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit.

Stevenson is also a member of the police practices task force President Barack Obama appointed in December, after protests of police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y.

Response no surprise

Joining Stevenson for a panel discussion were moderator Steve Crump of WBTV (Channel 3) and Shaw, who also focused on police shootings and on Baltimore.

“Violence against unarmed black men is something many of us have been talking about for a long time,” Shaw said.

“We’ve been greeted in part by the reaction that seems to assume we’re crazy. That we’re crying wolf. Baltimore is not Ferguson. Baltimore is not North Charleston. But Baltimore has long been an example of an African-American community racially and economically isolated from mainstream America.

“It ignited a fuse that has been long burning,” Shaw said. “There are two Baltimores just like there are at least two Americas.”

Issues of race affect everyone, Shaw said, and communities are affected by the friction in social and economic ways.

“If you don’t get the issues of civil rights and human rights right, you’re not going to get the issues of economic development right,” Shaw said.

In response to a question about the justice system from Patrick Graham, president of the Urban League, Stevenson said that financial decisions tilt the scales.

“We fund the prisons, we fund the police, we fund the courts but not indigent defense,” he said. “Economics of the criminal justice system have to be shifted.”

Judging Charlotte

Both Shaw and Stevenson said they held out hope that North Carolina will re-emerge as the state to show its neighbors how to transform into a New South that’s not defined by the old narrative of racial difference.

“For a long time, I was bragging on North Carolina,” said Stevenson, who lauded the state for passing a Racial Justice Act designed to deal with racial discrepancies in death sentences.

But the Republican-controlled legislature in Raleigh repealed the act.

As for Charlotte, Stevenson said he was impressed by all the signs of money and growth and building activity.

But, he told the audience, “I’m ultimately not allowed to judge how you’re doing by how you treat the rich and the powerful and the privileged. I have to judge by how you treat the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned.”

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Bryan Stevenson

Age: 55

Hometown: Milton, Del.

Occupation: Attorney, specializing in death penalty and civil rights cases.

Positions: Executive director, Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala.; and professor, New York University Law School.

Education: B.A., Eastern University, St. Davids, Pa., 1981; J.D., Harvard Law School and master’s of public policy, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, 1985.