George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor. These are just some of the names of African Americans killed by police this year that pushed Americans into the streets to protest for racial justice and criminal justice reform. How should Americans move forward to a better, fairer, more just place for all of us? Please welcome the person who can answer that question, Bryan Stevenson. Bryan, it is great to see you. Thanks for coming on Washington Post Live.
MR. STEVENSON: Thank you. It’s great to be with you.
MR. CAPEHART: So, I want to start in not an unusual place but unusual in the sense that it’s the presidential debate. And I want to start there, because I think it’s a great way to frame this conversation. The president of the United States was asked to denounce white supremacists, to tell white supremacist organizations that he doesn’t want their support. What was your first reaction when you watched that in the debate where the president of the United States sidestepped the question altogether?
MR. STEVENSON: Well, I think the fact that the question even has to be asked says something really important about where we are in our nation’s history. We are 400 years-plus past the day when Black people first were brought to this continent, kidnapped, enslaved, captive, and we have been struggling ever since that moment to recover a kind of morality and decency when it comes to understanding the legacy of racial inequality. I think the fact that we are in 2020 and still having to ask anyone in public office do they reject and repudiate white supremacy says much about the work that remains, the work that we have yet to do in this country to confront this history of racial inequality and racial injustice. The president’s inability to unequivocally and clearly respond to that is its own issue. But the fact that we are even having to ask the question says something to me even more significant about how we have to engage in a different conversation about who we are and what we must do to get to a just and equitable place.
MR. CAPEHART: Well, I mean I thought of you immediately when that conversation--well, I can’t even call it a conversation--when that moment happened, because you’re the driving force behind the National Memorial for Peace and Justice there in Montgomery, Alabama. It is colloquially known as the lynching memorial. How damaging is it to race relations in our country when our own president will not condemn white supremacists? Again, the lynching memorial is there to ensure that people don’t forget or ignore that violent part of our history, which isn’t even that far in the past. And yet, we have a president of the United States who’s giving aid and comfort to people who perpetuated, perpetuate the violence that the memorial commemorates--or memorializes.
MR. STEVENSON: Well, I think it reflects our collective failure to talk honestly about our history. I mean, everybody has largely been practicing silence about this history for a very long time. There have been very few people who have pushed this country to acknowledge things that we need to acknowledge. And I think that’s the reason why we are in this place.
We have never acknowledged that we are a post-genocide society. I think what happened to Indigenous people when Europeans came to this continent was a genocide. And we haven’t really talked about that. Most people can’t tell you how many Indigenous people died through famine and war and disease as a result of this colonial European intervention.
And we didn’t really address the consequences of that era. We said that native people are savages. We created a narrative of racial difference to justify the violence that we imposed on those populations. Half the states in America are native words, but we forced the people out. We created a constitution that talks about equality and justice for all that we didn’t extend to these populations because we had a narrative of racial difference justifying their exclusion. And it was that narrative of racial difference that made us comfortable with two and a half centuries of slavery.
And we’ve been silent about what I believe was the great evil of American slavery, which wasn’t involuntary servitude and forced labor. I think the real evil of slavery was the narrative of racial difference that we created to justify enslavement. White enslavers didn’t want to feel immoral or un-Christian or unjust, so they had to create this ideology of white supremacy. The said that Black people are not the same as White people. Black people are less human, Black people are less evolved, Black people are less deserving, Black people are less capable. And that ideology of white supremacy, that narrative of racial difference wasn’t something that we addressed. We fight the Civil War and the North wins the Civil War, but the South wins the narrative war. We pass the 13th Amendment which talks about ending involuntary servitude and forced labor but says nothing about ending this ideology of white supremacy, ending racial hierarchy. And as a result of that, I don’t think slavery ends in 1865, it just evolves. It turns into a century of racial violence and lawlessness where Black people are pulled out of their homes and they’re beaten and they’re tortured and they’re lynched. And you’re right, Jonathan. Our memorial tries to get this country to reckon with that history of violence, where 6 million Black people fled the American South and they went to Los Angeles and Oakland and Cleveland and Chicago and Detroit and New York and Boston not as immigrants looking for new economic opportunities but as refugees and exiles from terror in the American South. And we’ve never acknowledged that.
And our silence then creates this environment we’re in now where we are still debating the legitimacy of white supremacy. And that is an indictment of our nation. It is a reflection of how poorly we have confronted this history, how we have not engaged in the kind of truth telling that I believe our nation needs. And that’s why we believe we need an era of truth and justice. We need to make a commitment to truth-telling about our history. We need to reckon with this long history of racial inequality.
MR. CAPEHART: I’m glad you brought that up, because there are a lot of people who--I mean, I’m one of those people who say that the election is a choice now between American democracy and white supremacy. But even if former Vice President Joe Biden does succeed in becoming the next President of the United States, white supremacy isn’t going anywhere. In fact, I think that the fight will still go on because half the country still will have voted --nearly half the country still will have voted for President Trump, will still cling to this idea that a vote for him is a way of holding onto their central role in American life, politically, culturally, you name it. Am I going too far in saying that? Will the fight still be there no matter who the President of the Unite States is?
MR. STEVENSON: Yeah, I think absolutely the fight will still be there no matter who the president is. And I actually think it’s more complicated than whether you support a candidate like Donald Trump or not. That is--no American administration has engaged in the kind of truth telling, the kind of reckoning with our past that I believe we need to have. I mean, this is a longstanding problem that we just haven’t confronted.
And I just think we have to end the silence. And you can be a progressive political candidate and still be allowed to be silent about this history and I think that is what has to change. We have misjudged the nature of the problem. We thought the problem was if we formally abolish chattel slavery or if we get--make it less likely that we’ll have mob lynching, if we pass a civil rights law, if we pass a voting rights law, we’ll get past this issue. And the truth is, is that this issue is more complicated than that.
In the 1950s and 60s, courageous Black people put on their Sunday best and they went to places to push this country to embrace full democracy, to embrace civil rights. And for that activism they were beaten and battered and bloodied. And we ultimately passed the civil rights law and we passed the voting rights law. But this narrative of racial difference, this idea of racial hierarchy persisted.
And today, you can be an award-winning columnist for The Washington Post. You can be a lawyer. You can be a doctor. You can be a teacher. You can be a champion for fairness. You can be a minister. You can be a part of the clergy. You can be kind and loving. But if you’re Black or brown, you will go places in this country where you’re going to be presumed dangerous and guilty. And that burden of danger and guilty will be your burden. You’ll have to navigate the challenges that emerge.
That’s why police violence has been so vexing in communities of color. I’m an African American lawyer. I’ve got a degree from Harvard Law School, and I’ve been in Atlanta, Georgia, pulled out of my car by police officers who pulled a gun and threatened to blow my brains out. I go places even today where that burden sits on me. And so, I don’t think it is sufficient to regard this issue as an issue of for Trump or not for Trump, Republican versus Democratic. We have to engage in a national effort.
In South Africa, after Apartheid, there were multiple political parties, but the obligation to have truth and reconciliation transcended that political debate. In Rwanda, after the genocide, you had all kinds of people vying for power, but the obligation to tell the truth about what happened there transcended that political debate. In Germany over the last half century you’ve seen a reckoning with the legacy of the Holocaust. When you go to Berlin, you can’t go 200 meters without seeing markers and stones that have been placed next to the homes of families that were abducted during the Holocaust. And there are no Adolph Hitler statues in Germany. And it would be unconscionable there for someone to want to erect a memorial honoring the architects of the Holocaust. And even though you have some far-right parties there and there is a problem with nationalism there, across the political parties there’s a reckoning with that history. In this country we don’t have that.
So, I live in a region where the landscape is littered with the iconography of the Confederacy. In my state of Alabama, Jefferson Davis’ birthday is a state holiday. Confederate Memorial Day is a state holiday. We have over 200 schools in this country named after Confederate leaders who were defenders of slavery. And in a space like that, this moment that we have to address goes beyond the election, goes beyond a candidate who is a little more comfortable embracing this legacy and a candidate who is not. We’re going to have to engage in a kind of truth telling and a kind of effort at reckoning with our history that we haven’t really done before. And I think that goes beyond who wins the election.
MR. CAPEHART: I want to pick up on a theme in your last answer about telling the truth about what happened and bring it to a very specific case, and that is the case that we’ve been watching out of Louisville, Kentucky, involving Breonna Taylor. And the attorney general came out. It was announced--it’s so exasperating I can’t even get the words out--the police officers who shot Breonna Taylor were not indicted. The person--the police officer who was indicted was indicted for shooting into other people’s apartments, and there were people on social media--I cannot remember who exactly is the one who made this observation--that the police officer who was--the police officer was indicted for not shooting Breonna Taylor.
I would love for you to give your reaction to what is happening in the Breonna Taylor case. You’re a lawyer. Your whole job is this--in this arena. I would love to hear what you think about what’s going on there.
MR. STEVENSON: Well, I think what we’re seeing in that case is another manifestation of a structural failure in our justice system. It’s a systemic and structural failure. We have long insulated police and prosecutors and judges from being held accountable when they violate the rights of other people. That’s why my organization has been calling for an end to qualified immunity, an end to these protections we give to police and prosecutors and judges. When people like Breonna Taylor are killed, murdered in their own home, it’s like our system immediately tries to figure out how do we protect the officers that are responsible for that death.
Now the same thing happened with Ahmaud Arbery when he was killed. That system in South Georgia was trying to figure out how do we protect these good White men, former police officers from being held accountable. And that’s the legacy we have created in this country. You know, policing in America evolved around initially enforcing fugitive slave laws. And so even in places like Boston before the Civil War, the police were a threat to free Black people because they had the power to re-enslave them. After the Civil War we had a century of lawlessness in the American South. It was the police and law enforcement, the justice system, that stepped back and allowed mobs to come to the courthouse and take Black people out of the jail and torture them and lynch them on the courthouse lawn. It was uniformed police officers that beat John Lewis and those protesters on the Evan Pettus Bridge in 1965. It was the police that went into Detroit and Chicago and communities in the North and West and violated the rights of poor Black people. And so that legacy of a system that doesn’t really act to vindicate the rights of poor people and people of color is what you’re seeing in Louisville, Kentucky. We have a criminal justice system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. And just in the way that our system failed to hold people accountable for the death of Emmett Till and failed to hold people accountable for the death and for the beating of Rodney King and has failed throughout the last half century to hold people accountable, like Breonna Taylor, we’re seeing that play out in Louisville. And that’s why I think we have to talk more fundamentally about what it will take to create a justice system that values the lives of women like Breonna Taylor, values the lives of poor people and Black people.
And I just want to say, we are capable of doing better. There was a time in American history where the victims of domestic violence could not expect justice in our system. If you called the police after your spouse had abused you, there was no expectation that the police would arrest your abusing spouse. And then we started working on the narrative around the horrors of domestic violence. We stated telling stories like a burning bed in the 1970s. We lifted up the voices of women who had been abused by domestic violence, and their voices changed the environment. And now, we have a very different perspective on domestic violence. Even our most celebrated athletes, if they’re credibly accused of domestic violence, they’re going to be held accountable. That change in accountability is a reaction to a change in the narrative about domestic violence. And that’s why activism is so important. We’ve got to change the narrative about what it means when Black people and brown people are abused and mistreated and menaced and killed by law enforcement. And when we increase our consciousness about that, we’ll make it harder for systems to function the way they functioned in Louisville last week.
MR. CAPEHART: You know, also what’s at work in the Breonna Taylor case is something that’s involving her boyfriend Kenneth Walker, and it is a sort of a disconnect in the law. So, on the one hand, you have Kenneth Walker there with Breonna Taylor, people burst into his home, he doesn’t know who they are. They’re in plain clothes. He has a gun, licensed to carry, he fires. There’s a law in Kentucky, the castle doctrine, where you are allowed to defend yourself in your own home. However, because he tried to defend himself in his own home and fired at a police officer, the police officers aren’t indicted because there’s the self-defense law. They’re allowed to defend themselves. Can you talk about this disconnect in the law and how, when you’re African American, the castle doctrine doesn’t help you and neither does self-defense?
MR. STEVENSON: Yeah, and I think it’s important to understand how many of these provisions in the law were really set up to protect sort of White people, White homeowners. We weren’t thinking about poor Black people when we were thinking about stand your ground laws and things. We were actually thinking very differently about that. And I believe that you see that playing out in these systems. So, there are a host of laws that gave rise to the tragedy surrounding Breonna Taylor’s murder, beginning with the no-knock warrants, empowering the police to do things that we would never tolerate. I mean, this in many ways is much like the war on drugs that we saw fought in the 80s and 90s. You know, we could--police did drug raids into low-income housing communities, into poor communities. They pulled people out. They put them on the ground. They harassed them. They menaced them. We would never do that in affluent communities. And that’s why these laws are really intended to protect people with power.
And when you understand that, you begin to understand how these laws need to change. There should not have been these, kind of, no-knock warrants, that ability to create fear and trepidation in the home. If we’re going to protect people who feel threatened, we’re going to shield them from criminal accountability, then we need to do that without regard to status and race and class. But we have a very racialized view. That’s why these disparities on who goes to jails and prisons, who gets prosecuted, all of that manifests that.
So, I think the bigger issue frankly is reckoning again with the motivations behind these laws. I mean, gun violence in this country is a huge problem, and we have lobbies like the NRA that go around talking about people’s rights to own guns. And what they’re talking about when they talk about these “rights,” they’re really talking about a certain class. They’re not talking about poor Black people owning guns. They’re talking about angry, usually White men. And what’s problematic about that is that we have a very culturally specific lens for enforcing these laws. And we’ve done that throughout our criminal justice system. That’s why drug enforcement has not been fair or equal. Prosecutions for a whole host of crimes are not fair and equal.
And I do think we have to step back from the way we think about policing. And I do think that’s evident in this case as well. You know, this idea that the police are beyond bias, beyond bigotry, beyond discrimination and therefore can be empowered to do things that other people--can’t be done, is something that we need to fundamentally question. We don’t help police officers actually have a more evolved sense of fairness and justice to be less influenced by bigotry and bias. In fact, they’re worse. And we’ve created a culture of policing in this country where police officers think of themselves not as guardians but as warriors. They don’t live in the communities where they police. They’re protected and shielded from accountability when they make mistakes. They’re not trained to do the kind of things that we need them to do. They’re not prepared to be in these situations. And all of that conspires to create the tragedy that we saw in Louisville. And so, the law has to change. The structure has to change. The system has to change. And I think that’s going to be key if we’re going to create a different way forward in protecting other families from the tragedy and the crisis that the Taylor family is going through.
MR. CAPEHART: You know, the mantra that has come out of the protests nationwide since the death of--the killing of George Floyd on May 25th has been quote/unquote “defund the police.” When you hear that phrase defund the police, to your mind, does that strip all the money away from the police and do something else with it? Strip communities of the police? Or is it something different?
MR. STEVENSON: Well, I think people mean very different things when they say it, and that’s the challenge with a statement like that. I don’t think there’s any question that even police officers, sensible police officers, recognize that they are being placed in situations to do things that they’re not equipped to do. When there’s a problem with homelessness in your community, the police are not going to be effective at dealing with the homelessness issue. When people are overdosing on drugs, the police are not going to be effective in responding to the medical challenges of an overdose. We have a huge problem with mental illness in this country, where there are hundreds of thousands of severely mentally ill people who can’t get the services that they need, and they go into public spaces and there’s conflict and tension. The police are not equipped to deal with that mental health crisis.
And I think there are a handful of sensible police leaders who would agree that we need to move funding away from the police and create a community of caregivers, experts who can deal with these other issues. Most of the issues that the police are dealing with are not about security. They’re not about violence and criminality in the way we think about it. And so, I do think it’s sensible to imagine a different structure where police can respond to the problems--or a different group of people can respond to the needs of the homeless, can respond to the needs of the mentally ill, can respond to the needs of people who are dealing with overdose. And that’s what I think a lot of us are talking about when we’re talking about a different conception of policing.
But even when we’re talking about catching people who’ve committed crimes, when we’re talking about managing security and violence, we’re still talking about a different kind of policing, a kind of policing where the police officer understands that it’s his or her obligation to keep the person safe even if they’ve committed a crime, that their job is to not punish people; their job is to not menace people; that their job is to create trust and hope and a sense of security. It’s terrible living in a community where you have to fear gang violence and gun violence and police violence all at the same time. How do you create a healthy relationship to the place you live when you have to fear all of those things? And so, we have to change that.
And I think that’s what a lot of us are talking about when we talk about reimagining policing, improving the health of communities, thinking differently about how we build trust in communities, how we build safety in communities. And that for me is the goal, is to improve public safety through models and systems and structures and funding that best ensures that everybody in the community is going to be taken care of when they’re having a crisis, when they’re--when they’re struggling, when they’re suffering, when they’ve been victimized by crime.
MR. CAPEHART: I want to pick up on something you talked about earlier, and that is the disparities on who goes to jail. Last year, you spoke with the Association of American Medical Colleges. And you said one in three Black male babies born today will go to jail in his lifetime. You also said, quote, “There’s an epidemic of hopelessness in so many of the communities where there’s poverty and despair. I go into poor communities and I sit down with 12-year-old boys and they say, 'I know I’m going to be in jail or prison by the time I’m 21.'”
When you hear that, how does that make you feel? And also, given that you are in this space, how do you--how do you break that? How do you-
MR. STEVENSON: Yeah.
MR. CAPEHART: What’s it going to take to break that cycle, because it’s more than hopelessness and despair?
MR. STEVENSON: Yeah, yeah. Well, I do think it’s crating a consciousness about the serious problems that we have in this country. It was the Bureau of Justice that made that forecast in 2001. Based on current then incarceration rates, they projected that one in three Black male babies born in this country is expected to go to jail or prison. One in six Latino boys is expected to go to jail or prison. And what troubled me the most about that, Jonathan, is that we just accepted that. We didn’t react to that the way we’re reacting to this pandemic, to the way we’re reacting to COVID, the way we react to hurricanes, the way we react to other crises. We didn’t see it as a crisis.
And part of the problem that we have in this country is that we’ve been acculturated to accept these unbelievably high rates of incarceration. We have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Our prison population has grown from 200,000 in the early 1970s to 2.2 million today. We’ve got 6 million people on probation and parole. There are nearly 70 million Americans with criminal arrests, which means that when they try to get jobs or loans, they’re disfavored by that arrest history. We’re creating a class of people who are permanently less employable, less capable of recovery.
We’ve done terrible things to women over the last quarter-century when the percentage of women going to jails and prisons has increased 700 percent. Eighty percent of these women are single parents with minor children, which means that we’re doing something disruptive to the children and the families. And so, I do think we’re going to have to understand this is a crisis. We have an incarceration crisis. We have a trauma crisis. We have too many children in this country born into ZIP Codes where they face violence. They live in violent homes. They live in violent neighborhoods. They go to violent schools. They start their education with elevated levels of cortisol and adrenaline coursing through their brains.
And instead of helping those kids feel safe, which is what you have to do when you’re dealing with somebody with a trauma disorder, we aggravate those disorders by threatening those kids, by saying we’re going to suspend you if you do this; we’re going to expel you if you do this. We have educational institutions where the teachers interact with poor kids like the teachers are correctional officers and the principals are wardens, and that threat and menace and punitive orientation is actually aggravating the problems that we see in communities.
And so, for me it means reckoning with this problem, understanding that we’ve got a crisis that has to be addressed just like we’re dealing with this COVID crisis. We’re going to have to do things in a very different way to create the kind of healthy spaces that our nation deserves for our most vulnerable populations.
MR. CAPEHART: Bryan, I want to end on what I hope, given how I know you, a happy note. But there are a lot of people, Democrats in particular--but there are a lot of Americans who are concerned about the moment we are in right now. People are feeling afraid, anxious, downright scared. And so, I’m just wondering, given everything that you’ve talked about in terms of how we as a nation need to own up to our history, acknowledge our history, embrace it as a means of moving forward, the question to you, the final question to you is, do we as a nation have the capacity to meet the moment that we’re in?
MR. STEVENSON: Oh, we absolutely do. We absolutely do. We have to be hopeful about what we can do. That’s the thing I think we have to understand. I actually believe that hopelessness is the enemy of justice. Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists. Once we accept that we don’t have the ability to do better, we are doomed. And I don’t believe it. My great-grandfather was enslaved in Caroline County, Virginia, and he learned to read while enslaved because he believed that, one day, he would be free. There was no rational basis for an enslaved Black man in Virginian in the 1850s to think that they would get--they would be free, but he had that hope. And because of that, he was able to read to formerly enslaved people. Every night in his home after emancipation he would read the newspaper so people would know what’s going on, and that created hope in that community that there might be a better day coming.
My grandmother would sit next to him, and she wanted to learn to read. And even though there wasn’t formal education, he gave her that skill, and she gave that to my mother, who was the youngest of 10 children. And we grew up poor, but my mom went into debt to buy the World Book Encyclopedia because she had this hope that, with information and knowledge, we might be able to do something.
I live in Montgomery, Alabama. I stand on the shoulders of people who did so much more with so much less. Think about the hope it took to believe that you could deconstruct, break down segregation when all you knew was a history of slavery and lynching and segregation. There is something better waiting for us in this country. There is something that feels more like freedom, feels more like equality, feels more like justice. It’s waiting for us. But we have to do the hard work necessary to achieve it.
And if we didn’t have any precedent for that, it might be possible to say, you know, we just can’t do this. But because I am the great-grandson of someone who was enslaved, I am the grandchild of some people who were terrorized by lynching, I’m the child of people who were humiliated by Jim Crow segregation, and yet I am here with this conviction that we can achieve something that feels more like equality and justice, I don’t think you have the option to believe that this is beyond our capacity. It is within our capacity, but it depends on our willingness to do the hard things, to stay hopeful, to challenge these structures and systems, to be vocal and to end this era of silence that has given rise to so many of these issues.
MR. CAPEHART: Bryan Stevenson, every time I talk to you, I wish I had six hours. We haven’t even scratched the surface of all--I’ve got 16 pages of questions for you and we only got through maybe two of them. But really, seriously, you in just 30 minutes have shown once again to--shown the nation why you are a national treasure, why your work is so important, and why your voice is so important. So, Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and so many other accolades, thank you very much for coming on Washington Post Live today.
MR. STEVENSON: My pleasure, Jonathan. Always great to be with you.
MR. CAPEHART: And thank you for watching. Come back this afternoon at 3:00 p.m. when my colleague Sally Quinn sits down with Marianne Williamson, and then David Ignatius will talk with Andrew Weissmann, Robert Mueller’s lead prosecutor. I’m Jonathan Capehart, opinion writer for The Washington Post, and you’ve been watching Washington Post Live. Have a good day.