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In the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, Bryan who is an attorney guides us through his life in Alabama and how he helps defend innocent, poor men on death row who were wrongly convicted. Throughout each case, we see how a good proportion of the men sentenced were specifically chosen because of race and vulnerability. Poverty is a key ingredient for vulnerability in Just Mercy and is also a great issue for African Americans in the South during this time. The main theme of this book, according to Bryan Stevenson, is that “ The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.” This statement means black people are being treated so cruelly that not even all the money in the world could overcome the satisfaction they would receive for having freedom and fairness. This is easily shown from the beginning of Just Mercy through racial profiling, poverty, and police brutality/mistreatment.
Racial profiling refers to the discriminatory practice by law enforcement officials of targeting individuals for suspicion of crime based on the individual’s race, ethnicity, or religion. Although local officials in Alabama didn’t discriminate off of religion, they did discriminate off of ethnicity and race. Being black predominantly meant you were dangerous and a threat to society. For example, Walter McMillian was an African American man who was accused by Ralph Myers of killing Ronda Morrison. All of Walter’s family knew he could not have murdered her because he was a very hardworking man and they had evidence that he was at a fish fry with them while the murder took place. The only evidence the police had on Walter was that he “ was an African American man involved in an adulterous interracial affair, which meant he was reckless and possibly dangerous” (Pg. 34). Just by being black and having an interracial affair was sufficient enough evidence for them to believe Ralph Myer’s fake story and convict Mr. McMillian which is not just. Another example of racial profiling in the book involves the author, Bryan Stevenson, during his early twenties. Bryan was sitting in his car one night until a SWAT car came rushing down the road and stopped right in front of him. The police shined a light on him in suspicion, so Bryan got out of his car very frightened and was going to try and walk home until they threatened, “Move and I’ll blow your head off!” (Pg. 40). As you can see these police officers only believed Bryan was threatening and unsafe based on his race. After, they illegally searched through his car and sadly found no evidence to be able to take him back to prison. Bryan was then let go but was very moved by the incident and now had a better understanding of what poor, colored people where struggling with in Alabama. Both of these occurrences show how it is a struggle for African American’s to fit into society and why racial profiling affects their daily life. Blacks living in poverty can’t walk outside without having anyone thinking they are dangerous or threatening which is why they would much rather have the feeling of freedom and equal representation than monetary satisfaction.
Poverty is another great struggle that people in Alabama have to live with. They key theme of Just Mercy is poverty and it is shown throughout each case Bryan has to defend. The majority of blacks, and even some whites, living in the south are having to live on the streets or even avoid proper hospital care because they don’t have enough money to afford it. There are occasions where mothers can’t afford prenatal care and try to deliver their own babies which is unsafe. For instance, Marsha Colby lived in a poor rural Alabama town with her husband Glen Colby, where they struggled financially. They lived in a crowded trailer with their six children and they knew they were at risk when they heard warnings for Hurricane Ivan to hit. After the damage the hurricane had done, Marsha found herself pregnant. One of the problems was that she “knew that a pregnancy at her age was very risky, but she couldn’t afford a doctor. She didn’t have the money to spare” (Pg. 229). Marsha knew what to expect from her prior deliveries so she thought she’d make the best of it. For a couple of days she wasn’t feeling well so she sat in a hot tub of water thinking it would help. Out of nowhere she felt loads of pain go through her body and started to go into labor. She had delivered a stillborn baby and tried reviving the infant, but saw he wasn’t breathing and concluded he was dead. Her neighbors saw that she wasn’t pregnant anymore, but there was no baby insight and called the police. Marsha was then arrested and charged with capital murder. The court concluded that “the child would have survived with medical attention” (Pg. 231). Many women suffer with this same problem and are too scared to get professional help to deliver and take care of their babies. Not having enough money to afford hospital care shouldn’t be a worry for pregnant mothers because it is not safe and could end up having mothers being wrongly convicted for killing their child. Wealth is not the opposite of poverty, but it is justice and we see it here because mothers who cannot afford treatment are being sentenced for “killing their children” but in reality, they just do not have the money to see doctors and get their kids killed on accident which isn’t fair for them.
In addition to racial profiling and poverty, Bryan Stevenson shows us how police mistreatment and brutality occurs in his book. Police mistreatment is still a worldwide problem and exists in the U.S., affecting predominately black prisoners physically and mentally. Police mishandling prisoners is one example of mistreatment and is shown with Bryan’s first client named Henry. Bryan first came into the Southern Prisoners Defensive Committee as an intern and was asked to visit this man named Henry. He was only supposed to tell him his execution date was pushed back, but once Bryan gave him the news, he became very happy which surprised him. After hours of talking, the guard came back in very angry because they have gone over the amount of time they were given to talk. So “he roughly shackled Henry’s ankles. The guard was so angry he put the cuffs on too tight” (Pg. 11). Bryan saw this and was concerned for how tight he put the shackles on Henry, but the officer angrily told him to leave. In many of Bryan’s cases you can see how police mistreat their prisoners, exhibiting abusive behavior. Many of these brutalized prisoners are poor and colored, which is not a surprise. It is not right what these black prisoners have to face everyday and they deserve the equal care and rights that white prisoners receive. Bryan shows us how justice and equal representation for men in these situations would be a greater pleasure than anything else.
Growing up in Southern California I wasn’t exposed to any racial segregation, but I did learn in school about how blacks where severely mistreated and taken away their rights. It was not surprising seeing what these prisoners had to go through. Being racially profiled and mistreated was a common situation during this time. My reaction was probably different than other races and classes of identity because others, as in African Americans, would have reacted in a more offensive way. If I was to happen to be black, I would react the same exact way because I would believe that I was just as human as any of those other white police officers or prisoners and that I’d deserve the same amount of freedom and fairness as them. Being a colored man living in poverty would be a tough life. Not having equal independence is not just and it is why the “The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice” (Bryan Stevenson).
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