The Dangerously Compassionate
WHAT: Dangerous, violent, menace to society. Brother, sister, son, daughter, mother, father. For many, they are forcefully identified in both categories. While incarcerated and following their release, they are going to identify with such words to bring predisposed opinions of them that will impact their lives forever. There is a stigma attached to the common discourse of the people accused, which don’t always prove to be true. In Just Mercy Bryan Stevenson mentions, “I wasn’t prepared to meet a condemned man” (6). Stevenson was not aware of this man’s charges, background, or character upon arrival. He only knew that he was in prison, and more importantly, on death row. Throughout the chapter, we do not learn what this man did to be in his position, we learn about his character. Which is something the media does not focus on in the discourse regarding people who are incarcerated. Stevenson states, “I didn’t expect him to be compassionate or generous. I had no right to expect anything from a condemned man on death row. Yet he gave me an astonishing measure of his humanity” (12). There is a reason that Stevenson did not feel he could expect anything from this man. That is because he has learned that people who are incarcerated are a threat and typically can’t be trusted. Although when Stevenson got to know Henry, his opinions changed. He was able to experience talking to and enjoying the company of a man who is condemned. This shows that regardless of the mistakes we unfortunately make in our lives, we still are capable of showing compassion.
SO WHAT: In the area which Stevenson lives, his identity is made of two very important characteristics. He is a very well educated Black male in America. His social identities shaped his experiences because it allowed him to relate to the people he was working with. Stevenson states as he saw Henry for the first time, “He looked immediate familiar to me, like everyone I’d grown up with, friends from school, people I played sports or music with, someone I’d talk to about the street about the weather” (9). This allows him to relate to the people he is working with, while it would more difficult if he was a rich White man who grew up in a wealthy neighborhood. Since he has the connection and compassion for the condemned people he works with, he has the ability to see past their charges and prior actions. Stevenson mentions, “I have discovered deep in the hearts of many condemned and incarcerated people, the scattered traces of hope and humanity — the seeds of restoration that come to astonishing life when nurtured by very simple interventions” (17). Without the willingness to and learned comfort with visiting the condemned in prisons, Stevenson, like many, would not be exposed to the compassionate side of the people we are told to fear. They are unable to portray their humanly compassion regularly because they are restricted to the confinement of a jail or prison cell.
NOW WHAT: Stevenson faces constraints simply because he is a Black male. Although since he is an educated man, he has some advantages. He understands how to handle specific situations in life, which many would not have the capacity to. Stevenson mentions, “The more I thought about it, the more concerned I became about all of the young black boys and men in that neighborhood. Did they know not to run? Did they know to stay calm and say, ‘it’s okay’?” Due to Stevenson’s background in the law, he understands the importance of remaining calm and focused on his overall safety, not make rash decisions as others who are put in that situation would make. Yet he is also faces many stereotypes where he lives. In the same incidence of being stopped by the police, Stevenson states, “There was a particularly vocal older white woman who loudly demanded that I be questioned about items she was missing” (41). Regardless of Stevenson’s status, he will continue to racially discriminated against due to the racism in America. As opposed to Stevenson’s constraints, the people he represents are in much worse situations. They are continuously told that they are dangerous criminals that do not belong in society, even if they haven’t been proven guilty yet. The most that the condemned people to redefine their social identities is within the establishment and their families. It will be very difficult to change the media’s interpretation and representation of condemned inmates and convicted felons.
The people at my community service partner site face many constraints. Since they are homeless or living in extreme poverty, they are also stereotyped as harmful and bad people or, in some cases, dangerous when they are simply disadvantaged. Some of the people we work with go to the extreme of breaking the law to go to jail and avoid harsh weather conditions, shower for a night, and get a hot meal. Working closely with them, I’ve had the first hand experience of witnessing their kindness and compassion.