The writer of the following letter is imprisoned in Massachusetts.
As the month of October began, an extraordinary event was unfurling in a Texas courtroom. At least that’s how the mainstream media was reporting it. However, for people of color and other oppressed individuals, this was a familiar scene. In front of the entire country, Botham Jean’s younger brother pleaded with the court for an opportunity to hug the very same policewoman who had just been convicted of murdering his brother in cold blood.
This single act of forgiveness and mercy instantaneously was hailed by the media as proof of humanity and justice in action. Yet I watched stubbornly through clenched hands, and couldn’t help but harken back to another tragedy which ended with similar results: the mass murder in Charleston by the terrorist Dylan Roof [in 2015]. Once again, the family and congregation of the slain gifted the perpetrator with forgiveness and appeals for leniency. And though I recognized the wisdom of their grace, I question the hypocrisy of a society which praises mercy for the white body while simultaneously condemning with enthusiasm the bodies of the poor, Black and Brown.
Time and time again, whenever these acts of nobility are displayed, we cheer and share in compassion this excellent example of humanity. Somehow though, such acts only seem to originate from the perspective of the oppressed and victims of tyranny, while the halls of so-called justice remain cold and without any sense of compassion.
Our criminal justice system is cruel and punitive beyond respectability, and whenever a push to repair this broken system is raised, the opposition to such legislation retorts just as cruelly. Compassion is lost and these great examples of humanity at work are forgotten.
So I ask: Why is it when the full weight of the police-state murders an unarmed Black man do we cheer for the victim’s benevolence and mercy? Why do we extol the virtues of a small congregation, yet continue to require and demand so much less from an entire system that is responsible for the lives of so many?
Too often we come upon an old man getting released from over three decades of false imprisonment, saying he holds no malice toward those responsible for his incarceration, despite little to no reparation or accountability, and we admire his powers of forgiveness. Why is it always the Black body, the oppressed collective, or the burdened portion who is cheered for their clemency, while we praise the criminal justice system for its brutality? It seems mercy and justice are only available when the destruction is a poor, Black or Brown body, and is only distributed to the white and privileged.
For once, we have the chance to bring our sentiment and our policies into alignment. On Oct. 8, the Massachusetts legislature held open hearings for Sen. Joseph Boncore and Rep. Jay Livingstone’s identical bills, “An Act to Reduce Mass Incarceration,” S826 and H3358 respectively, regarding parole eligibility for those who have served 25 years or more in prison.
Massachusetts currently incarcerates the second-highest percentage of life without parole prisoners in the United States, trailing only behind Louisiana. Despite representing itself as a bastion of progressiveness, it is actually quite cruel in its practice. These bills, however, present an opportunity for our institutions to finally reflect our society’s beliefs. It’s time our systems start to represent for everyone the values we so passionately praise in its citizens and enact some evidence-based policies. We must become the better angels of our nature and demand our government and institutions follow the lead of its people.
Spread the word and contact Sen. Boncore and Rep. Livingstone to lend your support to ensure these bills get passed. Then, and only then, will our acts of compassion not be in vain.