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American lawyer Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative.
American lawyer Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative. Photograph: Linda Nylind
American lawyer Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative. Photograph: Linda Nylind

Bryan Stevenson: 'I don’t do what I do because I have to. I do what I do because I’m broken too'

US lawyer Bryan Stevenson spends his life trying to reverse racially motivated injustice. At a preview screening of Selma, he tells Guardian members why

In a parallel universe, Selma, Ava DuVernay’s biopic of Martin Luther King and his consciousness-raising march from the town of Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, might have been watched in much the same way as biopics of great sports people: comfortably, and through the double-glazing of history. But the reality is that the very inequality and activism it pictures remains a live issue in the US, now all the more visible in the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

Addressing Guardian members ahead of a preview screening of the film at a Guardian Live event was lawyer Bryan Stevenson, framing the film’s themes in this contemporary context. As the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), Stevenson is carrying the torch that Dr King was suddenly forced to relinquish – he is devoted to confronting and reversing instances of racially motivated injustice in the American legal system. He has saved 115 men from the death sentence, some of whom were freed when it became clear they were innocent all along; he has witnessed first-hand the latent bigotry that still seeps through from the Selma era.

Presumption of guilt

In conversation with the Guardian’s Hugh Muir, he gives examples of today’s wrongs: children as young as 10 facing decades in prison, a man who stole a bike getting a mandatory life sentence because it was his fourth offence. And it’s worst for black men, with one in three black male babies born today ending up in prison at some point. Stevenson himself, an erudite and gentle man, has had police guns held to his head, and judges assuming he’s the defendant in the courtroom, when really he’s the defence.

How did America end up here, where, as Stevenson says, “young men of colour are treated with a presumption of guilt”? He argues that America hasn’t worked through the trauma of the antebellum era, and tried to move on too fast. “We’re pretty arrogant about our biggest mistakes,” he says. “America has to start talking about slavery. We became a slave society; created a narrative, and ideology, to legitimise slavery.” That story has underpinned the country even as it outlawed slavery, and fed into the following era of lynchings and terrorism against black Americans; “slavery didn’t end in America, it just evolved,” as Stevenson says.

He’s wry about the successes of the civil rights movement, saying that in the popular imagination, the movement is a “three-day carnival”, from Rosa Parks through to King, and then bills being passed. Instead, the black experience is of “decades of suffering and anguish”. He reminisces about a childhood where he couldn’t visit the beach or go to the movies – “that anguish is part of what we have to confront”.

State of powerlessness

For Stevenson, this evolution of slavery manifests itself in an overly punitive justice system born in the the “law and order” era of the 1960s onward, “a political movement that tried to exploit fear and anger”. A corporatised prison system, where profits rise alongside prisoner numbers, isn’t helping, and nor is the “militarisation of police”. The culture also led to criminologists dehumanising troubled children as “super-predators”, with the chief tactic being “get them while they’re young and throw them away”, as Stevenson characterises it.

A law in his home state of Alabama that prohibits ex-cons from ever voting again has left a third of black men unable to vote – the very issue that King was fighting against. “We’re moving towards the same state of powerlessness that Dr King was trying to fight,” Stevenson says. “The challenges are as great as they’ve ever been.” He doesn’t particularly point the finger at the police in the Garner and Brown cases, but says that they’re merely “a reflection of the system”.

This culture of punishment has led to the disabled, and those without families, highly prone to imprisonment as they lash out against their situations; the imprisonment of black men is self-perpetuating, with youths assuming they’ll end up in jail, and so trying to amass as many ill-gotten gains as they can before the inevitable arrest.

Broken communities

It’s describing these cases that Stevenson sets eyes pricking. He tells the story of his first client as he was setting up the EJI, a man who said he didn’t mind if Stevenson got him out of jail, he just wanted to be listened to. After they failed to stay his execution by electric chair, the man found that the guards softened, asking him if they could help him and fetch him meals he wanted – it was the first time, in a life of physical and sexual abuse spiralling into drug dependence, that he’d been offered help. Stevenson describes witnessing the man’s death as “disruptive on a metaphysical level … to reduce a person to their worst act is inconsistent with basic human rights”.

Even more powerful is his story of a man with learning difficulties and a speech impediment, sentenced to death, finding the words to thank Stevenson for fighting for him. It had Stevenson in tears, doubting he could continue.

“My life is filled with brokenness. All my clients have been broke by racism and poverty,” he says. “I don’t do what I do because I have to, because I’ve been trained to. I do what I do because I’m broken too. You cannot defend condemned people without being broken. You recognise this community of the broken. That makes it not about them, but about you – I’m trying to save my life. When they’re executed, a part of me dies. When they’re exonerated, I feel their freedom.” It’s not surprising that he has caught the ear of another rhetorician in Barack Obama, who is employing him on a task force on community policing.

In an hour with him, there’s not enough time for a meaningful route out of the mess, but the paradox of listening to Stevenson is that despite the morass of problems, he is a profoundly uplifting person to be with – warm, intelligent, and with twinkling flashes of wit that light up the dystopia he portrays. He remains positive, highlighting the progress the LAPD has made in the years since Rodney King, and the new protest movement.

But most uplifting of all is his final anecdote, of his grandmother ferociously hugging him to show just how loved he was. It’s a trick he’s now using on young black kids he encounters, “to show them just how much I believe”. Stevenson is taking Martin Luther King’s back-foot stance of non-violence and launching himself forward, literally embracing a culture that’s still so unloved.

Guardian Live is our series of events, debates and festivals exclusively for Guardian members. Find out how to sign up.

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