In most American courts of law, a raised voice or an opinion stated too aggressively will typically earn you the censure of the presiding judge. But that certainly wasn’t the case Tuesday night in the Teplitz Memorial Moot Courtroom, nestled deep within Pitt’s Law School.
A panel of five members and close legal advocates of the black community in Pittsburgh — spoke as part of a Pitt Black Law Students Association event. They discussed an issue that had strongly affected all of them personally — police brutality and the neglect of the justice system.
Some speakers were angrier than others. Sometimes panelists seemed surprised at each other’s reactions. But the emotion palpable in the room showed you don’t have to abandon emotional closeness to issues of injustice to make progress. And for those who don’t have personal experience with injustice, listening to those who do is imperative.
Probably the most memorable personality from the evening was Hazelwood native Terrell Johnson. Johnson described his personal experiences with law enforcement and ministers of justice in Pittsburgh. As he told his story, an attitude emerged that simultaneously communicated a lack of faith in the existing justice system and a steadfast belief in the existence of a higher justice.
“There was something bigger than me at work,” Johnson said. “I was a pawn in someone else’s game.”
Johnson explained to the group of about 40 students, law professors and community members in the courtroom how he ended up spending nearly two decades in jail for a case in which he was eventually found not guilty. Charged in 1994 in connection with the death of a state witness in another murder case, he attributed his horrific experience to a vindictive justice system and the impersonal, detached behavior of lawyers appointed to help him.
“The system is corrupt,” he said. “It’s not just because I’m a black man from Hazelwood — it’s corrupt.”
The 2012 decision reversing Johnson’s life sentence only came about after Turahn Jenkins, who is now assistant district attorney of Allegheny County, took up his case. Jenkins, who was in the audience Tuesday night, said he followed Johnson’s case throughout high school and the two developed a personal relationship when Jenkins took the case on.
Johnson directly contrasted the personal relationship he still has with Jenkins with the impersonal treatment he received from court-appointed attorneys that failed him in 1994. The devotion to the case and level of care for its outcome were important in making Jenkins — who is also black — successful.
In light of pervasive, institutional racism, having a lawyer who understands the subjective nature of our justice system can make all the difference. While white Americans can and often do face difficulties in life, it’s unlikely I — as a white person — will ever be framed for a crime I didn’t commit simply to satisfy the public’s demands that someone be put away after a murder.
Emotional distance from the negative aspects of the criminal justice system distorts my default perception of the issue to make it appear less urgent than it actually is. Listening to people speak who have direct experience of it isn’t optional — it’s irreplaceable if I want to hold an informed, legitimate viewpoint.
But there isn’t nearly enough listening happening. A survey from the Pew Research Center last June found wide gaps between white and black respondents’ opinions on issues of race in America today. Whereas three out of four black participants thought treatment in American courts was unequal on the basis of race, less than half of white respondents agreed.
Arnold Perry, another panelist the moderator introduced as a former member of the Black Panther Party, described this tendency with an active outrage that Johnson had avoided.
“They don’t like to talk about justice when it comes to black men,” he said, standing up in indignation from his seat. “We were told we’ve been fully integrated. In 2017, it’s still going on.”
Perry’s experience of racism in America differed from Johnson’s in many ways. He explained how he decided to join the black nationalist organization largely because the black experience is suppressed in society.
“We’d come home and see the war in Vietnam on TV, and then see a war in the South against black people,” Perry said.
Like Johnson, Perry was falsely accused of a crime and brought into court to answer for society’s desire to see someone put in jail. On telling the local head of the NAACP that the police who had arrested him had brutalized him, Perry said the response was that he should be grateful they hadn’t done more.
Perry’s experience was one of extreme disillusionment — he even said that he didn’t believe the “American dream” had or would ever extend to black men. But as uncomfortable as some might find it to listen to this viewpoint, it’s nevertheless extremely important to consider. In the same 2016 Pew survey, 43 percent of black respondents said they were dubious the United States would ever actually make the changes necessary to raise blacks to full equality with whites.
Recognition of subjective, emotional experience and honest engagement with others’ experiences is vital to understanding and solving social problems. And especially in the area of abuse of power by law enforcement, such recognition is vital. Black communities, who bear a statistically overbalanced share of police violence, receive the worst but not the only abusive treatment from a legal and justice system that is far from perfect. Everyone stands to gain from mutual understanding.
Perry concluded his part of the discussion with the direction to keep the experience of marginalized groups close to your mind when acting to do something about the issue.
“When you see a miscarriage of justice, stand up, because it could be you next,” he said.
Henry is the Opinions Editor at The Pitt News. Write to Henry at firstname.lastname@example.org.