Brotherhood

April 25, 2017

In the height of the Civil Rights Movement we used “brotherhood” to express our quest for more than tolerance, but for closeness as one human family. I’ve never found a gender-neutral term for that feeling, so I continue to use it but in a gender-neutral way – we are all family, cousins, a part of one community. As John Donne famously wrote in 1624, “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

Given the waves of hate crimes since the election, I’ve been thinking about brotherhood. This country is built on brotherhood, on sloughing off the ethnic, religious and physical prejudices our ancestors all brought from their old countries. By now those prejudices seem irrelevant. Many of us intermarried and were welcomed in new families. A friend told me that Bahai do it intentionally to bring people into the faith, though he was truly smitten and has a loving marriage. Most of us just happen to fall in love and old prejudices seem quaint and silly.

But brotherhood matters. Many of us watched the shredding of Yugoslavia. An exchange student from Belgrade was living with us, beside herself with grief and anger at the destruction of her country. Some had predicted Yugoslavia would explode once Marshal Tito died. But many intermarried, traveled among Yugoslavia’s regions, and young people, like our visitor, thought of themselves as Yugoslavs. But it came apart, viciously, in a blood bath of what was called “ethnic cleansing.”

Americans like to think America is and will always be ingenious, hardworking, neighborly and welcoming; that’s us – we’re the best. But many of us understand that virtues have to be nurtured, not assumed.

Early in the last century, President Teddy Roosevelt predicted “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.” The draft brought people together who had lived geographically, religiously, ethnically or racially segregated lives. As men returned from war, they introduced each other to sisters and friends, integrating families and communities. But the political strains of war in Vietnam ended the draft. Ben Downing recently urged national service on this station but we have nothing that compares with the reach and impact of the draft.

Racial segregation was made much worse by federal officials who required banks to redline cities and suburbs against loans to African-Americans no matter how strong their financial status. That left segregated school districts. Many of us still try to make our schools “great agents of democratization.” But racially homogenous student bodies make integration difficult or meaningless, and courts have made it worse.

Sports and entertainment still reflect integration. I once told Jackie Robinson’s widow how much it meant to grow up rooting for her husband. Black faces have been on national television as long as I can remember. My mother screamed with joy when William Warfield came out on stage and announced he would sing Old Man River. And I’ll never forget the sound of Marion Anderson’s voice when I heard her live. I’ve only caught glimpses of Oprah Winfrey but bless her influence. Familiarity, like minority newscasters and public officials, helps to diffuse prejudice and fear.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League rely on litigation to put racist groups out of business and catalogue hate groups, warning us about their activities and sharing strategies to extend the warm pull of brotherhood.

Other groups try to bring people together, to meet and appreciate each other, like the Interfaith Alliance, individual churches, temples and Muslim Community Centers, who invite people to meetings and festivals. We’ve often broken bread in the Muslim community.

But nothing matches what the draft and schools once did for so many of us. We need better ways to advance peace, justice and brotherhood.

— Most of this commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 25, 2017.

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Convicting the Innocent

June 21, 2016

I care about what happened in Orlando because the victims and their families are all members of the human family. And I cringe at the self-styled protestors who use God’s name in vain as an excuse for their own inhumanity toward the grieving families, who deserve to know that we care and share their grief.

Another story is also on my mind. On June 5, the Times Union headline read “Murder verdicts in doubt.” Two men were convicted in 1999 for the murder of a University at Albany student, and have already served 17 years in prison. The two men were grilled aggressively, until they broke down, trying to end the interrogation, and signed a confession. But an Ohio prisoner has now told officials he was the killer and expressed incredulity that Albany Police took a confession from prisoners who hadn’t been able to supply a single fact about the crime because neither had committed it. More than a fifth of exonerated prisoners had signed confessions.

Prisoners break down for many reasons. After hours or days of questioning by people who claim to know you’re guilty, appear ready to keep going until you surrender and sign, and tell you they’ll stop if you sign, that you’ll get off easier, or they won’t recommend the death penalty, it takes a lot of strength to continue to protest innocence. Some don’t have that strength because they are young and inexperienced. Some don’t muster that strength because they have confidence that the system will acquit them since they really didn’t do it. Some plead for lawyers but are broken before any come. It isn’t that hard to break people down and force them to say or sign false statements with enough pressure. It is the sophisticated, educated, trained individual who has some chance of

The two men convicted in this case had an alibi that police could have checked if they were seriously interested in convicting the right people. Police could have had the prisoners write what they remembered instead of dictating what they wanted in the confessions. The police actually tore up what they wrote as not good enough. People break. Breaking doesn’t mean confessing the truth. And being too [quotes] “weak” to withstand that kind of interrogation doesn’t mean people aren’t decent and couldn’t be valuable to their parents, spouses, children and society. We’re not all tough just like we’re not all Einsteins. We all have strengths and weaknesses.

Sending the wrong people to prison does double damage – it lets the guilty go free while the innocent suffer. Unfortunately it’s not rare. Sometimes it’s the result of sloppiness. Eye-witness identification of strangers, for example, is notoriously unreliable. Experiments have shown witnesses doing no better than chance. Suggestive lineups can be much worse than that. Failure to follow leads often results in convicting the innocent. It’s not just overly “aggressive” police work; sometimes police or prosecutors are so anxious to look good for “solving” a crime that they lose sight of who’s guilty. Sometimes they’ve framed people to cover their own misdeeds.  All of those things happen. The individual and collective results are tragic.

I keep hoping that cases like these will at least help people understand that what many call “prisoners’ rights” are actually the rights of all of us designed to make sure that innocent people, any of us, are not convicted and sent to prison for crimes we did not commit.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 21, 2016.

 


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