“I’ll See You on the Battlefield:” Raymond Santana’s Visit to Davidson
On Thursday, November 14, I attended a speech by Raymond Santana, a member of the Exonerated Five who was jailed at age 14 for six years after the Central Park Jogger Case. I was struck by the brokenness to be found in our systems and the role that now–President Trump played, a fact that I did not know prior to Santana’s speech. Trump spent tens of thousands on full page ads calling for the death penalty for five boys between ages 14 and 16, and has refused to apologize even when asked in June 2016 – long after DNA evidence and a confession from the perpetrator of the crime proved they had no involvement, and the Exonerated Five had received a settlement for their wrongful imprisonment from New York City and State. Santana’s depiction of media impacts on the Central Park Jogger Case provided another shocking connection to today’s events. The terminology used by the media in order to sensationalize the case, terms such as “wilding” and “wolf pack,” as well as the frequent characterization of the boys on trial as “animals” is demonstrative of racist animalistic characterizations of people of color that have existed since the Ku Klux Klan promotional film “The Birth of a Nation” in order to create fear and prejudice against people of color. Santana expressed the psychological impact of such terms upon young men who had a variety of life experiences – who went to school, loved their parents, played sports and would never have committed the action of which they were accused. Santana also explained the connections between the utilization of this language to implicitly characterize crime as committed by people of color that influenced the mindset leading to the 1994 Crime Bill. This bill sparked the institution of arrest and sentencing practices that created the disproportionate imprisonment of people of color when compared to white people, as well as the prison industrial complex.
It was incredibly moving to hear Santana’s impressions of his experience, as well as to see him and personally hear his words – for me, in conjunction with Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, this allowed me to fully comprehend the horrors that these boys had endured. Despite my greater understanding, I felt disgusted at myself and American culture for my initially dismissive attitude towards the humanity of these boys – I was unwilling to consider them as human beings that had experiences like me, and I hadn’t really heard of their case prior to the popularity of DuVernay’s docu-drama series. Following my research of Santana and the Exonerated Five, I began to wonder about the other cases of wrongful conviction that undoubtedly exist, with their victims powerless to prove their innocence or muster the attention and resources needed to combat their conviction. As someone who is considering the study of political science, the brokenness of the American justice system was particularly striking. How have we come so far, and yet we have lost the fundamental idea of innocence until proven guilty? Another striking conclusion I gained from the Santana speech was the lack of any sort of ramification for those involved in the wrongful conviction of the teenagers, even years after their official exoneration and successful suit of New York City and State. Linda Fairstein, former head of the sex crimes unit at the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and a driving force behind the conviction of the teens despite the lack of conclusive evidence, continued to write successful crime novels and appear on high-profile boards up until the popularity of “When They See Us” created a public outcry that forced her into the spotlight, causing her to be removed from several executive boards and to be dropped by her publisher. Elizabeth Ledger, chief prosecutor in the case, was a lecturer at Columbia Law School until June of 2019. Why were there no ramifications for or even discussion of these people until a successful TV show was made? What does this say about our society?
In a psychological lens, Santana’s expression of the emotional impact of formative years spent behind prison bars was striking in its tragedy. Santana described the impacts of the 11 year civil suit that finally gave the men compensation for their wrongful imprisonment as “Even though we have won, we still lose because at the end of the day that gap is gone. How do we keep moving, keep living? They controlled the narrative of our story.” It was amazing to me what light Santana brought to us despite everything that he had endured. He was nothing but positive and supportive of our role as the next generation of voters, activists, and leaders. His words were incredibly inspirational, and moved me to feel as if I could truly help to create change. “We found out we had a voice. We gotta use this platform to save our children. All of ’em…You have ideas. Use them. Live life to the fullest and go to the grave empty…March the truth. Don’t cut the corners. Occupy those spaces. Shoot for the top.” He ended his speech telling us to fight for change, and that “I’ll see you on the battlefield.”
Santana spoke to a packed student/community audience – there weren’t enough chairs for all of us, standing room only, which was particularly striking to me. Within Davidson College, a space where white male voices have been the only valued contribution for so long, a true change is building. A generation is forming that can create real change, informed by the mistakes and injustices of the past. I feel so lucky to be living, growing, and learning in a place where that will happen.
Seeking Just Mercy: Bryan Stevenson at Davidson
On January 28, 2019, I attended a speech by Bryan Stevenson – a lawyer, social justice advocate, and leader of the Equal Justice Initiative. In President Carol Quillen’s introduction to Stevenson, she described him by referencing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous quote that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Stevenson, according to President Quillen, is one of the individuals who work to bend that arc. This description was particularly striking in the call to action that it presents. Stevenson began by introducing us to the issues that the EJI works to solve, including mass incarceration, disenfranchisement, and a general deficit of justice in our legal system. In order to solve this, in Stevenson’s words, it is necessary that we “get proximate to people who are suffering.” For me, this advice prompted connections to my definition of revolution – getting proximate seems very similar to my conception of listening to the stories of others. Stevenson continued by discussing the story that our American society seems to tell itself about prison. The vehemence with which being “tough on crime” is defended reflects an anger that Stevenson attributes to the desire to punish rather than rehabilitate.
In connection with the Raymond Santana lecture, Stevenson addressed the narrative surrounding the Exonerated Five, with labels such as ‘super predator’ being used to tell a story of dangerous, animalistic violence. Stevenson goes further than Santana by exploring the concrete ramifications of this language on our society, referencing the 13 states that do not have a minimum age at which one can be tried as an adult. Stevenson then discussed the “secret history of racial injustice” that continually burdens our society. Telling the stories hidden in this secret history would be revolutionary – creating understanding and empathy for the individuals affected. In another reference to changes in narrative, Stevenson re-characterizes the individuals he has met on Death Row. Describing their various traumas, experiences, and stories, Stevenson forces us to consider their humanity, asking “Why do we want to kill all the broken people?” Responding to his own question, Stevenson asserts his own brokenness as motivation to work for other broken individuals trapped within our legal system. Lastly, Stevenson concluded by reframing poverty – stating that the opposite of poverty is not wealth, but justice.