An Inescapable Network of Mutuality
I hope this letter finds you well and that you are enjoying a peaceful and relaxing spring break in Brooklyn. You certainly deserve one. Things are good here in Montgomery. It’s unseasonably cold down here, but the flowers are beginning to bloom and small green buds are beginning to appear on trees. Darcy is doing great and Callie is growing every day. You wouldn’t believe all the new words and phrases that she says daily. She is very excited about becoming a big sister. I look forward to Callie and Tessa getting to spend some quality time with their Uncle Brown sometime in the near future.
Work is going good as well. I still love my job with the Equal Justice Initiative. I couldn’t imagine doing a job that brings me greater satisfaction than my current one. Though I have to say, as I deal with the criminal justice system more and more, I try to determine what the root of the problem is. Why does this country have such a love affair with mass incarceration? Why are we among the world’s leaders in putting people to death? Why are we the only country that throws our children who commit crimes into prison for the rest of their lives with no chance of life outside of prison? As I have thought about these issues, I often come back to the lack of community in our society.
I have found that it is much easier to treat strangers a way that you would never treat a loved one. If you have a loved one who is struggling with drug addiction, you try to help them through the problem and, in some instances, even stage an intervention to help get them into rehab and on the road to recovery. Or when you are raising your children, you teach them that everyone makes mistakes – in fact, I remember Big Bird driving home this point on Sesame Street when I was younger. I even remember Grandmom telling me (over and over) “no matter who you are when you grow up, or what you do with your life, even if you were to do something like commit a murder, I will always love you.” That love is such a powerful thing. Typing that memory brings tears to my eyes; just knowing that someone loved me through and through.
But we don’t treat strangers with nearly the same compassion as we treat our loved ones. In this country, if you have a drug addition, we don’t provide treatment for you. Instead, we throw you in prison – the “War on Drugs” has vastly increased our prison population to never before seen numbers. And if you are a child in this country and you succumb to peer pressure or do something impulsive and irresponsible (as fourteen year olds often do), then we can throw you in prison for the rest your life without giving you any opportunity to show that you are reformed, or that you deserve a second chance. And in this country, we have no problem with the State ending the life of a human being – a permanent, devastating punishment that is unique in its finality and cruelty – despite the fact that one in nine individuals who are sentenced to this ultimate punishment are later exonerated.
I think the universal thread that runs through all of these issues is that people are comfortable with the actions being taken by our society as a whole, because they are being taken against nameless, faceless individuals. Our society is self-centered – people often take the approach that if it doesn’t affect me and my friends and family, then why do anything. They don’t seem to see that the actions being taken against these individuals directly affect them. Sometimes I feel that if we could foster a greater sense of Ubuntu in our society, maybe people would realize how these policies affect them: How mass incarceration is damaging to the society, breaks up families, and causes destruction. How throwing children away to die in prison illustrates our lack of humanity. How allowing the state to end the life of another human being is a cruel and medieval practice that provides us with nothing but hate and vengeance in our hearts.
As I write this, I am reminded of the words of Dr. King:
[A]ll mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be – this is the interrelated structure of reality.
But how can we get this individualistic society that we live in to realize this truth? How can we foster Ubuntu in a society so based in individual identity? How can we make people realize that what is best for them is what is best for all, rather than what is best for one? Sometimes it feels hopeless, but I know that we must maintain hope and I will wait for the words of encouragement that I hope and trust you will be able to provide.
Please write and let me know how things are in Brooklyn. Give Dayde and Kyle high fives from me. I hope they are doing well and I know they are lucky to have you in their lives.
All my best,