When we watch the movie Just Mercy, we are brought back to the pain and anger that our racist structures have been causing to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) folks in this country. Even though it was based on happenings from over 25 years ago, we know they are true to this day.
Just Mercy tells us the true story of a Black Harvard Law School graduate, Bryan Stevenson, opening a law firm in Alabama and focusing on representing prisoners sentenced to death row. His most famous case was of Walter McMilliam, a Black man who was wrongfully convicted to death row for the murder of an eighteen-year-old white woman. The only “evidence” used for the case was a testimony from a white man in trial for another murder, Ralph Myers, who stated he was with McMilliam when he committed murder. Once Stevenson looked at the McMilliam case, he found many gaps and worked hard to fill them in. Eventually, the evidence proving McMilliam’s innocence came to light, including dozens of testimonies from his family members, neighbors, friends, and church community members who were all black; a violation of his rights because he was sentenced to death row before having a trial; documentation showing thatMyers’s death row sentence had been reduced to 30 years in prison after he testified against McMilliam; previous recordings of Myers being pressured by officers to testify; and, eventually, Myers’s willingness to testify that he had falsely accused McMilliam. With this evidence, McMilliam was able to expose the racist practices of the Alabama justice system.
Other important roles the movie depicts are Sheriff Tate and District Attorney Tommy Chapman, who worked closely with the sheriff. Their relationship is portrayed as buddies who are there for each other. When Stevenson approached Chapman for support about reopening McMilliam’s case, the DA immediately rejected him. Later on, once Stevenson began to work on McMilliam’s case, he was threatened by police officers under Sheriff Tate’s command, which can only be understood as a threat. Once Stevenson gets a hearing where Myers testifies, we can see how Myers is uncomfortably sweating and continues to fearfully look over Sheriff Tate’s direction while being interrogated. Eventually he admits his testimony was false and never saw McMilliam at the crime scene of the murdered young white woman. After six years, Stevenson is able to bring the case to a state level, where District Attorney Chapman, who had always supported Sheriff Tate, decides to drop the charges against McMilliam, making him a free man. This might have been caused by the pressure he felt from the media, and from his own ethical dilemmas on the evidence. At the end, we learn that Sheriff Tate, who is hinted to be someone who abuses his power to his benefit, kept his position after McMilliam’s release for 26 more years.
So what are the connections between Just Mercy and the Suffolk Downs Redevelopment, you ask? Well, bringing it back to 2020 and our first summer in COVID-19, we know death row is not the only way Black people and other BIPOC folks are mistreated in our society. For the past six years, East Boston’s immigrant and low-income community has been displaced by numerous luxury developments of various sizes. Bigger than all of the previous developments is the Suffolk Downs Redevelopment. Since we at PUEBLO have lived and seen the displacement in our home, we know what this development in its current state will bring to our people.
Just Mercy is also about who holds power and who does not, and how those with power wield it against the rest of us. The characters of the Suffolk Downs Redevelopment story are Bruce Harris, the billionaire and main investor from Texas who does not show his face and keeps undercover, yet holds a lot of power because of his economic standing, similar to Sheriff Tate, whose power comes from being the local police authority. Then, we have HYM Investment Group led by Tom O’Brien, who like Myers, holds a lot of power in making a difference on how this redevelopment will impact the people living around it, yet is also following the rules and instructions from Bruce (or Sheriff Tate). We also have the BPDA who, similar to DA Chapman, plays an important role in how this redevelopment can benefit or not the community for whom he works for. In the same way Stevenson gives another chance to the death row convicted men, we at PUEBLO work hard to give space and volume to our community members who are kept out of these processes due to language barriers, technology barriers, and lack of appropriate outreach. We are tired of seeing our home of East Boston be drastically changed because of greedy ambitions who only see dollar numbers in a property, and pretend there are no people living next to those properties.
At the beginning of the movie, one of Stevenson’s assistants made the point that Sheriff Tate took almost one year to find a lead in the case of the young white woman, which he did by having another man convicted of murder to testify against McMilliam who “happens to be a black man from a poor community that no one would think twice about”. In the same sense, our East Boston families are those who many would not “think twice about.” This disregard has been on display in the Suffolk Downs Redevelopment process, shown by previous failure to provide adequate interpretation services, late translated documents, and bad outreach to the Spanish-speaking community and other BIPOC folks whose lives will be negatively impacted by this redevelopment. We are aware of the Community meetings happening today August 15th, 20th and 25th whose goal is to reach these non-English proficient communities. Will HYM Investment Group and the BPDA, with a new project manager, hear the community this time? We shall stay tuned.
We end today’s post with a quote from the last scene in the movie where Stevenson and McMilliam share from the U. S. Senate Hearing “[We learned that] the opposite of power isn’t wealth. The opposite of power is justice. That the character of our nation isn’t reflected in how we treat the rich and the privileged but how we treat the poor, the disfavored and condemned. Our system has taken more away from this innocent man than it has the power to give back.”