Imagine this: You have fallen asleep in your tent to the sound of spring crickets, your weary body exhausted from the daily work of survival. Suddenly, you’re jolted awake by pounding feet and booming voices. Three police officers, young and strong, storm your camp and pull you, half asleep, from your tent. They know you are here, they have been here before, and before you know what’s happening, they cuff your hands behind your back. “Yea, that’s him alright—white male, black jacket, black hat.” Your mind is still foggy and you plead with them, trying to understand. What did you do wrong? Why the cuffs? They force you up the footpath toward the police car. A woman was attacked a mile or so down the road and these officers say the person she described—white male, black jacket, black hat—matches your description. You protest and they push harder. You ask who the woman was and they mutter a name you’ve never heard. Charged with sexual battery… what would such a conviction do to your housing status, your life? How long will you sit in jail awaiting trial? How will this protect the victim from further injury?
When I went to jail to visit “David,” his back was bent but his eyes were clear. We met in the space designated for attorney visits surrounded by surveillance cameras, concrete walls, and screeching metal doors. I told him I knew he didn’t do it. I had filled out housing paperwork with him the day before his arrest and had known him for the better part of a year. When I heard the story from his campmates and read the affidavit, I knew something was wrong. I told him I would write a letter of support for him, track down his public defender, and come for his court date. He thanked me again and again, told me what it meant to be visited, to be believed, to not feel so powerless and alone.
As I was walking back from the jail, I ran into David’s friend “Alejandro.” Alejandro has Spanish-Indian blood, gypsy eyes, and a bright disposition, though the bounce in his step has dulled since I met him last winter. A couple nights before, the police arrested him for public intoxication, a charge he disputes. He says he demanded a breathalyzer test, but they refused and hauled him to the “drunk tank” to sit for hours on end. Last year, Alejandro was locked up for 11 months in a case where he claims the police falsified information and evidence. When he met with his public defender for counsel, he was told two things that left him stunned: “So, they do it all the time,” and “They’ll believe the police and not you.” He tried to fight his case in court and file complaints and motions to dismiss, but nothing worked. Alejandro told me he kept meticulous notes about his false imprisonment. “I want people to know what is happening,” he said. The next time I saw him, he handed me a stack of worn, folded papers carefully dictated on the backs of medical request forms from jail. “Please read these,” he said, “so you can know what I’ve been through.”
Later that afternoon, I sat in the grass and read through his papers. His words, so thoughtful, so agonized, stung my heart. He knew he had rights. He believed in the Constitution and had trusted in the court’s ability to distribute justice. He so desperately wanted our system to work. He was haunted by the words from his public defender and wrote them over and over. “So, they do it all the time,” and “They’ll believe the police, not you.” “Do you realize the implications?!” he writes in jaded disbelief. “This tragedy of injustice plagues us all,” he continues. “If this is happening to me in such a frivolous matter with the crass comment, ‘so, they do it all the time,’ damn those implications! To destroy a life, to deprive liberty, to speak an untruth, to bring sorrow to happiness is to bring division to equality.” In his writing, he urges the judge to “do what is right,” to “protect ‘We the People’” from “abuses in authority,” and to “uphold the Constitution without bias.” He knew that he was a victim of discrimination and writes, “this is the oppression of less fortunate standings in society and this is happening to me.” He says that those of us who “feign ignorance” to such injustice are complicit in the larger systems of oppression—that we stand by while “Lady Justice” is raped. Despite the gross injustice he experienced, he insists that his writing “is not an attempt to provoke anger,” but rather “understanding.” “Even as I am incarcerated this very moment, I’m not angry—stressed and disappointed, yes!” The closing of his letter still echoes in my mind:
“God’s message is this:
You have forgotten where you come from,
You have forgotten your place of duty,
And you have forgotten who put you there…
May God have mercy on your souls and I pray God bless you as I endure this persecution without cause with all long suffering.”
Yes, with all long suffering.
Imagine this: You are falsely accused, falsely arrested, and falsely imprisoned for hours on end, for 5 days, for 11 months, for 28 years. You have tried to fight your case in the courtroom but the scales of justice tipped toward people with badges and titles, people with initials after their names, people who can pay for their own legal representation. And you know you have to fight the bitterness because if you don’t, it will eat you alive. So you collect scraps of paper and medical request forms on which you keep your notes from your case. You lay in the harsh cell with the scent of urine and feet wafting around you. You turn the details over in your mind, wander how things are on the outside, worry about how to communicate with loved ones who don’t have addresses and can’t afford your calls. How will they know where you are? Will they believe the police? Will they understand?
I talked to David and Alejandro’s friend “Jerry” later that week after David was released. Jerry had his own story of injustice that he wanted to share and he told me about it with pain and humiliation in his eyes. While being detained for trespassing, an officer improperly groped him while he was being strip searched. Jerry resisted and tried to raise concern, but was further detained. “Ms. Lindsey,” he said, now looking down at the pavement, “they chained my hands to a bar over my head and shackled my feet. Then they sprayed me with mace… it’s not right… there has to be an incident report on it somewhere.” God have mercy.
I remember the first long conversation I had with Ndume Olatushani who was released from prison last year after spending 20 years on Death Row and 8 more on Unit 6. He was convicted by an all-white jury in Memphis for a crime he didn’t commit. We sat in the chaplain’s office at Riverbend Maximum Security Institute several months before the hearings that led to his release and I asked him why he was not bitter. “It’s like this,” he said, “If someone pushes you down on the ground, that’s on them. But if you stay down on the ground, that’s on you.” The state had pushed Ndume’s body down behind endless layers of razor wire and bars, but he never let them have his mind, his spirit. He insists that he gained his freedom not because the system worked, but in spite of the system; because dedicated attorneys spent years upon years and thousands upon thousands of unpaid hours on his case.
So with David, with Alejandro, with Jerry, with Ndume, I ask, “What are the implications?” What are the implications of a system stacked against the poor, stacked against people of color? What are the implications of a society that decreases federal funding for housing, food stamps, education, and mental health care while increasing funding for jails and prisons? What are the implications of a system where private companies like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) make millions of dollars in profit every year running jails and prisons where every full bed boosts their bottom line? Indeed, in our society, “the rich get richer and the poor get prison.” With all long suffering.
Last Wednesday night, about 25 of us gathered in the fellowship hall at Vine Street Christian Church to hear Reverend Bill Barnes talk about affordable housing, gentrification, and urban development in Nashville. Barnes, a life-long advocate and organizer, is now in his 70’s and has seen the fabric of our city shifting and changing over the years. “The dirtiest words in the English language are ‘concentrated poverty,’” he told us. He talked through the history of affordable housing from the 1930s to today, citing how only 2% of the federal government’s mortgage loans were given to “non-whites” in the 1940s, how poor families were displaced by new development and relocated to the projects in the 1950s and 1960s, how federal funding for low-income housing was slashed by nearly 75% in the 1980s and has continued to decline, and how “white flight” and urban renewal continue to displace the poor. “The hole is deep, and not by accident,” he said. “The hole we dug was conscious, deliberate, and racial.” Yes, and “We the People” continue to stand by while our government defunds housing and builds more jail and prison cells than any nation, any empire, has ever seen. We stand by while corporate shareholders grow bloated from profiting off the imprisoned bodies of the poor. Had Jesus—a brown, wandering, misunderstood vagabond—lived in Nashville, he would likely be wasting away in a CCA cell, too.
Yes Alejandro, with all long suffering. So let us, like Ndume, brush ourselves off and rise up from the concrete, but let us not be blind to the cavernous holes that others have been pushed into—holes that were dug with intention, holes that are nearly impossible to escape. And let us not “feign ignorance” while others waste away in the silent cells of their suffering, but dive headlong into the wreckage and learn how to journey upstream.