Stevenson goes back in time to his second year in at SPDC. He had spent his first year and a half living on Steve Bright’s couch. When Stevenson’s friend Charlie Bliss comes to work for a legal aid group in Atlanta, the two move in together. Charlie, “a white kid from North Carolina,” had been Stevenson’s friend at Harvard, where they had “tried to make sense of things” together. A series of rent increases forces them to move several times, and they eventually move to a nice neighborhood.
Stevenson’s relationships with Steve Bright (the SPDC director) and Charlie Bliss demonstrate the spirit of support and community among his circle of activist friends. This passage shows the importance of friendships amongst activists and the role that these friendships have in cultivating idealism and making advocacy sustainable.
At this time, Stevenson begins taking on death row cases in Alabama, while also filing prison condition cases in several states. He references the 1970’s Attica Prison Riots, which created national awareness of Attica prison’s use of cruel and dangerous physical punishments. Following the riots, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of “basic due process protections for imprisoned people.” While some states began reforming prisons, the SPDC continued receiving letters describing abuses. One of Stevenson’s cases in Gadsden, Alabama, involves the death of a 39-year-old black man who was jailed for a traffic violation, beaten by police and guards, and then denied his asthma inhaler. Stevenson begins receiving many abuse complaints in Gadsden, and he takes on another case there involving the death of black teenager who was pulled over for a traffic violation. When the teenager reached for his driver license, police assumed he had a gun and shot him. They explained that he looked “menacing,”
The example of Attica Prison shows the dehumanization of inmates that can occur when violence against prisoners is systematically applied. Prior to the Supreme Court case, it appears that a lack of legal accountability allowed these abuses to occur. This conveys the idea that legal structures are necessary in order to define and protect the human rights of individuals, and that without access to legal resources, institutional and individual power has no clear limits. The statement from the Gadsden police betrays the racial biases that influence their use of violence. Stevenson highlights the absurdity and danger of racial profiling by describing two cases in which police killed black men following traffic violations.
One night, Stevenson is coming home after a long day when his car’s broken radio begins working. “Stand,” one of his favorite Sly and the Family Stone songs is playing, so he parks outside of his apartment to listen. Soon, an Atlanta Police SWAT car appears and parks nearby. When Stevenson gets out, an officer approaches with his gun pointed at Stevenson, telling him to put his hands up. Stevenson says, “It’s okay,” and that he lives there. A second officer pins him against his car. They run his driver’s license and illegally search his car. Neighbors came out, and a few ladies tell police to “ask him” about missing belongings. Police find nothing, but Stevenson demands an explanation. An officer replies that someone had reported a possible burglar, and the officer tells Stevenson: “We’re going to let you go. You should be happy.”
Stevenson draws the reader into seeing his perspective by describing the small details leading up to the encounter, such as the broken radio working for once. The band Sly and the Family Stone was comprised of mostly black members, and the song “Stand” is about standing up in the face of oppression. By choosing the song as the chapter title, Stevenson emphasizes the necessity of continuing to fight even after he has been personally affected by racial injustice. The officer’s comments betray an effort to maintain power and inspire fear in Stevenson.
Returning home, Stevenson tells Charlie, who shares his outrage. The next day, Steve Bright urges Stevenson to file a police complaint. In his complaint, Stevenson omits the fact that he is a lawyer because he doesn’t think it should matter, even though he knows his language might reveal him. He remembers the urge to run when the police approached, and he thinks about other black men in that situation. He reflects that they might not have known to stay calm, to stay put, and to say things like, “it’s okay.” His feeling of helplessness in the face of racial profiling makes him doubt his ability to fight for civil rights. His complaints to the Atlanta police are dismissed with letters stating the officers had “done nothing wrong and that police work is very difficult.” Stevenson eventually meets with a law enforcement official, who tells him that the officers will receive “extra homework on community relations.”
Stevenson believes that his privileged status as a lawyer shouldn’t matter because his complaint against the police is from his experience as a civilian. By refusing to use his credentials to give him legitimacy, he shows his disagreement with preferential treatment toward the educated and privileged within the criminal justice system. Even though he is a powerful person, the psychological effects of racial oppression still impact him and cause him to doubt himself. The response of the police department illustrates their lack of concern for the experiences of the black community with law enforcement.
Still outraged over his experience, Stevenson begins giving talks at churches, organizations and youth centers to educate black communities about racial profiling and how to advocate for police reform and accountability. In one such speech in a rural Alabama church, his voice begins to quaver when he shares his own experience. After the speech, an older man in a wheelchair approaches with a young boy. The man baffles Stevenson by asking sternly if Stevenson knows what he is doing. Then the man tells Stevenson: “I’ll tell you what you’re doing. You’re beating the drum for justice.” He admonishes Stevenson to keep going, and he shows Stevenson his various scars, all earned while fighting for civil rights during the 60’s. He tells Stevenson that the scars are his “medals of honor.” Stevenson decides that he is ready to open his own office in Alabama.
By sharing his experience and encouraging members of various black communities to act on their concerns, Stevenson legitimizes the experiences of people whose experiences have been de-legitimized by existing power structures. The old man’s words serve to counter the thoughts of self-doubt that Bryan felt after his own police encounter. The old man frames his injuries not as evidence of his victimization, but as evidence of his power and bravery.