In the past few weeks the world has changed in ways most of us could never have imagined. While much remains unknown, one thing remains stable—the sense of community that both comforts and uplifts us, even in the midst of trying times.
The post below is a riveting reflection from 1L Ryan Kenney, who was among a group of BC Law students on this year’s Gulf Coast Pro-Bono Spring Break trip to Montgomery, Alabama. It was scheduled to be posted several weeks ago, but was postponed due to the emergency situation COVID-19 created. That said, we think the message is too important to go unshared. We will share several other related service trip stories this week.
Stay safe everyone, and please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org if we can do anything to help, or if you would like us to consider publishing a guest post on your own experiences during the outbreak.
When people asked us where we were from and we replied that we were on spring break from Boston College Law School, gently raised eyebrows and clarifying questions invariably followed. As if on cue, our neighbor on the puddle jumper from Charlotte, then the barista, the lobbyist in the state house elevator, and virtually everyone else we encountered who wasn’t already expecting us conferred a “Well, welcome to Alabama!” and a warm smile.
This week, we witnessed how people make, interpret, and execute laws in Alabama.
Montgomery tastes like a “meat and three” at Dreamland. Selma sounds like the thunderous staccato rhythm of a drumline as we march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge alongside thousands. Birmingham smells like rain-washed pavement in front of Legal Services Alabama as we pull up. The dirt is redder and the gas cheaper, but the McDonald’s, hip coffee shop, and KISS 108 are familiar.
There was a five-second story on the radio this morning reporting that we killed Nate Woods last night. The words registered as commonplace. I knew before this week that the death penalty exists in Alabama, and we learned early this week that Nate was scheduled to die. But my reaction was foreign. It was a knotty pang. More cerebral than a gut punch, but stickier than a merely unpleasant idea.
The Sunday before we had met Nate’s nephew in Selma, on the margins of the 55th anniversary jubilee commemoration of Bloody Sunday. As the gaggle of then-presidential contenders fell in behind Martin Luther King III and Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, Nate’s nephew explained to us the petition he was circulating in a last-ditch effort to save his uncle’s life. By that night it would reach over 160,000 signatories. Even Kim Kardashian weighed in.
Throughout the week, people we volunteered with at the Federal Defender’s office, the Montgomery Volunteer Lawyers Program, the Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, the Central Alabama Fair Housing Center, the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office, and Legal Services Alabama would mention Nate. His case was the talk of the town, particularly because he didn’t pull the trigger.
Later this afternoon, touring the Frank M. Johnson Jr. Federal District Court House, we would unexpectedly meet the Chief District Judge. Her office was the procedural link between state authorities and the United States Supreme Court, to which Nate had petitioned for a stay, his last resort. She mentioned how her clerks were at the office the night of the execution until just after 9 pm, when the Supreme Court’s stay expired, Governor Kay Ivey’s window to intervene closed, and Nate died.
The placard beneath a harrowing statue at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice says it best: “Black and brown people in the United States often are presumed dangerous and guilty when they have done nothing wrong. Our history of racial inequality has created conscious and unconscious bias that has resulted in racial discrimination against people of color by law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Police shootings of unarmed men, women, and children, racially biased and excessive sentencing of people convicted of crimes, and abusive prison conditions make mass incarceration a dominant issue for the poor and people of color.”
It would be so much easier to comprehend these issues if they were limited to Alabama, or even to the South. It would be so much easier to find solutions for the injustices we witnessed this week in our volunteering and in our touch points with Nate if there was a single law or bad actor, or at least an identifiable few. It would be so much easier to dismiss what we’ve seen and heard here as hopeless if no one recognized the dire, deadly state of the criminal justice system in Alabama.
They also agree that the low-hanging fruit has been picked for years, so only the most fraught, complicated priority setting remains. According to State Senator Cam Ward, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, criminal justice reform is his top priority for this session. His track record on prison reform lends credence. So does the thoughtful, earnest way he discussed the interconnected complexity of these issues with us as he leaned back in his office chair, lacing his fingers behind his head. We watched the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee zealously advocate for the slate of criminal justice reform bills Governor Ivey endorsed to his colleagues. Our new friends at some of the established advocacy organizations here generally agree that the Governor’s package constitutes a good start.
In the meantime, people involved in the criminal justice system will continue to die preventable deaths within and beyond the walls of Alabama’s prisons.
Nothing here is new. People may be surprised to meet visiting law students from so far away, but we simply followed the well-trod North-South route that well-intentioned visitors have traveled for centuries. Funny enough, a lawyer from Massachusetts founded the city of Montgomery. It turns out that we aren’t even the only group of students from Boston College here this week to learn about civil rights. Most importantly, the observation that mass incarceration is today’s iteration of slavery is not new and should not be revelatory.
The point here is that this week forced us to recognize and center the humanity that animates the complex criminal justice issues we witnessed. The people we met on the march and worked with, the stories we absorbed at EJI’s museum and memorial, and the perspective we gained by simply living here this week, Nate’s last, will stay with us.
The low-hanging fruit has been picked. But we learned this week that in pursuing solutions, simply acknowledging the humanity at the core of the criminal justice system is necessary. It can’t be sufficient, but it can be a starting point.
Ryan Kenney is a first-year student at Boston College Law School. This is his first Impact guest post, but hopefully not his last.