EJI is the Equal Justice Initiative. They took Kuntrell Jackson’s case all the way to the Supreme Court. The lead lawyer was Bryan Stevenson. His name came up.
“I know Mr. Stevenson is gonna hear this and he may be a little disappointed but I’m sorry, even after I met him, I was caught up in the prison system,” Kuntrell said. “I was institutionalized. So even though I met him, I was still doing prison stuff. That’s how I was raised! I grew up in prison! I got locked up at 14. I didn’t grow up in the streets. I grew up in prison and so a I had adapted and adjusted to that environment. So even when I met him, you know, I used to have conversations with my team, which is EJI, and they used to give me all of this positive stuff, things they think I should do, how I should go about it, but I could never get it because you out there, I’m in here. I must survive. It’s cool how we’re talking about it but at the same time I gotta survive. You know? And the thing about me was I was never scared so I cannot be a weak, soft individual. I’m the youngest person here. I’m in a real man’s world. I had to be whatever beast I transformed into up in there. I’m not proud of it. I’m not happy about it. It’s not the person my mama had. It’s not the person my mama raised. But when the people took me and threw me in this environment, that’s what they created. I had to become that. I had to become part of my environment, “the jungle,” the whatever you wanna call it, I had to become something or I wouldn’t even made it out of there to be sitting here talking to you right now. So of course Bryan and Alicia and all my team, they tried, they talked to me everyday, they even used to come visit me just to have…just for me to have somebody to see…somebody to talk to…cuz they already knew how my family had turned their backs, so they was there for me. I heard them. I listened. But I didn’t listen.”
“So you heard them,” I said, trying to slow down the momentum. “You listened.”
“I didn’t listen,” he clarified. “Meaning I still did what I was doing. It was all about survival. That’s what I love about Bryan. Maybe he do be disappointed but he never expresses it like that. He just tells me do better.”
There’s a slight difference between “Be Best” and “Do Better.” One comes from a princess. One comes from a jailhouse lawyer. One comes across like an eye-roll. One comes across like a hug. One goes to a flood in high heels on Air Force One for a photo-op. One makes the lonely drive in a car without air conditioning to a prison just to lend a teenage boy his ear and reassure him there’s someone on the other side of the barbed wire who cares enough to fight for him every day, even when the cameras aren’t there, especially when the cameras aren’t there.
“Who was killed?” I asked.
“Who was killed?” he repeated the question, giving himself a minute to process the emotion. “A lady named Laura True.”
“Were you there when that happened?” I asked.
“I was,” he said.
“What was that like?” I asked.
“What was that like?” he repeated the question, giving himself another minute. “Man! It was… Ooooh! That was tough. Man! All the things I saw growing up, I never saw someone get killed.”
“If you could say something to Laura True today, what would you say to her?”
“If I could say something to her today? Man! I would apologize a million times and I apologize for… I believe with all my heart that I could have prevented them from going in that store. Because I was like, not a leader, but I was like somebody who all my little clique looked up to the most so I know if I would have just persuaded them more they wouldn’t have went in there. Even though they wanted to do it so bad! I just feel it in my heart that I could have prevented that. Maybe I couldn’t have. But I apologize for that,” Kuntrell said. “And she had a child. I found out later she had a child. I would apologize for even being somewhere with somebody who took her from her child. I know sorry don’t fix everything.”
Sorry has become a dance craze in America called The Mea Culpa. People who demand an apology will never accept the apology and yet they want you to dance for their sick, twisted amusement.
“What about the victim?” they’ll ask, pretending they’re the advocate for truth and justice when the only thing they’re really interested in is hearing themselves moralize so they can masturbate to the idea they’re better than you. As if they’re perfect.
There’s more to you than the worst thing you have ever done. I didn’t fully understand the power of those words until I met Kuntrell Jackson. It’s not you, believe it or not, you don’t hand out mercy. It’s not me, believe it or not, I don’t hand out mercy. The state doesn’t hand out mercy and you’re definitely not going to find mercy in a church. You’ll find stained glass windows and a rotary phone on the desk of Dr. King, but you won’t find mercy.
It’s unjust! That’s how you know mercy is divine. Sooner or later we all need it because sometimes you just get caught up.
“I did! And it happened so fast,” Kuntrell said. “What blew me was my cousin comes from the same place I come from and what blew me was he was actually with the robbery, like he was down for it so automatically it made me like… Man! I just don’t wanna just leave my cousin.”
He was 14. I’m 51 and I get caught up. Momentum is hard to resist.
I’ve gotten into fancy cars with fancy friends who are driving drunk and treated it like we’re living a charmed life. We’re not. I’ve crossed the border into Mexico with a woman I knew was carrying drugs in her purse like we were in a Quentin Tarantino movie. Her purse did not say “Bad Motherfucker.” I’ve driven past homeless people with enough money in my pocket to make a difference in their day but instead told myself I was in a hurry.
Where was I going?
To the next stoplight.
“EJI became my family,” Kuntrell said. “They become everybody’s family who they get involved with. When I got out they brought me to Montgomery and they placed me in their prep program, which is a reentry program where they help the same exact people that they got out of prison. It’s a reentry program! It’s because of them I am where I am now. They support. They help. It’s been marvelous for me.”
Marvelous! What a marvelous word.
Ever since I got sucked into the center of a Twitter Shitstorm and jettisoned from my life, ever since my family turned their backs, ever since I danced The Mea Culpa for the sick and twisted, ever since then I’ve been looking for a reentry program. If you have any tips, if you have any suggestions, if you know someone who knows someone else who can help, please leave your suggestion in the comments.
Or bash me.
Either way, love me or hate me, roll your eyes at me or hug me, bash me for sport or pinch my cheeks, I’d be a thoughtless man if I didn’t take a moment to thank Kuntrell Jackson. In proximity to his story, and a cup of coffee, I found mercy.