Updated: Jul 10
Mir Bahri, Student lead at Santa Clara County Democratic Party
As a young South Asian high school student, there are many issues that compel me to support democratic and progressive candidates and policies. However, when I listened to Bryan Stevenson speak at the Foothill-De Anza College Celebrity Forum, the issue of criminal justice has become an important reason for my support of the Democratic Party.
In the United States, individuals are treated better “if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent.” This is the assertion of Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit that offers accessible legal assistance to inmates on death row. In his novel Just Mercy, Stevenson describes the story of Herbert Richardson, a Vietnam war veteran who developed PTSD after witnessing carnage, violence, and death of his mother, leaving him with an alcohol addiction and mentally and physically scarred. In his attempts to win the affection of a nurse that had treated him, Herbert concocted a plan to detonate a bomb outside of her house, believing that he would save her and win her affection. However, the nurse’s ten-year-old niece accidentally picked up the bomb and was killed. Herbert was sentenced to the death penalty for this accidental and unintentional death.When Stevensen took up Herbert’s case, he was shocked at how little Herbert’s former government appointed defense lawyer had accomplished, failing to mention his military service or mental illness.
Stevenson filed multiple stay of execution motions to try to introduce mitigating evidence, but the courts would not hear further arguments. Herbert was unfairly executed after serving many years in prison. Because Herbert could not afford a competent lawyer at the time of his trial, he was executed by the very criminal justice system that was tasked with giving him a fair trial, showing that wealth often determines jurisdiction rather than culpability.
According to the ACLU, the color of the victim’s skin plays a pivotal role in deciding who receives the death penalty. People of color have accounted for 43 percent of total executions; while they are only 12.6 percent of the national population. Young people my own age are also substantially affected by this issue. For example, the school to prison pipeline, a pervasive issue that exists all throughout America, demonstrates that the education system’s likelihood to suspend or expel an African American student increases dramatically compared to a white student.
As a first generation American researching and learning about these injustices, I am appalled. My family came to the United States seeking a better life. It’s why we the people ordained and established a constitution: to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. And yet, here in this country, we defend an outdated practice that violates the sacred reasons for which the constitution was created in the first place. Although the ideals of the words in the constitution were never fully true in reality, as indicated by the practice of slavery and genocide of Native people during the founding of this nation, we must aim to uphold “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.”
Thus, I am compelled to advocate for change within my own community. The best way for us high schoolers to make a difference is to assist lawmakers devoting to creating change within the criminal justice system. For example, California governor Gavin Newsom has consistently pushed for progressive reform. Advocating for reelection for these individuals would ensure that current effective policies remain and humane laws are implemented and enforced. Political education without our own networks, phone banking, canvassing, and donating are great measures that we high schoolers can take to make sure that cases like Herbert never occur again. Though we as South Asians may enter politics through many different lenses and priorities, working together to uphold democratic values by supporting progressive blue candidates can create powerful collective change within our communities, and I encourage everybody to join.