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Barbershop: Botham Jean, Amber Guyger And Forgiveness


Now we're going to focus on a topic that probably comes up more often in religious services than in the news. The topic is forgiveness. You can imagine why we're talking about this - earlier this week, former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger was convicted of murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison for killing her upstairs neighbor, Botham Jean. But it was what Jean's younger brother Brandt did in response that went viral.


BRANDT JEAN: Again, I love you as a person, and I don't wish anything bad on you. I don't know if this is possible, but can I give her a hug please? Please?


MARTIN: Brandt's decision to hug and express forgiveness toward Guyger sparked an enormous reaction, much of it expressed on social media. The Dallas Police Department where Guyger used to work tweeted that Brandt's actions, quote, "represent a spirit of forgiveness, faith and trust. In this same spirit, we want to move forward in a positive direction with the community," unquote. Others had a very different reaction. Some were deeply pained and even affronted by what happened - not so much Brandt Jean's decision to offer forgiveness but more the sense that black people's suffering for whatever reason is not accorded similar acknowledgment.

And you will recall that Botham Jean was black and Guyger is white, and not only that, but racist texts of hers were presented during the trial where she called herself a racist, disparaged black officers and mocked Martin Luther King, Jr. New York Times columnist Charles Blow spoke for many when he tweeted, quote, "black people repeatedly demonstrated otherworldly beauty and the granting of grace to the undeserving. But the question remains, when are innocent black people granted this grace," unquote.

So we thought this would be a good topic to bring up at the Barbershop because that's where we talk with interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Joining us today are sujatha baliga. She is a lawyer, and she's just been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, a so-called genius grant, for her work as director of the Restorative Justice Project at Impact Justice.

Sujatha, thanks so much for joining us once again.

SUJATHA BALIGA: Happy to be with you today.

MARTIN: And Reverend Michael Waters is the founding pastor of Joy Tabernacle and Agape Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

Reverend Waters, welcome to you as well. Thank you for joining us.

MICHAEL WATERS: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: And last but certainly not least, the Reverend Cornell William Brooks. He is both a lawyer and a minister. He's a former president of the NAACP and now a professor at the Kennedy School at Harvard and a visiting professor at the Divinity School there.

Reverend Brooks, it's a pleasure to speak with you again - although I'm sorry about the circumstances, certainly.

CORNELL WILLIAM BROOKS: It's good to be with you again despite that.

BROOKS: Reverend Brooks, I'm just going to ask you very briefly, as briefly as you can, to describe, what is forgiveness? Certainly, many, many, many sermons have been given about, it many books have been written. But as briefly as you can, what does forgiveness mean?

BROOKS: Forgiveness means being open to the process of reconciliation. It's taking note of the wrong but being willing to be in relationship with the wrongdoer and opening your arms to the wrongdoer even as you acknowledge the wrong.

MARTIN: And what do you think, Reverend Brooks - why do you think that there's been such a reaction to what Brandt Jean did, both positive and negative?

BROOKS: Well, it's because while we commend what Brandt Jean did, saying everything about his character, saying nothing about Ms. Guyger's character, the fact of the matter is, we are commending as a country Brandt Jean's willingness to forgive. But we're not taking note of the lack of accountability by the police department and Ms. Guyger. So in other words, this country and police departments in particular should be asking the question, why are black people being called upon to forgive serially?

So in other words, we commend black people for being moral heroes while we declined to treat them as human beings. And so police departments will commend the victim while continuing to victimize and refusing to apologize, repent, demonstrate accountability or change the way we police.

MARTIN: Reverend Waters, you were in Dallas, where the crime and the trial took place, and you've met with the Jean family. What do you make of the reaction to what Brandt Jean did?

WATERS: Well, I think it comes with a misunderstanding of why so many persons have stood, not in opposition to what Brandt did, but to how black forgiveness is often weaponized back against the community. I think you heard that in what happened with the police department, who try to use this very sincere act of forgiveness as a means of buffering their irresponsibility to our community. The city of Dallas for a long time has led the nation or been one of the leaders in the nation in relationship to officer-related fatalities.

And so, instead of addressing those issues, they use this act of forgiveness as a means of buffering their own fault, which was manifested again and again during the trial. And so I think a lot of the pushback came not so much because of the action - and, in fact, we had the young man at our Empowerment Center yesterday as the family stood with us in making demands of the Department of Justice will audit now the Dallas Police Department. I think the opposition came to how this hug was used, again, to be weaponized against black people.

MARTIN: Can I just ask you this, though, Reverend Waters? I mean, 10 years in prison is not small. And the fact - there's - it seems - I would think historically, there are more police officers that have been acquitted or never held to account at all in police-involved shootings. Does that not seem like accountability?

WATERS: Well, actually, it's quite small. In the state of Texas, Amber Guyger is in the 1.9% of all persons who are sentenced for murdering someone in our state. So she's in very small company. And we're very clear that the well over 80% of incarcerates serving for murder who are serving 20 years or more tend to be of black and brown hue.

And so there's a great deal of concern in terms of how justice is meted out in this case. In reality, over the last almost 50 years of all the officer-related fatalities, only two officers have been convicted, and they will both have totally served or been sentenced to a time of 15 years. And we think that's a disgrace.

MARTIN: Sujatha, you have an interesting perspective on this. I mean, you've been a defense attorney. And as we talked about last week in our conversation when you won the MacArthur award, you've talked about some very emotional scenes that you've seen in the courtroom. I'm sure you've seen a lot of victim impact statements. Have you ever seen something like what you saw in Dallas, with Brandt Jean saying he didn't even want Guyger to go to jail and even hugged her? Have you ever seen that before?

BALIGA: No, I've never seen anything like that before in court. I've seen it more in the restorative justice processes that I've subsequently gotten involved in. But I think that what's been interesting about people saying I've never seen anything like it - but there's many ways in which what happened yesterday is something we've never seen in court, right? We've never seen someone express forgiveness in this way, really, in open court.

And we've also never seen the humanity of the person who's taken another person's life be so recognized, right? As a - my years of being a public defender and what I've heard from other of my public defender friends, they've never seen a judge get off the bench and hug someone who had taken someone's life, right? So I think that that's maybe a part of the context of the anger that we're seeing about the length of the sentence. And I think another thing that, you know, we never see is this short of a sentence, just to really reiterate that.


BALIGA: We know that the length of a sentence in homicide cases - there's so much data to show that it increases when the victim is white, right? And so that's, I think, an important piece to understand in terms of the context of the anger that we're seeing today.

MARTIN: As briefly as you can - because I know this is a very complicated topic - sujatha, can you just talk a little bit about the restorative justice aspect here? Is forgiveness and restorative justice the same thing?

BALIGA: Not at all. Restorative justice neither requires forgiveness for participation nor is it an expected outcome. And a lot of people are using the words restorative justice to talk about what happened in that courtroom. And to be very clear, right, that forgiveness and a hug is not restorative justice, right? Restorative justice is about face-to-face dialogue and collective decision-making at the community level, where people are held directly accountable to the person's needs as the community defines it, right?

So I think if this had been a true restorative justice process, it certainly wouldn't have been about, you know, predetermined outcomes that many people in the community are quite unhappy with, starting with, I think, the level of accountability we're not seeing from the police department, etc., in terms of changing policies and procedures.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, Reverend Brooks, we don't have a lot of time. Can you just tell me what - we've heard earlier about steps that Reverend Waters and sujatha would like people to take going forward, the community especially to take going forward. What about you? As a person who's dealt with this on a national level, what steps would you like to see going forward arising out of this moment?

BROOKS: What I'd like for us to do is to commend the hug but not ignore this slap in the face of African Americans in America, and that means holding these police departments accountable with consent decrees, holding these police departments accountable with civilian review boards in radically restructuring the way we police. In other words, police cannot continue to operate as occupying armies...


BROOKS: And that means changing these police departments from top to bottom.

MARTIN: All right. Well, thank you so much for that. It's a rich topic. I'm sure we'll talk again. That's the Reverend Cornell William Brooks. He teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School and the divinity school. We also heard from sujatha baliga - she's the director of the Restorative Justice Project at Impact Justice - and the Reverend Michael Waters, the founding pastor of Joy Tabernacle and Agape Temple African Methodist Episcopal churches in Dallas, Texas.

And I thank you all so much for talking with us today.

BROOKS: Thank you.

WATERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.