Creating monsters out of human beings

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Erica Washington, an attorney at CDPL

The failures of our broken criminal legal system don’t just affect the people we incarcerate and condemn to death. The injustice of our system ripples out into the world, affecting countless lives. This weekend, advocates and loved ones of incarcerated people shared their stories at the Carolina Justice Policy Center‘s Poetic Justice event. Then, spoken word artists created responsive poems. Here, please read the story shared by attorney Erica Washington, who represents people on death row at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

See two other death penalty attorneys tell their stories at last year’s event, along with the responsive poems: Elizabeth Hambourger and Ken Rose

Creating Locusts

By Erica Washington

The other day I came across an old episode of the popular NPR podcast, Invisibilia. The episode, which was titled “True You,” challenged the popular notion that each of us has one authentic and consistent self. Often thought of as one’s endemic personality. Curiously though, the hosts of the episode began with a story about locusts.

So Locusts have been synonymous with devastation throughout history. Swarms have devastated crops, contributed to countless disease outbreaks, and quite literally dictated patterns of human migration throughout time.

Their infamy is well known. They’ve played prominent roles in the Iliad, the Bible, the Quran. The Ancient Egyptians carved locust-like shapes into their tombs, while the Chinese, in ninth century BC, appointed a regiment – an entire police force- of anti-locust officers.

Notwithstanding this long and torturous history, farmers and scientists alike struggled to understand the seemingly sudden appearance of these villainous insects. They searched in vain for initial breeding locations and yearned for clues in the soil. Finding no answers, locusts quickly acquired an otherworldly reputation. In the Bible, for example, their sudden appearance is attributed to Pharaoh’s refusal to free the Israelites, while Assyrians wore these elaborate and detailed locust shaped charms believing in their power to ward off plagues.

In fact, it was not until 1921 that scientists finally solved this origin mystery. It turns out that the answer was hopping in front of them the entire time. Scientists realized that locusts and grasshoppers are not two distinct species as previously thought. When a period of drought is followed by rapid vegetation growth, grasshoppers pack together into tight crowds, resulting in the rubbing of their hind legs and the release of serotonin in their brains. When all of these factors coalesce, it causes significant changes in their behavior: they breed like crazy, form swarms, and strip crops.

Okay – I’m sure many of you are wondering what the origin story of locusts has to do with the criminal legal system, but hopefully by the end of my story you’ll see that, in fact, it has everything to do this system. I represent individuals on death row. Essentially, what I do is work to help people see the grasshopper, when inventing a locust feels so much easier. I do this work because I know the danger that results when we misunderstand why we are who we are.

Byron Waring was arrested and sentenced to death for the murder of Lauren Redman. Investigators said Redman was raped by Byron’s co-defendant and stabbed more than 20 times.  Byron, 19-years-old at the time, is on death row for her murder.

The blindness that contributed to centuries of agricultural devastation operates to a similar degree in my work representing men and women accused of violent crimes. For our ancestors to see the grasshopper and locust as one in the same, they had to accept the general premise that grasshoppers, under certain circumstances, could behave like locusts. Instead, unable to make this mental bridge, they invented a new fictional species. They invented the locust.

And this doesn’t just operate on death row, right. We’re constantly inventing fictional species – the welfare queen, the super predator. This allows us to fashion narratives around an us and a them – which always feels easier. In law school, I came across Section 738 of the Louisiana Revised Statutes, which makes it illegal for a Louisiana state inmate to live at a standard above the state poverty level. Again, it’s ILLEGAL for a Louisiana state inmate to live at a standard ABOVE the state poverty level. According to the Louisiana Legislature, this is because [c]itizens should not be worse off economically and living in conditions that are below those granted to inmates whose living standards are being paid for and subsidized by the hard-working and law-abiding people of the state of Louisiana.

This reasoning, espoused by the Louisiana’s statute but pervasive throughout a US conception of justice, hinges upon a strict distinction between “inmates” and “hard working, law-abiding people.” The law condemns one category to live at the line of poverty because of their deservedness in relation to the other. There is no hint of fluidity existing between these two categories, or the possibility of existing within both simultaneously. You’re either a “hard-working and law-abiding” citizen of Louisiana, or you are a criminal. You’re either a grasshopper, or you are a locust.

As in the case of Section 738, this flawed dichotomy leads us to focus all of our attention on punishing the mosimmediate agent of the harm, as opposed to the origin. Thus, we make it illegal to spend more on those most in need than that which will cover basic essentials. We disenfranchise felons and support employment and housing discrimination, telling ourselves that that’s what they deserve. We blind ourselves to our shared humanity, call them criminals, and then treat them like that is all they’ve been, all they’ll ever be, and all their fault.

Death row is the pinnacle of this flawed dichotomy. My clients are called monsters, demons, and beasts. Similar to the infamy locusts enjoyed for millennia, we attribute their behavior to inexplicable moral failings, not environmental ones. Not the physical, mental, and emotional abuse that characterized so many of their lives. Like locusts, we immortalize their crimes through movies, Netflix series, and folklore. We invoke the devil to make sense of their acts and thus find it appropriate to resort to barbaric executions to rid us of them. These are the narratives we create. Have we learned nothing from the locust?

Byron was traumatized. It was multidimensional and pervasive. His trauma was compounded by a childhood that lacked any consistent, predictable, and attuned parenting. But Byron never had the opportunity to make meaning out of his trauma. And his trauma was not unique. We know that studies estimate between 75 and 92% of those entering the juvenile justice system have experienced trauma.

What I’ve learned about trauma is that an essential part of healing is the development of a shared narrative about what happened, and if possible, why it happened. Narratives are the stories we tell to make sense of ourselves, our lives and the situations we encounter and confront. These narratives are the foundations upon which meaningful and useful remedies can be built. They’re how we avoid useless remedies such as a fleet of anti-locust officers. But Byron is on death row. How does he, in and out of a cage since age 14, soon to spend a majority of his life at central prison, how does he construct a narrative about what happened which moves beyond those that the confines of the row produce? How do I, his attorney, help him create a richer, more complete, and expansive narrative which moves beyond those that the confines of the law produce.

The narratives we create do damage. As long as we continue to tell stories that equate human beings to swarming monsters driven to destruction by some inexplicable personal moral failing, the cycle of harm will continue. As long as our narratives are fashioned around an us and a them, they will not provide the foundation for meaningful and useful remedies. We can do little to prevent harm if we fail to recognize its origin. How different history may have been if locusts were never invented, if farmers could point to grasshoppers in volatile environments, as opposed to charms around people’s necks, to explain the existence of the harm. Yet history repeats itself. We criminalize poverty instead of addressing it. We spend scraps on rehabilitation and sit by as 75 percent of prisoners are rearrested within five years of release. If we saw these men and women as the grasshoppers they are, and not the locusts we’ve created, maybe we’d find that we have more power to address the societal and environmental causes of the harm than otherwise believed. Maybe a story in which we’re implicated would cause us to care.

In our constant search for understanding, let us not blind ourselves to answers hopping right beneath our noses. Yes, these narratives will be complex, and origins of harm will not all be obvious or even able to be known, but killing what we don’t understand brings us no closer to comprehension. Byron did harm. Real, significant, heartbreaking harm. But he deserves the truth and fullness of his humanity, as did Lauren. Because we know that there is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.” We all must tell fuller, more complete, more challenging narratives. It is critical. We must make clear that when you kill a locust you always kill a grasshopper. You cannot execute one and keep the other.