Martin Luther King Jr. says, in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” that “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.” After spending an afternoon in that Arizona courtroom, I realize that justice rushed is also justice denied.
Mid-January, 2017. I am about two weeks into a month-long stint as a reservist with the CPT Colombia team. I’ve visited the rural community of Guayabo, where campesino farmers and their families and communities have been embroiled in an extensive land claim struggle with the son of a former landowner. Though the actions of the people of Guayabo in defense of their land have been legal and nonviolent, local officials, who have sided with the claimant, Rodrigo Lopez Henao, throughout the process, issued arrest warrants several months ago for four community leaders. One, Álvaro García, was arrested at home at the crack of dawn. After going into hiding for six months, seeking legal help, and building a defense, the remaining three community leaders turned themselves in to the authorities. Most accusations against them were immediately dropped for lack of evidence, and they were allowed to return home until the case is resolved– but Álvaro has been held for eight months now, awaiting charges and a hearing at which his lawyers can petition for his release.
The CPT team has been visiting Álvaro regularly in jail in Barrancabermeja, which is several hours by boat from his family and community, and attending hearings in his case. I join my CPT teammate at a hearing in which Álvaro’s lawyers hope to conclude opening arguments and move closer to the point at which they can request his release. We wait an hour in a cramped reception area: Álvaro, two prison guards, several family and community members, lawyers from a Colombian human rights collective, my teammate and I. Álvaro reaches out with cuffed hands to shake mine when we are introduced. He sings the group a song he’s written in jail about the dignity of campesino work and importance of land justice. Finally the judge calls Álvaro, his guards, and the lawyers into another room.
My teammate and I wait outside with Álvaro’s friends and family for about two hours, looking out over the city and the Magdalena River from the fourth floor balcony of the court building. Finally, Álvaro emerges, and the guards lead him back out of the building, to return to jail. His main lawyer joins our small group, shakes her head, and explains that completion of that day’s hearing has been postponed two weeks. She asked to continue the hearing within a few days; the judge denied the request.
Justice too long delayed…
The week of Álvaro’s hearing includes several events of particular significance to me as a U.S. resident and citizen: Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, celebrated in the States as a national holiday, and the inauguration as president of a man who has bragged about sexual assault, threatened activists and journalists, spoken hatefully about people of color and immigrants, and proposed the dismantling of almost every facet of the U.S. government charged with protecting civil rights and caring for the basic needs of poor, working class, and even middle class U.S. residents. The night before the inauguration, another teammate and I stay up late watching 13th, a powerful documentary about mass incarceration. I think about how violence against people of color, especially state violence, is enabled by a criminal system that consistently prosecutes that violence with less severity than violence against white victims. I think about how rape culture is sustained by a criminal system that dismisses and re-traumatizes survivors of sexual violence, rarely bringing their cases to court. I think, on the other hand, about a system full of people, especially black and Latinx people, who are arrested and prosecuted for minor, often drug-related, offenses to fuel a growing private industry of incarceration.
Justice warped is also justice denied.
I’ve had a pen pal for a few months who is incarcerated in a Texas prison. I remember the first time I got a letter from him: holding it in my hand, looking at his writing, taking in the return address. Reading about his son, his favorite music, his hobbies. I’m a white, middle-class person who was born into U.S. citizenship and hasn’t had to interface much with any criminal system. His letter hit me in the gut in a way that no political argument about prisons ever has.
We lock up human beings. In cages. For years. Human beings just like any others, beautiful and imperfect children of God. We lock them up.
I do not believe that any of this is the kind of justice God intends for us. “This is what the LORD almighty says,” the book of Zechariah says. “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.” In so many ways, our current systems fail this test.
I don’t find it easy to imagine what true justice, a justice of mercy and compassion, would look like. In many ways, that’s exactly the question that Colombia is wrestling with as a country right now. After half a century of war, attended by all the loss, abuse, grief, trauma, and anger that war brings with it, what does justice look like? How can truth be brought forward, space be made for accountability and restitution? How will Colombia move toward a transformed future?
How will any us? And how do we hold that question in such a way that we can really see and hear and care for one another, and no one ends up in a cage?