I believe in the power of hope. But not the hope you’re thinking of.
When I was 17, during my senior year of high school, I was arrested wrongly and charged with attempted murder. If convicted, I may have spent the rest of my life in the Louisiana State Penitentiary.
When the officer arrested me at that school, he walked me out in handcuffs in front of all of my classmates. I felt baffled and confused.
The guard put me in an orange jumpsuit. They shackled my hands and feet. They took my mug shot.
I spent almost eight months in a rural Louisiana jail because my family could not afford my bail. As a guard walked me down a dark, foul-smelling corridor, the other inmates yelled, “Fresh meat!”
At times, I believed in the system’s opinion about me: a violent thug, deserving of prison. I felt foreign to myself.
The judge appointed me a public defender but I hardly ever saw him. When I did, he tried to convince me to take a plea, which I rejected.
I spent many nights in my cell writing motions to the judge, asking him to reduce my bail. But that notion was denied. But I filed another one, then another one, and another one.
The judge, he could have ignored me but the fact that he told me “no” showed me that he was listening. Each unsuccessful motion gave me hope.
Eventually my bond was reduced and I got out. The charges were lowered to a misdemeanor. I pled no contest and never spent another day as a prisoner in jail.
But when I was in college, I went to Angola Prison and I went to Louisiana State Penitentiary as an intern with the Innocence Project New Orleans.
I was nervous going in but as part of that internship, I met four incredibly smart men who changed my life. Men I’m still in touch with today.
They reminded me so much of myself. They were young when they were arrested. They thought at that young age that “You know, this is going to work out. This is just a temporary thing.”
Like them, I had been a prisoner but a prisoner to old forms of hope. The type of hope that assumes circumstances will somehow get better. For them, it didn’t.
Prison is not a hopeful place. It’s dehumanizing and it swallows your hope.
When I think about the type of hope that I need in my fight against racial injustice in our criminal justice system, it’s the type that requires getting close to people who have been broken. Broken by poverty, homelessness, drugs, and incarceration. It’s not easy or comfortable.
I see myself as someone who is here to disturb the peace, if you will. Someone who will try to shake up the status quo in our criminal justice system.
I’m not sure at times I have the hope to comfort those who ache for it. What I – what we – can do is live and linger with the discomfort of that. To see the hope that comes from discomfort.
Theo Shaw is a Gates Scholar at the University of Washington School of Law, in Seattle. Eleven years ago, Theo was a high school senior in Jena, Louisiana when he was wrongly arrested and charged with attempted murder, which led to him spending eight months in jail as part of the so-called Jena 6. Shaw hopes his training as a public interest lawyer will help him fight systemic poverty and challenge racial injustices.
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We hope these essays spark conversations for you -- at your dinner tables, churches, synagogues, nail salons and barbershops. To help you continue the conversation, here are some questions related to Theo Shaw's essay.
1. Do you believe that the criminal justice system treats black and white people equally? Why or why not? What's been your experience?
2. How do you define “hope” when it comes to social progress? How does your definition apply to the ongoing struggle with racism in America?
3. Do you believe that black and brown people commit more crimes than white people? On what do you base that impression?
4. What do you think it would feel like to be arrested as a teenager in front of your peers and classmates without any explanation?
5. If you saw a black teenage boy being arrested, what would be your first assumption?