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    Who Deserves Mercy?

    By John J. Lennon

    October 30, 2021
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    This article is part of “The Beginning of Understanding,” a symposium in response to Ashley Lucas’s report “The End of Rage” in Plough’s Autumn 2021 issue.

    When I was on trial for murder almost twenty years ago, I remember moments of civility between my lawyer, the prosecutor, and the judge. I could tell that the prosecutor and the judge resented me for the same reasons my mother did. I had squandered opportunities that most of my peers – which is to say Black men – weren’t afforded. I felt humiliated. I was sentenced to twenty-five years to life, on top of three years I was already serving for selling drugs. I was guilty of killing a man whom I had once considered my friend. We grew up in the same housing project. The murder was about me wanting to be a gangster, and wanting money. I thought nothing of politics.

    While the system seems to distrust the possibility of my rehabilitation or any of the young men who came in with me who were out in the streets trying to be gangsters in the drug game, it also doesn’t necessarily seem any more forgiving of Black men who committed political crimes during the revolution of a past era. “The End of Rage,” an essay by Ashley Lucas that appears in the autumn issue of Plough, tells the story of Russell Maroon Shoatz, a member of Philadelphia’s Black Liberation Army in the late sixties.

    In 1972, Maroon was arrested for the 1970 shooting of two White officers. One died, the other lived but without his teeth and jaw and hearing. Maroon was tried with his codefendants from the Philadelphia Five, and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

    Maroon escaped twice during his incarceration, and has served twenty-two consecutive years of the past fifty in solitary.

    More than Pennsylvania, New York has shown mercy to political prisoners. In recent years, two former Weatherman members who took part in the Brinks heist that left a guard and two policemen dead were granted clemency. Two former Black Panthers convicted for the 1971 killing of two New York police officers in Harlem were paroled.

    I remember being locked up with one of them, Anthony Jalil Bottom, in an Attica clinic room for two days. It was just us. We talked about our lives. He told me how he became a revolutionary.

    He told me, with sad eyes, and through a grey goatee, about the era in which he grew up. I told him how I was a dopey drug dealer; then I found my calling in prison when I became a writer. At one point, when recounting my drug-dealer days, it hit me. “You guys didn’t like drug dealers, right?” Jalil smiled and asked, “Who likes drug dealers?”

    Truth is, many kids who grew up in urban communities, myself included, looked up to drug dealers. But the revolutionaries of his era never wanted that for their people. When I asked Jalil if it saddened him to see what had happened to his communities in the 1980s, with the crack era and the period of mass incarceration, he somberly nodded. Jalil and I would also talk about the idea that one of the reasons I may have been embraced by mainstream publishing is that I’m White. While being White probably didn’t hurt, I think the work itself plays a more significant part: story, voice, tone, pace, prose. Nonetheless, he reminded me that I had this voice.

    In the Plough essay about Maroon, I saw how his rage stemmed from humiliation. It had stayed with him all his life, beyond the racism in Philly, beyond the cuffs, the chains, the cells, and the solitary. Humiliation stayed with Maroon right into 2021, living in his cell with a colostomy bag and terminal cancer. It’s a humiliation that has also extended to his family: seven children who endure the punishment of knowing their father will likely die in prison.

    “Anton Chekhov once observed that the worst thing life can do to human beings is inflict humiliation,” Vivian Gornick writes in a recent Harper’s essay. “Nothing, nothing, nothing in the world can destroy the soul as much as outright humiliation. Every other infliction can eventually be withstood or overcome, but not humiliation. Humiliation lingers in the mind, the heart, the veins, the arteries forever. It allows people to brood for decades on end, often deforming their inner lives.”

    Which is why I was moved by Maroon’s apology. It hangs at the end of the essay, and the writer, smartly, doesn’t suggest what should come next. She leaves it for the reader to sort out. “My misdirected rage and racial humiliation played a part, but my actions were WRONG!!!” Maroon proceeds to beg for forgiveness. I think of my own apology and how I never begged for forgiveness. It felt wrong of me to ask. Or maybe I just wasn’t humble enough to ask.

    When Plough asked me to respond to this piece, I had just published a New York Times op-ed about clemency. In it, I write about mercy and wonder who deserves it, and if it can be earned. In a case like Maroon’s, the stakes for forgiveness may be even higher, because I don’t think granting him mercy is about his character; it’s about the character of people in society. What Maroon did was an affront to society, but the era that he lived in was a blight on American history, one with which we still reckon today.

    Contributed By John J. Lennon John J. Lennon

    John J. Lennon is serving twenty-eight years to life at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York. He’s a contributing editor for Esquire and a contributing writer for The Marshall Project. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, the New York Review of Books, Sports Illustrated, and New York Magazine, among others.

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