Through Example…

Sometimes education is as simple as leading through example.  Tonight Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the story of the West Memphis 3, premiered at the New York Film Festival. For those not up to date, this was the final installment of three HBO documentaries chronicling the story of the three teenage boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, who were wrongfully convicted of killing of three second-grade cub scouts back in the early 90’s.

Having followed the case for more than a decade and stewed in my own anger over the intransigence of the legal system to rectify an egregious wrong, I stood eagerly in line to purchase my ticket to the film’s release. What would make the evening even more memorable was that the convicted men were released from prison only six weeks ago—entirely because of the movement the documentaries set into being. It is not often that we can so accurately point to a book or film as the source of true change in the world. Tonight, it was unmistakable. And I wanted to be part of that.

Looking back, most anyone can see that the teens (dubbed the West Memphis 3) were convicted largely on innuendo, shoddy police work, and the incredible rush to judgment of people who assumed kids wearing black t-shirts and listening to hard rock music must be up to no good. Dubbed Satan-worshippers in a small community understandably enraged at the murders of innocent children, these young men never really had a chance. It’s a cautionary tale of mistaken perception, of needing to place blame somewhere, of arrogance. Not very good lessons for our kids.

Thankfully, the release of the first film sparked a remarkable awakening, and as the years passed by, more and more people came to recognize the gross injustice perpetrated in the case.  Websites were built, books were written, money was raised—all by people incredulous that such perversions of justice could occur in our system. Even one of the murdered boy’s stepdad came around—becoming a fierce advocate for the men’s freedom. Of course the terms of the West Memphis 3’s release would make theirs a pyrrhic victory of sorts: their “Alford Plea”required they plead guilty while maintaining their innocence—a circuitous way for the State of Arkansas to prevent the men from suing.

As a teacher of social justice, I wanted to support the film tonight because I see the journey of these men from arrest to release eighteen years later as a textbook example to students everywhere: perseverance, conviction, and a willingness to speak out CAN effect positive change. Sometimes, it’s okay to get angry about injustice. Sometimes, anger is what fuels action. Sometimes, anger is exactly what you need to rally people to constructive action when the system fails. The film tonight reminded me of all the reasons this story has angered me over the years.

Then following the film’s bittersweet ending, two of the West Memphis 3 took to the stage with the filmmakers to answer questions.  It was here that Jason Baldwin, sent to prison at the age of 16, brought forth a different message from the one I’d imagined I’d take away with me.

Sometimes, there’s no room for anger.

With a beaming smile on his face, this man who’d lost half his life told us about going back to school and working with kids to help them navigate the legal system and avoid the fate he’d been dealt.  As I marveled at his eloquence and grace, I realized that amidst the outrage and frustration that drives our activism, we must also make room for forgiveness. And there is no better way to teach forgiveness than to see someone so justly deserving of vengeance effectively say to an audience of people who would follow him into battle, “Hey, I’ve got much more important things to do with my time. I’m moving on.”

It’s a powerful message to convey to kids, to anyone really.  Integrity. Imagine if we could all embrace this idea…

Yeah, what happened to me wasn’t right, but rather than spending a second trying to get even, let’s just make sure we do better for the next guy.

That is leadership.