Norris Henderson

NorrisHendersonThis is supposed to be about something radical, about how we see ourselves in this moment . . . . This moment is about how we show up and how we show up for each other in this moment. One of the things about having legal skills and knowing the power of what you can do with it is how to pay it forward. What do we do with the skillset that we have acquired? So for all the lawyers, the jailhouse lawyers, and law students, the question to yourself is, how do you show up in the moment? When you look in the mirror in the morning, what do you see? Do you see this pretty person, this beautiful, handsome person, this lovely, gorgeous person, or do you see somebody who is really engaged and willing to commit themselves to helping others?

One of the things about acquiring a skill set is that you have to do something with it. For example, I am a CPR instructor, but I cannot perform CPR on myself. I learned that so I could do it for somebody else. So when you learn the law, it is for you to use this talent that you have acquired to the benefit of somebody else. A service to humanity is the best work in life. And so how do we show up in these different moments? We are having a critical moment right now. Things are happening, and we are responding to them. But the thing is, I need to know where you are in that critical moment. I do not need to be in battle walking with you, and then when I get to the line of conflict, look over my shoulder and you are not there. I need to know that you are going to be there with me. For that reason, my biggest ask for everybody here is how we show up. How we show up in these critical moments when things are happening all around us.

Conversely, we cannot twist people because of their position or possessions. We have to meet people as we find them. We have to find people who are willing to do what they are capable of doing. We cannot get mad with people who say, “Check this out brother, this is as far as I can go.” If they tell me that is as far as they can go, I have to accept that and respect that. However, do not walk here with me, talking this talk, and then when I get there, say that I have to go. One of the things Michael [Jackson] said about talking to that man in the mirror is [that] he must check himself. If we do not check ourselves, we are going to wreck ourselves. We always talk about leaving the egos at the door, but somehow we seem to sneak them in our pocket and bring them in. This is about us being honest with each other.

I have been truly blessed. I am not supposed to be here. I had a life sentence. For years, I could not figure out how I got into the circumstance I found myself in. But I was there. I took a bad situation and turned it into something good. I learned the law by hook or crook, trying to figure out how to get myself out of prison. Before I found a way out for myself, however, I was also able to help thousands of other people.

This is about us coming together as a collective. Recently, we left our regional caucus and had a call about an incident in Mississippi. People drove eighteen hours to make a call stating that they may need help soon. Will we show up for those folks in Mississippi like we showed up in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Oakland? If we talk about winning, and about how we win, I have a very simple formula for that. We have to be willing to fight one day longer than our opposition. It is that simple--it is not a complicated thing.

Envision that. For example, I remember [Joe] Frazier and [Muhammad] Ali, the “Thrilla in Manila.” I can hear Bundini Brown say, “All night long, champ, all night long.” But the expression on Ali's face said, “I don't know if I can go any farther.” Truth be told, he did not want to continue to fight, but at that moment, Joe quit on the other side of the ring; he threw in the towel. Ali did not even know it, he was still contemplating whether he could go back out there. Angelo Dundee looked over his shoulder, he saw that Joe threw in the towel, and he forced Ali to get up. Why? Because if we can look up, we can get up--that is what this is all about.

I am a bit late to organizing one-on-one, but we need to use this energy. We did not organize one-on-one in prison. Organizing in prison was a “no-no.” If you find yourself organizing in prison, you find yourself moving on the fast train in the wrong direction. However, we found a way to do it, though we had to do it spontaneously. Shit happens, somebody responds to it, and that is what is starting to happen across this country. Shit is happening, people are responding to it. Now we are trying to do it in a more organized way, so that when shit happens, we have a group of lawyers already waiting so that we are passing through the jail but not spending the night. In the old days, they spent the night in jail because the lawyer was trying to figure out what to do. We know what to do now. We need to have bail money, and we need to have someone right there advising somebody of what their rights are: “Don't say anything. This is my client,” and he goes in and passes back out so he can get right back on the front line. That is how we built this army.

If we want to build an army, that is how we are going to build it. We build it one soldier at a time. At the same time, however, we cannot afford to get mad at our soldiers. One of our experiences on the inside when we was organizing, for example, was that there were some brothers inside who could not read and write. Their contribution to our movement was that they stuffed enveloped and licked them and put stamps on them. So imagine in a prison where you have 5,000 people sending out 10,000 pieces of mail, and you got a handful of people folding and licking envelopes and licking stamps. Nobody else wanted to do it, but they took on the task of doing it. So there is a role for everybody in this fight. Everybody.

I say this to the generals. For the generals, those folks, some self-anointed generals, and some of us who have lifted people up to be generals. The greatest action of the general occurs, not during the battle, but in the first few minutes after. You have to find something to say to get those troops back there on the battlefield and keep them fighting. So when you take on this leadership position or are anointed or whatever, think about that and think about the impact your decisions have on all of the people you are asking to follow. Sometimes we make selfish decisions, and I tell people all the time when they say that we might go to jail, “Jail don't scare me, I've been there.” Jail does not scare me, but for the person standing next to me, that may be a horrific experience for that person. I have to value that person's opinion and feelings and position. So I cannot get upset with this person who says, “I cannot afford to go to jail.” I have got to respect that. At the end of the day, all I am saying is that we have a moment in front of us that if we do the right thing with it--if we do the right thing with it, we can accomplish so many things. So many great things.

And so my final ask of everybody in the room is that, when we look at that mirror in the morning, we bring our whole self. I tell people all the time, “You know you better than I know you.” You know what you are capable of doing. You know how much commitment you are going to give, because inside, all you have inside is loyalty and commitment. That is all you have. You do not have the cash to pay for this and pay for that. Your face takes you everywhere you need to go to inside. Your face and your reputation for packing fair with people. And if we learn to pack fair with each other, [we'll] have people in this room from all over the country.

I came here early this morning, and I started to count the chairs. I was just sitting down and I saw it: ten rows here, ten rows deep. Well, that is one hundred [people], that is six hundred people who are going to fill up this room. This is a lot, this is a critical mass of people with real skills. We got organizers, we have advocates, we have attorneys, we have law students, but what do we do with it? The test of this is going to be when we leave here, today, tomorrow, or the next day. For those who live in New York, what do we do with this moment? How do we continue to stay connected to each other so that we do not always show up when it is critical, [like] when there is a Trayvon Martin or Mike Brown or Freddie Gray? We have to continue to show up for each other all the time.

I get tired of going to funerals. We are in a place that leads the nation for capital incarceration. If that was really the solution, I do not think we would be leading the nation in crime, but those things are on the same parallel track. It tells me that something is wrong with this picture. However, we are in a position to make a change.

I always say “we” inclusively, because I am a part of this, whether it goes right or whether it goes wrong. We have to become owners of saying, “If it's to be, it starts with me.” Now think about what that saying means. You have made a commitment to yourself. You have just made a covenant with yourself that if anything is supposed to change, it starts with you. So, if it is not moving, blame yourself.