'But Why?'

TODAY, Greg Bright, 56, sits on the cement porch of his yellow clapboard house in New Orleans' 7th Ward and rests his hand on the head of his yellow dog, Q. It is 2012, and he often finds himself musing over the notion of time—time past, time lost, time wasted. "It feels like a minute since I been out here," he says. It took some time to adjust to life on the outside, he admits, and once, on a dark rainy morning as he found himself biking seven miles in the rain to his miserable job working the line in a chicken plant in Mississippi, he felt real despair—just recognizing that he was 47 years old and had never owned a car. He tried hard to dismiss the sobering thought that, arrested at age 20 and doing 27 years of time, he'd been "seven more years in prison than I was on the streets." Sometimes, he says, "it's little things like that" that really threaten to drag him down into sorrow.

So he chose to do something that both keeps those wasted years fresh in his memory yet also mitigates the sense of powerlessness he sometimes feels. He helps to educate others in the hopes that his story will spur reforms. He is not an educated man—his formal schooling stopped in sixth grade—but he is one of dozens and dozens of ex-cons who form a vital link in the post-Katrina criminal justice reform efforts through various organizations such as Resurrection After Exoneration, a holistic reentry program for ex-offenders, and Innocence Project New Orleans. Greg tells his story to students, activists, politicians, church groups, friends, strangers—anybody with time to spare and an inclination to listen—doggedly putting a face on an abstract idea, injustice.

On this particular afternoon in May 2012, he tells his story to me. For a fourth time. He is deeply preoccupied with the judge who repeatedly denied his requests over the years (the same one who was on the team prosecuting his murder case in 1976). The very month that Greg was released in 2003, the judge died. Greg goes into his house to retrieve the judge's yellow and tattered obituary that he has kept these nine years. He reads it—as he has done hundreds of times. The obituary, like all obituaries, says nice things.

"The judge may have been a good man," Greg muses. "He might have been a good husband, a good father, a good friend to many people—and I'm sure he was. But people might be saying the same thing about me." Q, the dog, who lies panting at Greg's feet, lifts his head for a moment to look around, as if considering the matter. Then he lowers his head to rest his muzzle on Greg's shoe. "But because I'm not a lawyer, but because I'm the little guy, man, you step on my head and crush me. I don't have money or influence or even God on my side." ... [The Supreme Court case Gideon vs. Wainwright] guaranteed him an attorney, but a flawed indigent defense system and a lackluster lawyer rendered that almost meaningless. "But why?" he says. "You know, why? Sometimes I think about it." He wonders what the solutions are to the troubled criminal justice system here, to the high incarceration rates in the black community, to the racism and power imbalance. He talks on and on, indignant, furious, rambling—but right.

Like a dog licking a wound, keeping it open and raw, Greg Bright revisits his past, alternately trying to decide whether he—and the city of New Orleans—get to have a happy ending or whether their shared story is a tragedy.

Copyright © 2013 by Karen Houppert. This excerpt originally appeared in Chasing Gideon, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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"'But Why?'"
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