By Molly Rowan Leach, Peace Alliance
To understand Ferguson and the subsequent Eric Garner and Tamir Rice deaths requires that we see the greater pattern of violence occurring more and more frequently in the United States and honestly evaluate the issues while working towards viable solutions, together. Of equal importance is that we hold all “sides” of the equation with equal respect while truthfully evaluating what is at the root cause--upholding accountability at the most astute of levels. Headway will not be made out of further polarization nor out of blanket “blaming” statements.
Although many reports state that nationally our violent crime is down, it is without doubt that coupled with technology and the circumstances of a public at their wits end, we are currently seeing media spike around tragedies that in the not too distant past simply were not a regular mainstay of American society--or just were sadly not reported or considered as newsworthy.
We must question the system and training that has been predominant up to now. To make any form of generalization for one side and against the other will not move us up and out of the hole we are currently in: one that is rife with racism, prejudice, distrust, corruption, and more. We have to be brutally honest with ourselves, our communities, and one another in order for significant strides to be made in changing a system, and a people, who are screaming for justice but unable to find it.
In the past five years, school and public shootings and police related brutality cases have risen drastically. The facts have also been put out on the table thanks to people like Michelle Alexander and Bryan Stevenson: although we claim to be a land of the free and a colorblind country, we in fact are quite the opposite. The statistical evidence that young black men are disproportionately bound for incarceration is fact. The unrest of communities of color continues to rise in distrust of policing practices. In addition, we’ve seen our prison populations skyrocket and the rest of the world looking to the US as the “incarceration nation.” We house 25% of the world’s prisoners, while constituting a mere 5% of the world’s total population. The United States incarcerates a higher proportion of African Americans than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. We seem systemically agog and bent towards violence and punishment, and there is an increase in military-esque “interventions” when public voices speak up.
Just as things come to a head, it is also when a widespread, and bipartisan, unity begins to appear. A few days ago Van Jones spoke to us about his upcoming rollout of #Cut50, an initiative that his unlikely partner Newt Gingrich and he are launching in the early New Year. The goal? To reduce our mass incarceration by 50% in ten years.
Just this past week Fania Davis, Director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, shared an example of how we can and must respond:
A Ferguson Truth and Reconciliation process based on restorative justice (RJ) principles could not only stop the epidemic but also allow us as a nation to take a first “step on the road to reconciliation,” to borrow a phrase from the South African experience. A restorative justice model means that youth, families, and communities directly affected by the killings—along with allies—would partner with the federal government to establish a commission. Imagine a commission that serves as a facilitator, community organizer, or Council of Elders to catalyze, guide, and support participatory, inclusive, and community-based processes. (This Country Needs A Truth and Reconciliation Process… YES! Magazine Online, 12/3/14)
Although underpublicized, professionals and citizens, academics and police alike have been working for decades towards implementing solutions to the issues that have now come to a head. Across the U.S. we see programs such as Baltimore’s Community Conferencing Center featured on PBS’ “Fixing Juvie Justice”, working with astounding result to defray the incarceration rates of multiracial youth and adults, employing dialogue and strict agreements for reparation. We see political advocacy and passage of bills into law such as HB 12-1354 that is now mandate in Colorado (Restorative Justice Pilot Project), requiring and self funding a program of restorative justice that partners police forces, school resource officers, restorative justice practitioners, courts, and more. District Attorney Stanley Garnett of Boulder County, CO, says that restorative justice “saves time, money, and is not just some pipe dream solution” to the massive problems we face. Evidence is across our nation that it is not just citizens but police forces and professionals within the corrections systems that are all calling, together, for a better way--and enacting it.
Mike Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice’s deaths are tragic examples in a long and growing series of cases that require our immediate attention as citizens of this great country. On Monday December 1st, the Obama Administration approved $263M for police body cameras and training. While it is of unequivocal importance that we get to the truth of what is occurring, for the sake of our police force as well as for communities of color and the general public, there are also aspects of these cases that must be re-evaluated in order to cease the cycles of violence and address honestly the legitimate concerns of impacted citizens--which in essence is all of us. What, in fact, is really going on? And, how can we better respond and further prevent violence like this in the future, in a sustained and systemic manner?
Martin Luther King Jr once said that a riot is the expression of those without a voice. If our country is not hearing something, it is past due that we listen. And act.
The lives of all the children and youth lost in shootings, police related or otherwise, cannot be brought back. The distrust of police and our justice system cannot be reclaimed--without an honest evaluation and public discourse that leads to systemic change--change that includes restorative justice, conflict prevention, nonviolent communication, community response teams, and a bulwark of processes that allow voice be given to our youth, to our victims, to those whose voices have been left by the wayside for too long--as well as to police and officials within the system itself. While we want truth shown on camera of how things play out--don’t the angels of our better selves wonder if we could take it even further--to a space of equanimity for our communities regardless of color and race, for our police force who face trainings themselves that have been informed by punishment and violence. If we see the larger story that goes much beyond the incidents themselves, we can see that a nation of violence, fear, and of mass incarceration and punishment has brought us to where we stand now.
So the question is, what can we do now?
Let’s look more closely at examples of programs that are providing practical solutions: in Gainesville, Florida, the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding is making great strides alongside community members, the local police, and judicial system. Their mission tagline speaks volumes: “Everyone learns to resolve conflicts through healthy communication in relationships thus breaking the cycle of violence and creating a safer community.” And this kind of work is starting to happen more frequently all around the nation.
Jeffrey Weisberg and Heart Phoenix describe the program and underlying values in detail:
The disparity of black and brown youth entering the criminal justice system throughout the United States is not only a social justice issue but has implications within our economy, educational system and family structures. While black and brown youth are 3 times more likely to interface with law enforcement than white youth, we must not lose sight of contributing factors that many of our youth face in daily life.
The River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding and the Gainesville Police Department have partnered to address the relationships between officers and youth of color. A common quote made by many is that we cannot arrest our way out of this problem. It is with this in mind that we have created a 5 hour intensive training bringing together cops and kids. The training aims to break down stereotypes and negative perceptions that kids have of cops and cops may have of kids.
The program uses role plays, honest discussions about perceptions, games, one on one meal time to interview each other and activities that build trust and understanding. By understanding adolescent brain development, the effects of trauma and challenges that both youth and adults face, we equip the participants with new skills and insights that are translated into community policing and relationships in local neighborhoods.
Relationship building, and repair of those harmed, is a central aspect of rebuilding our broken system. This can be done both “downstream” of conflict escalation (in response to) but perhaps even more preferable, on the “upstream” side of conflict: before it ever happens. The model that Fania Davis suggests earlier in this piece is a brilliant and very viable template for all cities and communities across the nation. Thus, The Peace Alliance has been and is actively engaged in providing education, advocacy, and mobilization to build a movement that provides community solutions and programs to teach the skills, give the tools, and raise awareness, on how to de-escalate conflict--and even resolve it. Programs that teach Nonviolent Communication (NVC), provide job skills trainings and life-empowerment classes, offer a restorative response and process to conflict both large and small, and help our youth, schools, teachers, police, judges, families, and more become equipped with skills that our society has until recently undervalued--is at the forefront of our work.
To that aim, we are leading an effort to pass The Youth PROMISE Act and are engaged with states furthering Restorative Justice at both grassroots and policy levels. We believe that the power of our communities, such as one of the leading “RJ” programs in our nation, are paving the way with viable statistics that prove we do have a way out of the cycles of violence. We are seeing recidivism drops to 8% (lcjp.org). More and more Police Chiefs and departments are seeing drastic positive effects and interrupting the revolving door that many offenders are prone to by rebuilding an interlinked community system with representatives from across professions, supporting cause and effect when crime does occur and holding accountability. All the while, the possibility and awareness of the importance of healing and understanding is growing, which is a key element behind recidivism drops and victims post-crime lives.
In Seattle, in response to the recent Marysville-Pilchuk high school shootings, The Peace Alliance has partnered with Seattle Restorative Justice and other community members to listen to needs and formulate appropriate responses and processes informed by the work of internationally-respectedRestorative Circles, a foundational system for building restorative processes. TPA is also working with SRJ to create a Community Response Template that can be shared with other communities, while leveraging its national networks to ensure the right people are getting in place to support local efforts, where and when needed.
In 2010, a police officer in Seattle shot and killed homeless woodcarver John T. Williams, an indigenous artist who at the time was carrying a piece of wood and his woodcarving knife. The officer testified that he feared for his life due to the knife. Williams was shot dead. What happened next resembles the outrage and uproar we are currently seeing. Seattle Restorative Justice’s cofounder and attorney Andrea Brenneke, who also led up the City of Seattle’s Restorative Justice program, catalyzed a significant Restorative Response to this case. The full story of that case is here.
But the point that was made is that there are ways to respond to, and even prevent tragedy, that lessen the chance of recycling damage and harm, and furthering, instead of dissolving, the harm and conflict. It was just two years ago, in 2012, that the City of Seattle, the Police Department, tribal citizens and family members of Mr. Williams, came together to process the tragedy. Their willingness and courage to face the truth, respectfully listen, and dialogue towards making things balanced again is a living example of what other communities are calling for now.
In Ferguson, an equally represented group of white and black citizens have come together to initiate talking circles, and to further glean how they might respond and impact that immediate community now and in the future. In Seattle, members of faith communities, those directly impacted and indirectly by the Marysville Pilchuk shooting are gathering to dialogue--to discern carefully and respectfully how to respond, as well as how to prevent further loss.
We see a nation waking up to the greater, tragic patterns. We see a nation rising up in the face of the most challenging obstacles. Although we cannot bring back those lost, we have much we can gain if we choose--from the blatant mirror being held up before us all--will we act and choose to enact differently?
The choice is ours to make and there is no question that we already have begun building the infrastructures necessary that will reclaim the spirit of true justice: with equal respect, dignity, accountability, reparation, and with an eye for the future of our children and communities.