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12 Years a Slave
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I received exciting news this morning from Gayatri Patnaik, Senior Editor at Beacon Press (and editor of my book, Inheriting the Trade) that Beacon announced today “an exclusive agreement to partner with the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. in a new publishing program, ‘The King Legacy.’”
“This partnership brings together the legacy of one of the most important civil rights and social justice leaders in the world with one of the oldest and most respected independent publishing houses in America.”
It is one of the honors of my life to be connected with Beacon Press. For more than a century and a half, Beacon has fulfilled its mission
Today is Memorial Day which was established after the Civil War to commemorate the dead in both the North and the South. More than 600,000 soldiers died. Slavery was officially abolished. Other forms of re-enslavement and official discrimination against people of African descent continued, of course. But the Civil War was a watershed event in our nation’s history. I choose today to remember and ponder the enormous impact that injustice, oppression, and inequity based upon the color of one’s skin has had throughout our nation’s history and continues to have today.
I’ve been home from Virginia for a few days now. I’ve allowed what I absorbed over seven days of study in the CJP Summer Peacebuilding Institute at EMU to settle in my mind. It comes to this: as the name implies, Restorative Justice comprises two integrated parts. Our goal is to be as restorative as possible in achieving justice in response to wrongdoing.
I took this course because of my interest in understanding how RJ principles apply to the historic wrongdoing of slavery, its horrific aftermath through Jim Crow, and systemic racism that lingers today. There is much to consider.
Ideally, RJ is the result of successful encounters among three stakeholders-victim, offender, and community-resulting in the highest degree of repair possible in response to the harm that has occurred. Achieving this ideal is challenging, messy, and sometimes impossible. When one loses a loved one to murder, loses innocence to rape, loses a sense of safety to violent attack, or inherits the damage of slavery and racism, it becomes clear that full restorative justice cannot always be achieved.
Our class spent significant time looking at case studies of victim/offender encounters; sometimes the community participated, sometimes not. I’ll describe several. I won’t include much in the way of responses from our class. I encourage readers of this blog to consider your own responses given what we’ve already discussed in terms of RJ principles, victims, and offenders. Read the rest of this entry »
I intended to add another post or two regarding the Restorative Justice class I just completed on Friday. I will get to it soon.
I pause to recommend this article in the New York Times about segregated proms at a high school in Georgia… today.
I also recommend the film The Order of Myths for a powerful view of separate black and white Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile, Alabama. For anyone operating under the delusion that we now live in a post-racial society, this article and film provide ample evidence to the contrary. For those who get movies through Netflix, you can watch The Order of Myths instantly on your computer.
The Summer Peacebuilding Institute, offered by the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at EMU, continues to enrich and inspire. In previous posts I’ve considered justice from the perspective of both victims and offenders. Before discussing situations in which victims and offenders meet together in an effort to heal I’d like to offer some context by giving more background on the principles and values of Restorative Justice (RJ). To gain a better understanding Howard Zehr provides an excellent overview in The Little Book of Restorative Justice. You can also learn much from the Restorative Justice website.
I want to state up front that the criminal justice system in the United States serves several important functions (even when they are applied imperfectly). It denounces wrongdoing. It draws boundaries on acceptable behavior. It provides a system to identify those who do wrong. It establishes the rule of law and it protects due process and human rights. Traditional criminal justice is also adversarial. It’s like a boxing match. Traditional justice does not serve victims’ needs well, doesn’t effectively hold offenders truly accountable, or work to strengthen communities.
RJ seeks to address these weaknesses.
From The Little Book of Restorative Justice: criminal justice asks three questions. What laws have been broken? Who did it? What do they deserve? RJ asks three different questions. Who has been hurt? What are their needs? Whose obligations are these? The differences in these questions may appear small but, in fact, they are quite significant. And they make a significant difference in both approaches and outcomes when harm occurs.
RJ seeks to create a dialogue; to re-examine our assumptions about justice. RJ is a peacebuilding approach to justice. Peacebuilding is about building, maintaining, and mending healthy relationships. RJ begins with an old concept: wrongdoing is a violation of people and relationships. Violations create obligations. The central obligation is to repair harm and relationships. To achieve justice the true stakeholders must be involved in determining responsibilities and repairing the harm. In other words, the central focus is on victim needs and offender obligations.
A word of caution: RJ has become so popular recently that it has become a buzzword in many cases. It has been occasionally co-opted. In other words, some processes are called RJ when they aren’t. Some key questions to consider about any process to determine whether or not it is RJ include, does it address harm and causes of harm? Is it victim-oriented? Are offenders encouraged to take responsibility? Are all three stakeholder groups involved (victim, offender, and community)? Is there an opportunity for dialogue and participatory decision-making?
Research on RJ indicates high degrees of satisfaction, greater feelings of fairness, reduced victim fear, trauma and desire for revenge. Higher rates of restitution are achieved, there is a greater understanding of one another (empathy), and reduced rates of offending are achieved-especially for more serious crime. Significantly, more cases are brought to justice.
The most important thing I’ve learned is that Restorative Justice is not a rigid set of rules. There ain’t no dogma here. RJ is much more of a compass than a map. It points us in a general direction and requires the participation of stakeholders in a flexible process that will look different in different circumstances. I believe that RJ processes provide a much higher likelihood of healing harms and putting things as right as possible.
NEXT: We’ll look at a few RJ models; victims and offenders meeting. Witnessing these encounters on video are some of the most challenging moments of this week at EMU.
Great news for everyone connected with, and supporting, the Coming to the Table program. The Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University recently announced that the Fetzer Institute and the Kellogg Foundation have collaborated to provide $845,000 in funding for three years of activities to develop a model of healing from the legacy of slavery.
Coming to the Table was founded in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s prayer during his speech at the March on Washington in 1963 that ‘the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.’”
The first meeting of descendants of the enslaved and enslavers took place in January 2006. The vision of Coming to the Table is for a healing process that can be utilized by individuals, families, communities, and other organizations and contribute to a national conversation about healing from the historic wounds of slavery that continue to impact people today and to undo present-day systems of injustice and inequity.
Many thanks to Amy Potter, the director of Coming to the Table, for her hard work and dedication. I also thank our entire Coming to the Table family for your commitment to this project. I look forward to our good work together in the future.
NEXT: more on Restorative Justice, victims and offenders meeting together
The aspect of Restorative Justice that most people find most challenging is in dealing with offenders. When someone causes harm to another what do they need in order to be restored? Once again I’m indebted to Howard Zehr (read Howard’s blog here) for what follows.
Retired Minnesota Judge Dennis Challeen has a lot to say about the paradox of prisons. They don’t do what we intend them to do; that is, make our communities safer. Challeen notes:
One of the failures of the criminal justice system in the United States is that the needs of victims have been traditionally ignored. When someone is charged with committing a crime the plaintiff isn’t the victim. The plaintiff is the state. The crime is against “the state.” The needs of the victim are almost universally ignored.
Last night I watched Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, the documentary about Polanski’s trial in the 1970′s over having sex with a 13-year old. Though it is a powerful film on many levels a statement by Polanski’s victim, now in her forties, is most salient regarding what I’m studying this week. She said that though she was young she could see that the judge didn’t care about her or about Polanski.
The second day of our class on Restorative Justice began with the showing of a film, Victims of Crime: A Life Sentence. It’s a series of interviews with victims of crimes (burglary, rape, murder, a woman who had to choose which child to save when a man with a shotgun was roaming her house). It was not a fun movie to watch. I felt profound sadness. I don’t want these images in my head, yet this is our work. These are the hurt and sometimes broken people who are all members of my human family. We are connected. Read the rest of this entry »
I attended a play last night that is being performed this weekend at EMU. My Name is Rachel Corrie is extraordinary. It is also the perfect production for this weekend when over 100 students from around the world are on campus for the Summer Peacebuilding Institute.
On March 16, 2003, a 23-year old woman from Olympia, Washington was killed in Gaza when a bulldozer, operated by the Israeli Defense Force intent on demolishing a house in Rafah, crushed her to death as she stood between the home and the bulldozer. Rachel Corrie was in Gaza with the International Solidarity Movement, a Palestinian-led movement committed to resisting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land using nonviolent, direct-action methods and principles. Before this weekend I’d never heard of her.
Actor Alan Rickman decided to create a play to tell Rachel’s story. He collaborated with Guardian editor Katharine Viner. They planned to hire a writer to incorporate Rachel’s journal writings and powerful e-mails into the story of her life. Ultimately, they hired no one. They simply edited Rachel’s own words into the entire play.
My Name is Rachel Corrie has been controversial. After her death pro-Israeli voices portrayed her as a tool of terrorists. Pro-Palestinians saw her as a martyr and a hero.
The play was a huge hit in London. It has played all over the world, including in Israel, but proved too hot for New York. It was scheduled to open off-Broadway at at the New York Theatre Workshop but was canceled due to “the current political climate.” What is troubling and difficult to understand is that in the country that basically invented, and staunchly defends, freedom of speech, the words of a 23-year old non-violent peace-worker would be squelched.
After the performance last night my friend Belinda asked me if I remember having that “fire in the belly” when I was Rachel’s age. For many people there is a magical time in life when you become deeply passionate about having a positive impact on the world. Belinda and I both remember it. She also said she felt a little reckless at that point in her life. With all her deep passion, her belief in justice and peace, Rachel Corrie took action that ended her life. Some would surely portray her as reckless. In Ms. Viner’s words, she and Rickman “tried to do justice to the whole of Rachel: neither saint nor traitor, both serious and funny, messy and talented, devastatingly prescient and human and whole.”
They’ve succeeded on all counts. I recommend this play highly. It will also take some effort on your part. The theaters willing to present My Name is Rachel Corrie are few; mostly small theaters and colleges. Ask about it. Recommend it. You can also buy the script.
My Name is Rachel Corrie will make you think and it will stay with you.
I had an experience yesterday unlike any other I’ve ever had in a classroom before. I’ll do my best to relate what happened and hope you’ll give some thought as to what you would have done, thought, or said in this situation. If you feel like commenting please do. In my experience, this is a conversation that rarely happens in most of our lives. I would appreciate reading your reactions.
Yesterday was the first day of my class “Restorative Justice: The Promise, the Challenge” in the Summer Peacebuilding Institute at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I’m taking the class because I believe the principals of Restorative Justice are central to the potential for success in undoing racism and healing from the legacy of slavery.
For those of you unfamiliar with Restorative Justice you can learn a great deal at this website. For the purposes of this blog post I’ll state briefly (and inadequately) a definition that should help. Traditional justice asks three questions when an offense has been committed. What laws/rules were broken? Who did it? What do they deserve? Restorative Justice goes further by asking more questions. Who all have been hurt (this includes victims, offenders, and communities)? What are their needs in order to be made whole (or as whole as possible)? Whose obligations are these? The aim of Restorative Justice is to put things right for as many people as possible. I’m sure I’ll add more posts over the coming week or so. For now this should give you enough context within which to place what happened today here at EMU.
What happened had nothing to do with racism. It was about a young girl who died and the many lives that were impacted. What follows is not a transcript of what was said. It is my best recollection at recreating it.
A woman was brought into the room and introduced to us. Sonya then told us her story. It wasn’t easy for her. She choked up often and wiped many tears from her eyes. “I want to tell you about my daughter. Brooke was a beautiful little girl. She loved animals. We’d go to the park and she loved to watch the birds and listen to them sing. Her favorite movie was Beauty and the Beast. The only part she didn’t like is when the girl saves the Beast and he turns into a handsome prince. Brooke said she liked him better as the Beast. He was rough around the edges like us.
“Brooke was not planned. I was young and I got pregnant. I wasn’t married. I had no job or prospects. I didn’t have a college degree. I didn’t really have any reasonable way to care for a baby. I was advised to give my baby up for adoption. I considered it. But when she was born that was it. She was so beautiful. I was given this amazing gift and there was no way I would give her up. She saved my life. It wasn’t easy. We lived with my mom for several years.
Seven years ago Brooke was six years old. We lived in an apartment near my mom. I had a job. I was going to school. Things were going well. My boyfriend lived nearby as well. One day we had a fight. It was pretty bad. He called that night and apologized. He asked me to come over. I told him I couldn’t. It was late and Brooke was asleep. He said to bring her over and put her to sleep on his couch. He really wanted me to come over. He wanted us to be together; to make up; for me and Brooke to spend the night. I said no. It was almost midnight. Brooke was asleep. He was insistent. Read the rest of this entry »
I met Belvie Rooks last year via e-mail and telephone. She’d read Inheriting the Trade and invited me to join her last August for one of her monthly teleseminars that she calls ConverZations That Matter. As a result of that successful experience we’ve been looking for other opportunities to work together.
Last weekend was the first such opportunity. We both traveled to Colorado to speak at the Denver Green Festival. The Green Festivals are joint projects of Global Exchange and Green America. Their goal is to secure human rights for everyone by promoting social, economic and environmental justice.
Belvie and I discussed how this partnership of social, economic, and environmental issues is an obvious connection and an emerging conversation in many ways. Some folks may have seen these issues in isolation in the past but it is clear that the environment and economics are directly tied to social equity and justice. People who are most harmed by either economic (i.e., mortgage meltdown) or environmental disasters (i.e., Hurricane Katrina) are those who are most vulnerable in the world. They are mostly people of color.
For further understanding of ways in which restoring our failing economy and our environment will result in improved lives for the world’s most vulnerable people read The Green Collar Economy by Van Jones (recently hired by the Obama adminstration as Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation at the White House Council on Environmental Quality).
If you get a chance to attend future Green Festivals in Chicago later this month, or Washington, DC and San Francisco in the fall, I’d encourage you to do so. Everything’s connected. We all have much to learn and much to do in the service of justice.