with Janee Woods
Punitive justice won’t bring back Michael Brown—or Eric Garner or Tamir Rice or Trayvon Martin or John Crawford. Unraveling systemic racism starts with communities, not courts.
“AFTER THEIR EXHAUSTIVE REVIEW, THE GRAND JURY DELIBERATED AND MADE THEIR FINAL DECISION. THEY DETERMINED THAT NO PROBABLE CAUSE EXISTS TO FILE ANY CHARGES AGAINST OFFICER WILSON AND RETURN A NO TRUE ON EACH OF THE FIVE INDICTMENTS.”
I wasn’t surprised at all, but no matter how hard you brace yourself, a slap across the face still hurts. In many ways, I could already feel the sharp sting and sense the bloody bruise coagulating under my brown skin before the blow even landed. Long before Robert McCulloch, Prosecuting Attorney for St. Louis County, Missouri, announced the grand jury decision regarding whether Officer Darren Wilson would be indicted for the shooting death of Michael Brown, I knew there would be no indictment. And I knew that when I heard the official statement read out loud to the country watching with tense eyes yet hopeful hearts that I would feel intense physical and emotional pain.
By now you’d think I’d be better at this. We’ve had a lot of practice. But still, I barely slept that night. This wasn’t our first extrajudicial killing. I saw the pain coming for 100 days, from the afternoon that Michael Brown died to the evening that the grand jury decision was made public, and yet I still wasn’t prepared for the inner turmoil. My mind was racing and my ears were ringing with the chants of protestors: “No justice! No peace!”
No justice. Of course not. Why did we ever dare to believe that justice could be served through an indictment against Officer Wilson? The criminal justice system is premised on the notion of punitive justice. Be convicted of a crime and be punished, either through loss of liberty and autonomy during imprisonment or through the loss of life if the state executes you. It’s true that an indictment would have brought Officer Wilson to trial and perhaps, if convicted, to prison, which would certainly punish him. He would be punished and we would be happy about that but would his imprisonment be an effective deterrent to other officers in similar situations, where they have the opportunity to use deadly force? Punitive justice has never been successful at deterring future bad acts. This should be obvious: if punitive justice worked as a deterrent then our prisons wouldn’t be full of murderers, rapists, and embezzlers who committed their crimes knowing full well that the prisons are already full to the brim with murderers, rapists and embezzlers. Justice for Michael Brown requires something greater than personal and individual punishment for Officer Wilson: punitive justice cannot bring Michael back to life nor unravel the intricate web of systematic oppression and white supremacy that binds our government, police departments, and courts. You can’t call checkmate if the only thing you’ve accomplished is removing a single pawn from the board. The game will play on and if the rules are stacked against you and you’re up against a cheater then you’ll never win.
Punitive justice carries the danger of priming us, especially white people, to look at police shootings of young black men as individual cases, instead of examining the historical and cultural context in which they occur. That context is centuries of structural, systemic racism. Addressing the way racism destroys communities and endangers black life mandates that we apply restorative justice, which prioritizes the voice of the victim and allows the community to play an active role in repairing harm. But is restorative justice enough?
Even if we erase police brutality by reforming policing tactics and addressing the dangerous implications of implicit racial bias and explicit prejudice in the court system, the fact remains that people of color and communities of color continue to suffer economically because the fruits of their hard labor and their resources have been stolen through slavery, undervalued through redlining and other exclusionary and discriminatory practices, and routinely marked as unworthy investments for education, health care, and protection by the government. Adding value back to our perceptions and assumptions about people of color and to the economies of communities of color will require honoring the needs of the community instead of adhering strictly to legal principles or punishing a sole offender. Some people call for reparations in the form of cash to individuals of color. Others call for reparations in the form of stronger investments in schools and other institutions serving people of color. And others call for reparations in the form of apologies and proclamations of accepting responsibility for centuries of wrongdoing that have irreparably harmed people of color. But how in the world are we supposed to make reparations in any form happen when the white community does not want to accept accountability for the legacy of white privilege that continues to flow forward based on past racist policies and practices that, for the most part, are outlawed today? So restorative justice is basically off the table until a powerful critical mass of white people demand that solution, and then hold themselves accountable to communities of color for implementing the solution.
Where does that leave us—the regular folks who don’t hold political office and can’t make policy decisions, the ordinary citizens who don’t have the clout to influence systems and institutions, the people in our communities who really, truly care but don’t know what capacity they might hold to be an agent of change?
We need a different kind of justice.
We desperately need rehabilitative justice to reclaim our collective humanity. We need to rehabilitate ourselves and our relationships with each other, across differences of perspectives and background, before we can successfully change the way inequitable systems and institutions work. To dismantle structural racism, we need to learn how to be a community where we all are valued, protected and seen as human. We need mercy for one another as we confront and probe these painful wounds without knowing yet exactly what will heal us. We need understanding for those who will make mistakes rooted in white privilege or internalized racial oppression as they step up to fight against injustice, even though their intentions are honorable. We need bravery to support each other on this journey where many of us will never reach the final destination. We need solidarity to face down those who will always oppose us. We need faith that we can change. We need confidence in believing that we, as individuals, can rehabilitate our broken selves and our broken relationships so that together we can be transformative.
Rehabilitating our collective humanity means that we must become skilled at engaging with one another with humility, respect, and candor, instead of being fractured and afraid. We are angry. We are rightfully angry. It is time to channel our rage into productive action instead of perpetuating violence against each other. In addition to taking to the streets en masse in protest across the country and voting out the leaders who have failed in their leadership, we should gather together folks in the places where we live to have meaningful and nuanced conversation about the racism and white violence that threatens black life. Change happens at different levels. The highest level of change is institutional or policy level change, which most of us regular people don’t have the immediate ability to make happen. This is not to say that we should ever stop advocating for dismantling of institutions and policies that support racism, but we can, right now, work toward individual change, with the shared goal of eventually transforming our scared, fractured communities, One of the best ways to foster individual change is to surround yourself with people who support your growth in antiracism and challenge you to explore more deeply the assumptions that you hold about yourself and about others, even when you are unsure about what might be revealed or worry that you might be misunderstood. This is true no matter the color of your skin.
We may feel powerless standing in the shadow of institutions, politics and the long history that got us here but that does not mean that we are, in fact, powerless. We know there is power in public protest that demands large scale change but not all of us are ready to engage with the system in that way. Try to develop your power by engaging truthfully with yourself and with neighbors in your community on a smaller scale. The inaugural step toward rehabilitating our humanity is honest communication with those who are near us. In many ways, this might be the hardest step because we must first create spaces where we can come together as individuals with disparate life experiences, diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, and varying levels of understanding about the legacy and impact of American racism. And once we come together, we must share a commitment to follow through in learning together and moving to action together. There are many ways you can create the space and structure that allow for this kind of communication and commitment.
Bring people together for conversations that transform conflict into meaningful relationships. Use conversations to encourage distrustful and defensive relationships to blossom into relationships based on curiosity, connection, and compassionate understanding of differences. Public Conversations Project helps people come together across backgrounds to explore conflicts driven by deep differences in identity, beliefs, or values.
Use dialogue as a catalyst for action. An approach that helps shift people from talking to action can involve diverse community members coming together to have deep conversation about their connections to the community, perspectives on sensitive public issues like racism, and what they can accomplish together to address structural inequities. Everyday Democracy coaches people on how to talk and develop problem solving that leads to inclusive action, in order to build a strong democracy and improve the quality of life for everyone.
Apply a racial justice lens in educational settings. Educators need a framework for opening dialogue around race issues in education. Schools and other academic settings can be opportune settings for public learning around racial issues. Courageous Conversations provides tools to address racial issues in order to uncover the biases that prevent all students, and especially students of color, from reaching their fullest potential.
Develop your empathy and ability to look outside your own personal experience.Strong empathy and the ability to understand the realities of others help foster the creation of a society where all individuals are treated with respect and dignity.EmpathyEducates is dedicated to guiding people in the process of collaborative dialogue to envision what it would be like to live in that kind of society. Using this approach, community members work together to eliminate racism, ethnic stereotypes, gender identity biases, and prejudicial intolerances in respect to sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic status, physical and mental challenges.
Talk in public about undoing racism. Take your conversation to a public space so that other people can notice the importance of what you are doing. Talking in public also helps to remove the stigma of talking about race in everyday encounters.Conversation Cafes are open to everyone and are usually organized in public spaces like cafés, although you can meet in places like libraries and classrooms. You can meet anywhere that people gather to talk and spend time together, as they explore the issues that shape our world. A Conversation Cafe is a low pressure environment because there is no obligation to join any organization, no prior reading or knowledge required, and no political agenda. This is a simple process that helps people to shift their thinking from their own experience to thinking about the big picture.
Even if you’re not ready to reach out and engage with strangers in your community, you can still come together with the close people in your life to have evocative conversation about how you feel about what has happened in Ferguson and how those outcomes reflect the racist realities of our society. What matters most is that you are bringing people together and redefining what it means to be a community.
Following the announcement of no indictment, Michael Brown’s parents urged us, “Let’s not make noise, let’s make a difference.” We shall do that. The endgame here is transformative justice. If we can transform ourselves then we can transform our communities and eventually our society. Imagine the possibility of what we could achieve together. The beloved community where we deserve to live does indeed exist, just over the horizon. Keep marching forward.
This piece was written by Janee and originally published on Guernica on December 1, 2014.