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Confronting White Supremacy Can’t Come Through Top-Down “Justice”

Our best hope lies in grassroots, community-led truth and reconciliation processes based in restorative justice.

Denver police officers watch over the crowd at Civic Center Park on July 19, 2020, in Denver, Colorado, where a pro-police rally and counterprotesters gathered.

Part of the Series

We bear witness to an extraordinary historical moment, one convulsing with both immense pain and opportunity. We’re finally looking in the mirror, facing the truth that we are a nation born not in liberty but in terror — of white supremacy, slavery, genocide, land theft and racial capitalism. At last we are disrupting centuries of denial.

We’re seeing that, throughout U.S. history, police have served as frontline enforcers of white supremacy, brutally subjugating Black people. Slave patrollers torturing enslaved persons who resisted or attempted to escape. Convict leasing era police enforcing Black Codes. Police delivering Black bodies to white lynch mobs.

Today’s police killings enact the same racial terror that has been the unrelenting knee on the neck of Black people for 401 years.

A Zulu proverb says when the house burns down, the one we rebuild is more beautiful. The house built in 1619 on the foundations of white supremacy is burning down. To build a house more beautiful, we must continue to face the truth about our history, offer reparations for harm, abolish the old house that systematically brutalizes Black people, and build anew.

Undeniably, white people today are facing the truth like never before. In police protests after Michael Brown’s 2014 killing, Black people were a majority. But the legions marching in 50 states and 2,000 cities since police crushed George Floyd to death are majority white. It seems only yesterday that white people were skeptical about Black Lives Matter. Today, two-thirds of the nation supports it, including 60 percent of white people.

In numbers unparalleled, white people are writing and reading anti-racism texts and noticing and eradicating ways they personally perpetuate structural racism. Increasing numbers of universities are telling the truth about complicity with slavery and the slave trade, apologizing, and engaging in reparations and memorialization. Statutes extolling slavery and the confederacy are falling. Memorials honoring those enslaved and lynched are rising. The term “white supremacy” has moved from the margins to mainstream. “Systemic racism” is nearly a household expression.

And yet, as the old house begins to crumble, what will actually make it more beautiful? What can we do to ensure that a similar house is not built in its place?

We need a community-led, radical rebuilding process that leaves no stone unturned to ensure non-recurrence.

Defunding police — calling both an end to current policing and collectively imagining new public safety futures — will surely make the house more beautiful. Though the design of that house is something each community must together decide, defunding the police might mean taking police out of schools, as Oakland and other cities have started to do, while increasing funding for counseling, the arts, and restorative justice. It could mean cutting funding for military equipment and facial recognition software and transferring resources to social service agencies — but not those that mimic policing’s punishment and surveillance behaviors.

The Minneapolis City Council has adopted the defund police strategy. For years they had tried state-of-the-art reforms. Yet Black lives still didn’t matter. Pruning isn’t enough; it’s time to plant anew. When asked what defunding the police would look like, the City Council president wisely responded that though she didn’t know, the people of her city did; they would collectively imagine a new future of public safety where Black lives matter.

Minneapolis gets that justice for George Floyd requires more than prosecuting individual officers. The problem isn’t just individual, it’s systemic. Yet prevailing “justice” only has the capacity to address individual harm — and ineffectively, at that. As a perpetrator itself of massive harm, this system is plainly incapable of stopping the killings.

The nationwide cry to defund the police is thus a cry to re-envision justice as well as dismantle policing. Beyond a “justice” that blames, judges and punishes people, history calls us to imagine a justice that transforms both unjust relationships and systems — a justice that requires us to transform ourselves as we transform the world. Restorative justice-informed truth processes rooted in Indigenous wisdoms about humanity, collectivity, responsibility and the earth are our best hope.

Today we hear multiple appeals for truth and reconciliation processes — from Minneapolis, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, and from U.S. Congresspersons Barbara Lee and Al Green.

We have much to learn from the past. Over the last 45 years, countries in the global south have used truth processes to help them transition from an era of massive human rights abuses to western-styled democracy. In the last decade Canada and the U.S. have followed suit with truth processes to address long-standing abuses against Indigenous and African-descended people. In these settings, commissions have largely been top-down, quasi-judicial bodies of experts who hold hearings, examine evidence and develop recommendations, such as public apologies, restitution, corrections to official records and curricular changes. Plus, most previous truth processes, including South Africa’s, favored approaches that centered individual rather than systemic wrongdoing.

Though in other times and geopolitical contexts the top-down truth and reconciliation model may have had some traction, in the United States today, truth processes where systemic harm isn’t addressed and where governments don’t share power with communities — especially historically marginalized communities — won’t work.

The way we imagine new futures is crucial. If the way we get there relies on hierarchies of power, we’ll replicate hierarchy. If the way we get there embodies “power over” instead of “power with,” we’ll reproduce systems of domination. We can’t get to a new place in an old way. While current calls for truth and reconciliation gesture toward a more capacious justice, we need processes that reflect the particular insights of these times. Truth processes that are grassroots and restorative justice-informed hold the greatest promise.

“Nothing about us without us” is a central tenet of restorative justice. In an ongoing, radically respectful and inclusive process, we must do the work ourselves. This means in every neighborhood and on every block, everyday people roll up their sleeves and do the challenging and hopeful work of engendering transformed relationships and structures leading into new futures.

Peacemaking Circles, rooted in Tlingit Tagish and other Indigenous traditions, exemplify a shared leadership model whose ethos is communitarian, inclusivist and accountability-based. Drawing on everyone’s wisdom, Circles are counter-hegemonic. Our organization, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, and others have been fostering Circles for years. The Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective — a community group based in Oakland, California, that builds transformative justice responses to child sexual abuse — has been cultivating community pods. These are two examples of generative and embodied facilitated spaces where diverse communities can engage in dialogical encounter, deepen trust, reckon with the past, and breathe life into transformed relations and structures of the future.

Local processes would be complemented by a national hub that facilitates, convenes and provides connective tissue and resources to support localities. The national stage might also be a public site for truth-telling, apology and reparation of harm, similar to the 1994 South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission that captured the imagination of the world, the serious limitations of that process notwithstanding.

History calls us not only to build new houses of public safety and justice where Black lives are no longer systematically brutalized. We also need new economic structures. The ravages of COVID-19 demonstrate that racial capitalism is incapable of meeting the basic health needs of its citizens. The cases of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and countless others show it is unable to protect citizens from police terror. Climate catastrophe teaches us that capitalism has neither the ability nor the will to protect our children or the earth. These are each radical, systemic and relational conditions that must be met with radical, systemic and relational remedies. At the end of the day, we ensure public safety by saying no to a way of life that exalts profit, whiteness and extreme individualism while saying yes to one that lovingly centers the well-being of all human and earth beings and the generations to come.

Ultimately, we are being invited to reimagine what it means to be human, living in balance with others and the earth. Restorative justice circles and transformative justice pods exemplify the kinds of liberatory spaces where we can imagine and practice new relational ways of being — now.

Predating and challenging the slave trade, genocide and racial capitalism, restorative justice is inspired by a vision of justice decolonized. It is rooted in Indigenous insights affirming humans’ equal moral worth and dignity, their interidentity and reciprocal responsibility to one another and to the earth. One of the more powerful things we can do today is hold fast to values of radical respect, relationality and responsibility, while incarnating a deep anti-racist, anti-heteropatriarchal and anti-capitalist consciousness.

Restorative justice-informed truth processes offer a way to face and transform history’s pain while radically reimagining more beautiful relationships and structures that will be just, accommodating, and able to serve as a home for all.

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