There’s a reason why so many activists have insisted that the Derek Chauvin verdict — though it offers a measure of solace for George Floyd’s family — isn’t justice. Our current way of thinking about and doing justice does not and cannot meet the moment. If anything, the Chauvin verdict achingly demonstrates that justice as we know it is wanting. It’s time to imagine a new justice that does and can.
Rooted in slavery, convict leasing, the chain gang, Jim Crow and continuing into the present with mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline and the criminalization of immigration, our “justice” system itself perpetrates untold harm.
Also, the U.S. way of “justice” can’t meet the moment because it’s designed to address only individual harm — and ineffectively and inequitably at that. Today, most of us recognize that the nation’s policing problem isn’t just individual; it’s systemic. Thus, true justice isn’t about successful prosecution of officers. It’s about reckoning with and disrupting entire histories, legacies, and systems of racial terror and white supremacy that, like monsters who we think are dead but keep coming back, relentlessly replicate and reproduce themselves.
Plus, our criminal legal system looks backward to blame, judge and punish people for past harm only. What about stopping future harm? Also, in accusing, adjudicating and sentencing, our system simply responds to the original harm with another. What about repair? And what about healing?
Justice as we know it can’t stop the killings. This was heartbreakingly plain to see with three police-perpetrated killings occurring during the three-week Chauvin trial, like a deadly virus gone wild. 13-year-old Adam Toledo killed with empty hands up in Chicago. Michael Hughes in Florida. 20-year-old Daunte Wright shot just miles from the George Floyd trial. And 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant shot six times by Columbus, Ohio, police on the same day the Chauvin verdict came in. Never-ending grief.
Even if every murderous officer were successfully prosecuted, it wouldn’t stop the killings.
True justice means a holistic justice that recognizes harm, takes responsibility for harm, repairs harm and prevents recurrence. A forward-looking justice that sets its sights on stopping the killings and creating new futures where Black and people of color lives matter. An inclusive accountability process led by those most negatively impacted and pursued by radically respectful, democratic, and relational means. One that challenges systems of domination that live outside of us as well as those that live inside of us. Restorative justice-informed truth processes rooted in anti-racial capitalist, anti-heteropatriarchal values and in indigenous wisdoms about humanity, collectivity, responsibility and the earth are our North Star.
Of the extraordinary numbers of justice initiatives bubbling up today throughout the nation, most instantiate one or some of the four elements of restorative justice accountability. But I see none that embody all: (1) recognizing harm — truth-telling (2) taking responsibility for harm — public apologies and acknowledgments (3) making reparations proportional to the harm — restitution, reparations funds, memorialization initiatives to honor victims and (4) preventing recurrence — narrative change, public re-education, releasing white supremacist systems and reimagining them. Neither do any intentionally create a values-driven accountability process that is radically respectful, democratic and relational, and that centers the voices of those negatively impacted by harm. Even so, when looking at the whole of the innumerable initiatives coming forth today, we can make out the outlines of an emergent justice glimmering on the horizon.
It’s Georgetown’s $100 million reparations funds for descendants of enslaved persons sold to keep the university afloat that tell the story. It’s Brown’s truth-telling about its complicity with slavery, its acts of repair including a reparations fund and establishment of a Center for the Study of Slavery. It’s Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and University of Virginia’s truth-telling, memorialization, renaming and reparations initiatives spurred by student activism. It’s the totality of these and similar efforts of an estimated 75 additional higher educational institutions (all of whom are members of the Universities Studying Slavery Consortium) that tell the story of a new justice dawning.
It’s Apple’s $100 million equity reparations fund to establish learning hubs at historical Black colleges and universities, an academy in Detroit to support coding and tech education, and a venture capital fund to support Black and Brown entrepreneurs that prefigures a new justice.
It’s the reparations funds, commissions, and related initiatives springing up in Evanston, Burlington, Asheville, and in scores of additional municipalities and in state and federal legislative bodies, particularly House Resolution 40 to study and develop reparations proposals that — after 32 years of languishing in the Judiciary Committee, finally got out of committee recently — presage a new justice. Thanks to the late Rep. John Conyers who introduced the bill in 1989 and to time-honored legacy reparations groups the National Coalition for Black Reparations in America and the National African-American Reparations Commissions.
At Northeastern Law University, it’s the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project’s work to unearth and seek public apologies and reparations and memorialization for cold cases of lynchings implicating law enforcement in the civil rights era.
It’s the removal of more than 110 confederate statues and the erection of memorials in numerous localities, like Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice to honor lynching victims and its Legacy Museum to honor enslaved persons. It’s the Black Lives Matter street renamings in more than 30 cities.
It’s the numerous educational institutions like Amherst, that pressed by student organizing, are publicly apologizing to students for implicit bias, harassment, stereotyping, invisiblizing, hypervisiblizing, underrepresenting and other inequities and are additionally engaging in re-imagining strategies to become anti-racist institutions. It’s the many additional public and private entities engaged in similar anti-racist transformative initiatives.
It’s the more than 20 major cities that are defunding police and transferring money to community agencies that are better equipped to respond to calls involving homeless or disabled persons and those struggling with drug addiction. It’s similarly the 26 major cities taking police out of schools and replacing them with counselors, restorative justice facilitators and peace ambassadors like here in my hometown of Oakland that foreshadow the emergent justice.
In the arts, it’s the We See You White American Theater anti-racist transformative initiative, the Reclamation Project at the Kennedy Center and other strategies to repair historical harm and imagine a path forward in theater arts that portend the new justice.
Unprecedented numbers of transitional justice and truth and reconciliation-type initiatives in San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, Iowa, Maryland and additional municipalities in the nation also augur a justice re-imagined.
The fullness of these complex, diverse, variegated, decentralized and self-organizing developments offer clues about what a re-imagined justice might look like.
Let’s awaken to the moment. Let’s actively support and nurture the truth, reparations, memorialization and re-imagining initiatives coming forth all over the country, the lion’s share since George Floyd was crushed to death by Derek Chauvin. Help them land on all four restorative justice accountability touchstones. Help ensure these processes are respectful, inclusive, relational, non-hierarchical, collaborative, and community-driven rather than top-down and systems-dominated. Assist in the birthing of a new justice for the nation.