Category: Restorative Justice

Mar 07 2015

Video: Restoring Justice

I had the great privilege to speak on a panel about the school to prison pipeline and restorative justice on Thursday. The panel was organized by the School Project to celebrate the premiere of a new short documentary produced by young filmmakers from Free Spirit Media.

You can watch the documentary below. It’s very good. Also, a couple of months ago, a group of restorative justice practitioners (including me) completed a short document laying out the principles of RJ. You download that HERE.

Jun 29 2014

Restorative Justice is about ‘Being Seen’

I spent a good chunk of my week at a gathering of local restorative justice practitioners. There were nearly 100 of us in attendance at this three day event. There’s a lot to say about the gathering but unfortunately I don’t have time to say it all. It was re-invigorating, challenging, and affirming.

My journey toward restorative and then transformative justice was organic. In fact, I was a restorative justice practitioner even before I read about the idea and became trained in the philosophy. One aspect of restorative practice that sustains me is that in circle, for example, we are all “seen.”

I correspond regularly with several prisoners. I’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years. Recently, I mailed a blog post to one of my newest pen pals Tristan. I met Tristan when I taught a class at Stateville Prison last month. He told me that he appreciated my writing and so I started sending him some posts that I thought might be of interest.

In commenting on the recent post that I sent, Tristan wrote:

“You mentioned something that caught my attention though and I related to it so well. It was the scene where you asked the brother that was with you on the EL to keep his voice down and he basically said something to the effect of: ‘they need to know that I was here.’

Oh sister… This spoke volumes to me! A lot of us in our madness out there in those city streets strive to leave a memory if not a legacy that’ll proceed us long after we’re gone. Because in reality, most of us will never become a Malcolm or Martin or Maya but we still feel this sense of letting the world know that we once walked this earth too. And with this, coupled with the fact that we try to out shine the ones who did it before us, we do a lot of ignorant an devilish things. So sister as you can see it’s not a certain type of person that we need to target and lock out of society but a mindset that we need to rid our people of. We must create an atmosphere where our people are in love with information and education because without it, we are being destroyed!”

I think a lot about our need to ‘be seen’ and I think it’s mostly a desire to be acknowledged and validated as human. ‘Look at me, see me, I’m here and deserving of your care.’ This is an unspoken plea from many of the young people with whom I work. I wrote about this a bit in a post about a circle that I facilitated with a teacher-friend and her student. Here’s a relevant passage about 14 year old Jamal* addressing his teacher:

“Jamal’s eyes were dry until he responded to the question of what he was thinking when he pushed his teacher. “I was thinking that from the first day of school,” he said, “you looked at me like you know I ain’t shit.” You could hear a pin drop after he expressed these sentiments. He had the talking piece in hand so he had the floor. He continued by telling us that he believes that Ms. P is afraid of him. “In my head, I said if she already be thinkin’ I’m a scary black man, then I’m gonna be that – a scary black man,” he continued.”

During the 3-day gathering that I attended, we discussed race, trauma, oppression and healing. I think all of these play out in restorative justice. But as I’ve kept circles (in particular) over the years, I’ve been most struck by the ability of those participating to listen, to hear, and to “see.” Circles are not a panacea and I don’t think that they are for everyone. I do think, however, that we can all do better at “seeing” others as human.

Until this spring, my organization incubated a program called “Circles & Ciphers.” Now the group is standing on its own as an independent intergenerational project. I could not be more proud of the excellent work that all of the members and the co-founders of Circles & Ciphers have done. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the future.

One of the young leaders of Circles, Ethan Viets VanLear, discussed the value of restorative justice at a forum earlier this year. In under four minutes, he explains why I find restorative justice to be a powerful philosophy and approach for addressing harm. The first step is about ‘being seen’ and respected. The rest flows from there…

Feb 10 2014

“Who Cares?” Killing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

It was raining, I think, when the call came. She just said: “He’s dead.” That’s all I remember. Over the next few days, words cascaded over me: drunk driver, head on, no pain, quickly, dead, dead, dead. Still more days passed, then months, there was a trial. I didn’t go to court. I don’t remember what was said. I was 15. He was only 16. I had a crush on him. I think he knew. Today I can only remember his face by looking at an old photograph. I only have one.

I hope he dies too. I think I said these words or at least I thought them. I hope they kill him. Then Claire’s words, “he must feel terrible for killing my son. He must be in so much pain.” I wanted to smack her for her disloyalty. What a bad mother who couldn’t even grieve her own son properly. How dare she betray him that way? I wanted blood. She told his wife and son that she wished neither him or them any harm. She asked how they were holding up. The wife of the killer just cried. I heard the story second hand. I was seething. WHAT IS THIS? I thought. I didn’t understand… For many years, I just wanted blood…

Every night (early morning), before I go to bed, I visit the Death Penalty Information Center’s website to check whether someone has been murdered by the State. On days when a person has been killed, I say a prayer of forgiveness for the blood that I have on my hands. These deaths, however, barely register in the public square. Out of sight and out of mind. So far in 2014, seven people have been executed in our names. I’ve offered seven prayers and it’s just over a month into the new year.

Capital punishment, one might say, is written about only in whispers.” – Albert Camus

I’m told that support for the death penalty is dropping. Yet 60% of Americans still support state sanctioned murder. In this country, we invent the “other” so that we may kill them, dead. Not in public anymore but hidden behind prison walls. For a country that both loves & fears death so much, we are eerily and strangely silent about state-sanctioned murders be they by lethal injections or drones.

Last April, though it feels much more distant now, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother, Tamerlan, were accused of planting two bombs at the Boston Marathon. Three people were killed (including an 8 year old child) and hundreds more were maimed & injured. It was a tragedy that should not have happened. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the alleged mastermind of the crime, is dead and Dzhokhar, the younger brother, is incarcerated awaiting trial. He will be convicted. Of this, there is no doubt.

In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, a number of ordinary people sprung into action to help the victims of this heinous crime. They showcased what’s best about us as human beings, exhibiting selflessness, kindness, and compassion.

On the other side of the ledger, when asked by reporters about the suspect’s condition, the now-former Mayor of Boston responded: “Who cares?” Social media was rife with high fives and praise for the Mayor’s quip. Menino followed up by stating that he wanted the harshest possible punishment (including potentially the death penalty) for the surviving accused bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. There would be more blood shed, a life for a life.

Few could be surprised that many were clamoring for Tsarnaev’s execution. For example, Boston’s then police commissioner, Edward Davis, said that it was fine by him if Tsarnaev was killed. ‘Justice’ must be served.

I did not join the chorus calling for the accused killer’s state-sponsored murder. The 15 year old me would have. But as a grown-woman, I’ve come to understand that vengeance is not justice. The measure of a society’s level of civilization, in my opinion, is how it treats those who have most egregiously transgressed its social norms.

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Nov 18 2013

On ‘Justice’ & Renisha McBride

It turns out that Renisha McBride was actually shot in the face.

renisha When I read the words, they didn’t compute. I read them again. They still didn’t penetrate. Early reports suggested that she’d been shot in the back of the head. I had taken a perverse solace in believing that she was walking away from the stranger’s house when he shot her. I imagined that she didn’t know what hit her when the bullet tore through her skull. I convinced myself that she didn’t know what was coming. I’m sure that fear and perhaps disorientation led her to knock on several strangers’ doors that night. But I wanted to believe that in her final moments, she was taken by surprise & maybe even died instantly. No pain; just darkness. But this likely didn’t happen. Instead she was shot in the face through a closed screen door. Her parents had to have a closed casket funeral. She was probably terrified in those final moments before her assailant pulled the trigger. I am haunted by this image.

After Renisha’s death, we performed our well-rehearsed ritual of how to respond to the cold-blooded killing of black youth. Second degree murder and manslaughter charges were brought against her assailant on Friday, nearly two weeks after her tragic death. The charges came after calls by her family and community members for the Dearborn Heights police to arrest, for the prosecutor to file charges and bring the case to trial, and for a jury to convict. Amidst this organizing, the family repeatedly called for ‘justice’ and according to their attorney: “Only a conviction will result in justice for Renisha McBride, not just charges.”

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Aug 03 2013

Cities of Refuge: An Art Project about Transformative Justice and Scapegoating…

I am beyond excited to share that I am working on a project I am calling “Transformative Justice Fall (TJ Fall).” TJ Fall is kicking off early with a sold out discussion on August 15 about Transformative Justice and the Trayvon Martin case.

Next, I am happily collaborating (again) with my friend, brilliant artist Billy Dee to create an arts-informed transformative justice curriculum that we will make available to educators and organizers this fall. The reason for creating this curriculum is to foster discussions with young people about the concepts of transformative justice.

All of this leads up to an amazing exhibition featuring the art of my friend, talented & visionary artist Micah Bazant. Here are Micah’s own words about the Cities of Refuge project:

For the past few years I’ve been working on an art project about transformative justice and scapegoating. It is rooted in my personal experiences of healing from ostracization, but also a longing to understand these experiences historically, spiritually and politically.

The art re-imagines two ancient models of dealing with social transgression: the ritual goat sacrifice (or azazel in Hebrew) that was the root of the scapegoat concept, and the mythic Cities of Refuge (or Ir Miklat) where people accused of a crime could take refuge from violent retribution. As the project develops, the scapegoat is slowly entering the city and the city is entering the scapegoat.

As part of the project, Lewis Wallace and I created a zine of powerful stories about transformative justice.

In collaboration with Project Nia, it will be showing at HumanThread Center/Gallery for Peace, Arts & Education in the Bridgeport Art Center in Chicago 11/11 – 12/9. The project is open for future collaborations with other artists, educators, spiritual communities and organizers!

Below are some amazing photographs of some of the art from Cities of Refuge.

Azazel (Scapegoat) with Ir Miklat (City of Refuge), 2013, clay, goat fur, sequins, trash.

Azazel (Scapegoat) with Ir Miklat (City of Refuge), 2013, clay, goat fur, sequins, trash.

Azazel (Scapegoat) with digestive tract, 2011.  People are asked to write down a serious transgression they have committed and insert it into the goat. Then they pull a question about transformative justice from the mouth of the goat.

Azazel (Scapegoat) with digestive tract, 2011.
People are asked to write down a serious transgression they have committed and insert it into the goat. Then they pull a question about transformative justice from the mouth of the goat.

Cities of Refuge (Arei Miklat), 2012-2013

Cities of Refuge (Arei Miklat), 2012-2013

City of Refuge (Ir Miklat) #2, 2013, cardboard, electric lights

City of Refuge (Ir Miklat) #2, 2013, cardboard, electric lights

City of Refuge (Ir Miklat) #3, 2013, cardboard, electric lights

City of Refuge (Ir Miklat) #3, 2013, cardboard, electric lights

Jul 17 2013

Zimmerman, Martin, & Transformative Justice: Some Readings

by Molly Crabapple

by Molly Crabapple

I’ve been thinking about what actual justice might look like for Trayvon Martin through an abolitionist and transformative lens. A number of people have been focused on the same question. I’ve decided to archive some of those interventions below:

Justice for Trayvon… but how? Low End Theory

Prison for George Zimmerman is Not Justice for Trayvon Martin By Paul Blasenheim

Remember: a criminal conviction is not justice November 30 Blog

Restorative Justice for Trayvon Martin by Mikhail Lyubansky

Restorative Justice for Trayvon Martin by Jiva Shanti Manske

Trayvon Martin and Black People For the Carceral State by Prison Culture

Trayvon Martin and Prison Abolition by Chanel (Crunk Feminist Collective)

The Zimmerman Trial Through An Abolitionist Lens by Victoria C

We’re NOT All Trayvon Martin by Victoria Law

What Does #Justice4Trayvon Look Like? by Mychal Denzel Smith

What Would Real Justice For Trayvon Martin Look Like? by Kay Whitlock

Why America Needs Another Kind of Justice? by Phillipe Copeland

May 27 2013

Guest Post: Redemption, Transformation and Justice, Part 2 by Kay Whitlock

CI: Redemption, Transformation & Justice, Part 2
Kay Whitlock

“I’m against the death penalty on principle,” a colleague said recently. “But when I think of what Ariel Castro did to those women and that kid in Cleveland, I wonder what punishment other than death could possibly suffice.” A friend of mine, normally a gentle soul, was livid: “He ought to be drawn and quartered.”

Not only had Castro kidnapped, held in captivity, raped, and tortured three adult women – Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight, and Gina DeJesus – for periods of 9 to 11 years; Berry bore a child and Castro forcibly impregnated and caused Knight to suffer miscarriages. Prosecutors have said they will add murder (“feticide”) charges.


It’s always like that in the aftermath of both real and purported horrific acts of violence or transgression, the race to retribution and vengeance, incited by cases so chilling, so abhorrent that they evoke in us waves of rage and dread.

And in the midst of those powerful emotions, many of us find ourselves awash in our own violent feelings. It’s the kind of electric current feeling that can too easily turn a crowd of ordinary folks into a group of vigilantes; a paramilitary border patrol; a lynch mob; people who torch synagogues and mosques.

That’s the feeling: “Kill the evil. Destroy it. Erase it.” As if the capacity for terrible violence existed – well, somewhere else. Not in us. Not in mainstream society and its systems. It exists in the archetypally dangerous Them. The Menacing “Other.” And the only thing we can think of to help soothe our fear, our dread is the violent erasure of that which frightens and enrages us.

But most of us couldn’t possibly imagine engaging in mob violence. We stand for justice, not against it, right? Right. And still, many of us will permit our most potent feelings of rage, dread, and fear – often fed by media’s “if it bleeds, it leads” dictum and sensational coverage – to be transmuted into structural forms of violence.

This is also the electric current of emotion that powers crime policy in the United States and that limits mainstream awareness and discussion of its violent impacts. It is what too often permits the criminal legal system to function as mob by proxy.

The horrific violent offender – real or imaginary – is the image that is deployed to stop serious discussion about justice that seeks to redeem and transform rather than to administer brutal punishment.

  • It’s the image that not only tells us that we need a death penalty, but that prisons are inevitable and that the people in them deserve every form of brutality they receive.
  • It is that image that that tells us that prisons create “safety.”
  • It is the image that shores up the spiritually corrupting notion that the lives of “criminals,” especially those who have done terrible violence to others, cannot and should not be redeemed.
  • It is the image that distorts the justice visions of both the Right and the Left.

So let’s start with the current embodiment of that image.

The harm Ariel Castro has done is incalculable, and he must be held accountable for his actions. The three women and the child he held in abusive captivity deserve every possible form of assistance to mend their shattered, interrupted lives. But could he redeem his own life, even if he never goes free another day in his life? Is redemption even possible?

What might be possible (though never guaranteed) if we learn to transform our own desires for vengeance and retribution? If we confront our own fears more directly, with the intention of not having them control our policies? If we commit to forms of justice that value reclaiming and redeeming the lives of all who have been touched by violence – and that seek to change the social and economic conditions that produce so much violence?

The answer, of course, is in the hands of those who have done harm. Surely it was possible for Charles Ramsey, convicted of three felony domestic violence offenses, who completed his sentences, and also worked to transform himself. Unlike the police, he rightly named and came to the aid of a woman who he suspected was suffering from exactly that kind of violence. Surely it was for Stanley Tookie Williams, whose story of redemption and transformation can be found here. (See Of Charles Ramsey and Stanley Tookie Williams ~Redemption and Transformation, Part 1).

Another glimpse can be found in the terrible violence in South Africa that continued to unfold, even in the dying days of formal apartheid.

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Apr 19 2013

A Different Approach to School Safety: A Short Film

Last month, I spent the day at a high school on the West side of Chicago. I was there with my friend the talented Debbie Southorn. Our goal was to document how this particular urban school manages student safety. Debbie is a filmmaker and an organizer. We are both keenly interested in how to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. After the Newtown massacre, both of us were concerned that the response might be to add more cops to our schools.

Immediately after President Obama unveiled his gun reform proposals in January, I got to work organizing against more police in schools. With several other people, I launched the Yes To Counselors, No To Cops Campaign. In just a few short weeks, our loose coalition of individuals and groups hosted two community meetings, created a website, launched a petition, letter and postcard campaign, organized a call-in day to our Senators, and more. As part of this work, we also wanted to demonstrate that there are urban schools serving black and brown youth that do not rely on harsh disciplinary policies or law enforcement to achieve their goal of ensuring a safe educational environment. I enlisted Debbie to help and the result is the short film that you can watch below. I have also written a few words about the school as well.

Please share the video with others who might be interested in learning about how we can keep students safe without relying on law enforcement and harsh disciplinary policies. In Debbie’s words, NLCP “cultivate[s] school safety and peace culture in really transformative ways! (Spoiler alert – without cops or metal detectors, with counselors, nonviolence training and political education).”

I am indebted to Debbie for all of her hard work on this film. She filmed and edited it in record time. I think that the film is wonderful and I am grateful beyond all words. Thank you Debbie. Thanks also to our friends at Free Spirit Media for sharing some of their archival footage with us. Finally, a huge debt of gratitude to the administration, staff, teachers, and most importantly students at NLCP for welcoming us (on short notice) and letting us share your story.

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Mar 23 2013

Resilience, Love, and Refusing to Give Up in Chicago…

There are days, I admit, when work and life threaten to overwhelm…

It’s difficult to live in Chicago during this historical moment without succumbing to perpetual rage. Some days are defined by an internal battle between righteous anger and impotent rage.

schoolclosuremap Our mayor was away on a ski trip when the city announced its decision to close 54 schools. This is the largest mass closing of schools in the country’s history. It comes on the heels of Mayor Emanuel closing several mental health clinics in mostly black & brown communities. All of this is happening in a larger context where poverty has been steadily increasing in Chicago, affordable housing is scarce, communities are demanding access to trauma care and we have had a spate of lethal violence. We seem to have entered an era of disaster capitalism in Chicago where the elites manufacture crises as an excuse to privatize the commons.

In light of what feels like an onslaught of negativity, exploitation and oppression, it would be understandable to throw up one’s hands and decide to give up the fight for social justice. However, for me, this is impossible because I am privileged to engage with people (young and old) who believe passionately in our capacity to change our circumstances. These individuals refuse to abandon a generation of young people to the vagaries of capitalism and the punishing state. I am lucky. They give me hope.

Last week, a journalism student named Leah Varjacques who works with the Chicago Bureau interviewed me, Ethan Ucker (co-founder of Circles & Ciphers) and some young men from the Circles & Ciphers program about restorative justice. She just sent me the video and I was reminded again about why the work that I am blessed to participate in is such an important antidote to the current orchestrated assault that we are experiencing in this city. We are not a city of marauding, murderous black and brown people who need the National Guard to impose order on our “lawless” neighborhoods. We are not lazy, pathetic moochers who are bankrupting the coffers of the city. There is resilience, love, and hope in Chicago.

I hope that you will take 5 minutes to watch the video and be reminded that resistance exists and that it will continue.

restoring hope from Leah Varjacques on Vimeo.

[Special note: Those who know me will recognize that I appear on camera in this video. This is not something that I like to do and I avoid this at all costs. However, I feel so strongly that the good work that we are doing in Chicago needs to have a broader platform that I sucked it up this time.]

Mar 18 2013

Cognitive Dissonance: Ending Rape Culture By Sentencing People to Judicial Rape…

I received a few emails/tweets from readers asking for my thoughts about the conviction of two young men for raping a young woman (Jane Doe) in Steubenville, Ohio. Some wanted to know if I thought that “justice” was served. Others asked a variation of this question that came from a Twitter follower: “How do u respond to Steubenville case? How to remain survivor-centered but show that “rot in prison” is not an answer?” I had resolved not to write about the verdict and sentence but since I feel a responsibility to respond to the emails/tweets, I have decided to share my thoughts here today.

Those who don’t know the background about Jane Doe’s rape in Steubenville should read this excellent article. What she experienced is unacceptable, immoral and wrong. PERIOD. How she has continued to be treated in her community is unconscionable but unfortunately unsurprising. It points to how endemic rape culture is and also to the failure of a primarily criminal legal focused approach to eradicating sexual violence.

Currently, survivors of violence have one option for seeking public accountability for the harm that we experience: the courts. For a number of individual and systemic reasons, many survivors decide not to pursue this option. For example, rape can be hard to prove and as has been the case in Steubenville survivors are often blamed for our victimization. So those who do choose to pursue a legal avenue for accountability are often faced with a broken system that is usually unable to produce the outcomes that we seek. The truth is that the courts fail most survivors. This has led many advocates to suggest reforms that they say would make the courts more responsive to survivors’ needs. When reforms have been made however, they have mostly fallen short.

It’s no wonder then that news of a conviction in the Steubenville rape case was greeted with relief and in some cases optimism. This is perfectly understandable. Few rape cases ever even make it to trial. When they do, convictions are rare. Most people are very invested in the law and the legal system. They desperately want to believe that it can provide “justice.” This verdict feels like some vindication of that hope.

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