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.
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.
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.
[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.]
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.
Young people in Chicago continue to organize against their criminalization. From the Lawndale News:
On the eve of Halloween, former detained youth, parents, ministers, and members of Blocks Together, BUILD Inc., and Community Justice Institute for Youth, among others, dressed in prison jumpsuits as part of their ‘Trick or Treat’ campaign to demand reinvestments in alternatives to detention during a budget hearing inside the Cook County Building.
Youth and community advocates pushed for Cook County Commissioners during the County budget hearing to allocate funds away from the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC) and invest those funds in ‘high-quality’ community-based education and social services, such as athletics and arts programs, as well as mental health care and safe shelter.
Below is some video from the youth action:
Join the youth at an upcoming community forum with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle on 11/19/12.
SAVE THE DATE: November 19th at 6 pm
Lafollette Park Field House
1333 N. Laramie
FORUM: Community Justice – alternatives to juvenile detention
with confirmed guest Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle
Youth directly impacted by juvenile detention will present their vision for community based alternatives to detention to Cook County President Toni Preckwinckle. Their vision calls for reinvestment of money spent on the Juvenile Detention Center into the communities where youth are getting locked up.
for more information contact the audy home campaign at: email@example.com – www.facebook.com/audyhomecampaign
You should read the concept paper that some of these young people helped to write.
Last month, I co-organized an event with some colleagues about restorative and transformative justice in Chicago. The purpose was to highlight some of the exciting projects and initiatives in the city and also to provide a space where practitioners could network. The event was a success with over 120 people attending workshops that day.
At the event, my friend, the talented artist and filmmaker Gretchen Hasse, conducted interviews with some of the participants. My idea was to capture how practitioners in Chicago think and talk about restorative and transformative justice. Gretchen completed the short film this week. It is terrific. In under 15 minutes, I think that viewers will get a good understanding about the value of restorative and transformative justice. I hope that you will watch the film and pass it on to others.
Special thanks to Gretchen for creating this wonderful film documenting restorative and transformative justice in action in Chicago.
This post is going to be disjointed and disorganized. Feel free to skip reading it…
I am back from several days in Detroit where I attended the Allied Media Conference while also visiting friends. It was good to meet so many energetic, smart, and young people who are committed to social justice and transformation.
Today I want to write about the last workshop that I attended on Sunday which focused on how to address sexual violence through community accountability (without relying on police and prisons). The workshop was very ably facilitated by Philly Stands Up! If you don’t know about the organization and its work, you should take some time to familiarize yourself. The collective does wonderful transformative justice work.
Peace, Finally, for Rodney King/No Justice, Still, for Us
by nancy a heitzeg
“There can be no justice without peace and there can be no peace without justice.” ~ Martin Luther King Jr
The man who became the self-described “poster child for police brutality” was found at the bottom of the pool he built on Sunday. Twenty years after the videotaped beating and ensuing riots that made him reluctantly famous, Rodney King was dead at 47.
Despite bearing the internal/external scars of that brutalization, King still carried forth, in his new book, The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption, the simple message he delivered in the midst of the riots, “Can’t we all get along??”
In the end, Rodney King believed he found some measure of Justice. And now, at last, Peace.
The rest of us??
Since I am still receiving e-mails from people who are incensed that I would even associate the words “restorative justice” with rape, I have decided that there is a great need for me to continue to address these topics on this blog.
Let me begin with a few thoughts about what restorative justice (RJ) is and what it is not:
1. RJ is not a “free pass.” If it is implemented correctly, then it is a process through which participants can create some form of accountability for harm that has been caused.
2. RJ should be a CHOICE. Participants must always engage VOLUNTARILY. No one should be mandated to be part of an RJ process. If you are, then it is NOT RJ but coercion.
3. RJ is not a panacea or a cure-all; it is an approach that can open up the lines of communication.
4. RJ is not free of the isms and power dynamics that create inequality in our societies. This is linked to my point about it not being a panacea. Participants must be checked for their oppressive acts when those manifest themselves in an RJ process.
Next, I have a couple of questions for those who claim to be working in the anti-rape field and insist that RJ puts survivors “lives at risk.” What is the percentage of sexual assaults that are reported to the police? The correct answer is 54%. That means that 46% of rape victims DO NOT report to law enforcement and the younger you are when you are assaulted the LESS LIKELY you are to report to the cops. What percentage of rapists do you think will ever spend a day in prison? The answer is 3%. You read that correctly… 97% of rapists will NEVER spend a day in prison. So the reality is that just over half of victims of sexual assault turn to the criminal legal system in the first place and most rapists will not go to prison. So a huge chunk of survivors do not turn to law enforcement for whatever reasons and the vast majority of rapists are not behind bars. If your goal is to end rape through a criminal legal process then I would say that based on the numbers, the strategy has already failed. So why such vehement resistance to other ways for rape survivors to seek accountability for the harm that we have experienced? What is at the root of the anger?
My friends Lewis Wallace and Micah Bazant have updated their original Miklat, Miklat zine and I am happy to share the new version HERE (PDF). I am incredibly grateful to Lewis and Micah for creating this excellent resource. I am always asked by folks to “define” transformative justice. I mostly resist those efforts.
I have offered a page of some resources for those who want to explore the concept of transformative justice. I have also wrestled quite a bit on this blog with the question of how transformative and restorative justice look in practice. I will continue to do so here while still resisting the urge to offer an definitive answers (since I don’t think that there are any because TJ is so situational).
If you have been considering the concept of transformative justice in your own life and work and have developed your own resources (reading lists, zines, essays), please do share them with me. I would be happy to post them on the blog so that others can learn from your experiences.
Once again, you can download the updated zine HERE (PDF).
I spent over three hours yesterday afternoon facilitating a circle. I feel compelled to write about it and I have generously been given permission by the principal participants to do so here. I will use pseudonyms and won’t divulge any confidential information. I want to write about this experience because there are too few (in my opinion) first-hand accounts about circle-keeping.
Teachers are my favorite people and teaching is the most difficult profession to master. I would say this even if I weren’t an educator myself. Lately, teachers have become the whipping posts for all interests. The union-busters in state government are taking aim at long-promised pensions and are imposing a plethora of ill-conceived reforms. Parents bitch and complain while few if any offer any praise or encouragement. Many students who are suffering from the impact of neoliberal economic policies are coming to school hungry, poor, and pissed off (with good reason). With this as their backdrop, many teachers are trying to go about their daily work with hope and professionalism.
Ms. P is 30 years old and has been teaching middle-school math for 7 years. She is white, progressive and hails from Georgia. She has a masters degree in education and a huge heart. She also happens to be a friend of mine so I can personally attest to her character. Jamal just turned 14 and is very big for his age. At 6 foot 1, he towers over his peers. He is older than his 7th grade classmates because he had to repeat the 6th grade. He is new to the school this year; this is the third school that Jamal has attended in three years.
Things did not get off to a good start between Ms. P and Jamal this September. On the second day of class, he sat on his desk instead of his chair. After repeated requests that he take a seat on the chair, Ms. P sent him to the disciplinarian’s office. Jamal decided to make Ms. P public enemy #1. The situation escalated and earlier this week Jamal pushed Ms. P as she tried to get him to move when he was blocking the supply closet. He pushed her so hard that she fell and hit her head. This is cause for an immediate expulsion and even arrest. Ms. P did not want this for Jamal.
She reached out to me on Tuesday and I spent part of Wednesday speaking with her and with Jamal to see if he would consent to a peacemaking circle. He agreed to participate in large part because I think that he was afraid that Ms. P would press assault charges against him.
So we found ourselves yesterday in a neutral space sitting in circle. We began by having everyone introduce themselves by telling us one thing that we couldn’t tell about them just by looking at them. We then got right into the reason that we were all in the room by responding to the question: “What happened that brought us here?” Everyone had a chance to tell the story of what happened from their perspective. The subsequent questions were:
For Jamal: What were you thinking when you pushed Ms. P?
For Ms. P and the bystanders: What did you think when you realized what had happened?
For everyone: What has been the hardest/most difficult part of this incident for you?
For everyone: What do you think needs to happen to repair the harm that has been caused?
Needless to say, this was an extremely emotional process. Almost immediately, the tears began to flow. 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.
When it was Ms. P’s turn to speak, she told Jamal that she was in fact afraid of him. That he had earned her fear by being disruptive and that he had confirmed her fears by pushing her. Then she stopped and took a deep breath and said something that was to my mind incredibly brave. “I have to be honest with myself though too. I was afraid of you from the start. From that first day and I can see now that I did not hide it from you at all. I am deeply sorry for that.” She went on to explain in very personal terms some of the reasons that he triggered her fears even though he had not yet done a thing. It was a powerful moment and it was a moment of deep connection between Ms. P and Jamal. As the circle proceeded, more personal stories were shared and more bridges were built.
This is the power and the value of the circle process. Do I think that Jamal won’t act out again? Of course not. Circles are not a panacea or a miracle cure. However, I think that Ms. P and Jamal now have a foundation from which to build trust and to address future infractions. During the circle, we set some rules for how we will behave with each other. We have a contract listing some expectations, responsibilities and consequences. Jamal will have to stay after school until the end of the school year to assist Ms. P with several projects and also to get extra help for his math deficiencies. I don’t know what today will bring for Ms. P and Jamal but I felt privileged to be able to support the process of repairing harm in a restorative way.