Restorative Justice and Me

Clay Banks on Unsplash

If you punched me in the nose and went to jail, can we still be friends? Or again be friends, to put it more accurately? Maybe if you reimburse me for all those bills. And say you’re really really sorry. A lot of forgiveness on all sides will probably also help.

Restorative justice may be an idea whose time has come. Not that it’s anything new – restorative justice – or related practices like distributive or retributive justice – have been around for a very long time, if you go back to practices among indigenous people around the globe. But a couple of recent New Yorker articles caught my attention.

The first was about a young man named Eddy Zheng, whose name rang a bell. Turns out, Eddy founded and now leads a non-profit designed to help Asian American & Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) who have been harmed by our often harmful immigration and criminal justice systems. The non-profit is the New Breath Foundation. The bell in my head was ringing because a very special friend of mine (known informally as West Coast Daughter) is closely associated with NBF.

Eddy Zheng is a “formerly incarcerated ‘juvenile lifer’” who turned his life around while in prison and continues to do great good in the world. In his own life, though, restorative justice has not yet worked. He has reached out to those he harmed; thus far nothing has changed between the wronged and the wrongdoers.

But in another case I learned of through a later New Yorker story, the happier ending to a terrible tragedy is playing out. Katie Kitchen, a Texas woman of wealth and privilege, set about facilitating the release of the man who had been convicted and sent to prison for the murder of Kitchen’s father in 1991. At a ceremony for parolees after his release, he said, “Twenty-five years ago, I killed a man. I’m here because the daughter of this man forgave me.” It would be a stretch to say the two are friends, or that Kitchen’s siblings and extended family are pleased with it all. Still, the story is an extraordinary one.

Brady Bellini on Unsplash

Pivoting to the following story might trivialize restorative justice. Forgive me. It just seemed somehow related.

My computer (which is probably more essential than the nose on my face) recently began to malfunction because it ran out of storage space. I called The Expert. The Expert and I have worked together happily – and profitably for both of us – over many years, frequently using one of those screen-sharing programs. The Expert quickly discovered a 16 GB file and deleted it.

“Umm,” said I, “shouldn’t we open it first and see what it is?”

“No,” said the Expert as he hit the Seriously, Delete! button; “you don’t use this folder.”

Big mistake. In that file, now gone to the great delete cloud in the sky, were a few things I do indeed use – like my entire email program, little things like that. What followed was a week of angst and anguish, hours of experimentation in the search for a solution and, eventually, starting from scratch to download the lost programs from the Carbonite cloud. If anyone asks, it takes nine hours to download a 16 GB file from the sky. The urge to kill the Expert was overwhelming; I thought I might get off altogether by pleading justifiable homicide.

After several sleepless nights and a day or two of rage, I began to rethink my homicidal impulses. They weren’t doing me any good, and I felt sure the Expert was remorseful, even if probably not losing any sleep himself. I called him up.

“It’s okay,” I said, “I don’t believe you were acting with evil intent.” We are friends again. He helped me order a Portable SSD T7 external storage thing – whatever that is; it seems better than replacing my little favorite, familiar laptop. This may or may not fall in the category of oversimplified restorative justice. But I’m sleeping better.

Also. Be very careful what you delete.

Sewing Seeds of Peace & Justice

Rally 7.10.16-crowd

I have always drawn the line at public demonstrations. Writing letters to editors or legislators, signing petitions, calling representatives, even publishing blogs & the occasional tweet – those   reasonable, genteel efforts in behalf of justice – have satisfied my self-righteousness self-image just fine. Marching, picketing, that sort of in-your-face activity I have happily left to other more courageous friends.

Rally 7.10.16-G.L.

But now? Mass shootings, killings of seemingly innocent African Americans by police, sniper killings of police “in retaliation”? A dangerously polarized country facing a presidential choice between the two most unpopular candidates in history – one a widely mistrusted history-making woman and the other a scary narcissist egomaniac (IMHO)? No peace, little justice.

What can you do?

Rally 7.10.16-Do Justice

When a couple of guys who have become unlikely close friends decide to put together a rally on the steps of City Hall, you show up. One leads a mostly white, fairly traditional Presbyterian church in an upscale neighborhood, the other leads an African American Pentecostal congregation in a depressed area across town. Within a few days, at the end of a week that saw the shooting of an African American man in Minnesota and the killing of five policemen in Dallas, the two friends arranged an event to argue for sanity:

FAITH COMMUNITIES UNITED FOR JUSTICE AND PEACE. Nothing big, nothing political, nothing advertised as changing the world. A chance, though, for people from across the spectrums of race, politics and religion to show up and share their hope for a better world. For this writer, and strangers of assorted skin colors and garb (yarmulkes, hoodies, religious robes, flip flops) it was a chance to stand shoulder to shoulder, sign to sign, and catch one’s breath after recent weeks of tragedy and horror.

Rally 7.10.16-David Chiu

One of the ministers in attendance, who happens also to be a professionally trained singer, warmed up the crowd (which grew incrementally as the hour progressed) with a group sing-along to an old spiritual: I feel like going on. Though trials mount on every hand, I feel like going on.

An Asian American legislator told the crowd he had brought along his 4-month-old son. He and his wife have just bought a home in the depressed area. “so that my son can grow up,” he said, “with Black and Latino friends. I hope they will all be judged by their character.”

An interfaith leader quoted Martin Luther King, Jr’s phrase, “Returning violence for violence multiples violence.” He argued for turning this trend around – and drew applause when he said, “We need to support gun laws.”

A tall, young African American man holding an orange sign that read “LOVE & PEACE” spoke of his own father being shot by a policeman when the son was 16.

Rally 7.10.16-2 signs

 

A public official told of an incident several days earlier in which an armed man had been talked down from a threatening situation, “and no one was injured or killed.”

A rabbi quoted a Jewish prayer from Deuteronomy, “Justice, justice shall you pursue . . .”

One of the leaders of a Muslim organization that promotes interfaith cooperation and understanding spoke of the message of peace which is central to Islam.

Signs were waved – they carried words and phrases like: Walk Humbly. All Lives Matter. Light Overcomes Darkness. – and – Imagine all the people living life in peace.

Rally 7.10.16-Keith

 

When the crowd disbursed, stepping out of the shadow of the City Hall steps and back into the summer sunshine, there was a demonstrable sense of light overcoming darkness. The word is that rallies and demonstrations for peace were taking place across the country on the same day. Out of them all, perhaps, will emerge a few seeds of justice and compassion to push back against the anger and hostility that has claimed every news cycle of recent months.

Because, as another widely quoted saying also heard from the rally lectern goes, You have to give them something to hope for.