Restorative Justice and Me

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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.

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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.

Must Hate be Here to Stay?

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When did instant hate become okay?

There’s a charming new neighbor in my building. We have a lot in common: graduate-degree education, reasonably successful grown children, a fondness for historical fiction and long walks around San Francisco. One major difference: nobody ever yelled at me to go back where I came from.

Or spat on the ground while passing by me.

black and white wooden signage
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Early in the pandemic but just before the lockdown, my new friend was talking with a college-age cousin in front of a San Francisco store. Two white men dressed in casual work clothes, appearing to be in their forties or early fifties, walked past. One spat. The other looked directly into my friend’s somewhat “Asian-looking” face and uttered those exact words: “Why don’t you go back where you came from?” For the record, she came from Manhattan where she held a high-level corporate management job; before that she came from New Jersey, where she was born. She has voted in every election since the 1960s.

Stories like this, exposing the hostilities stirred up in recent years, make it hard to stay hopeful. But my hopefulness is reinforced by the groups and individuals working around the clock for change. One example is in an unusual nonprofit I’ve only recently come to know. It’s the New Breath Foundation, briefly introduced here: New Breath seeks to offer “hope, healing, and new beginnings for Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) new immigrants and refugees, people impacted by incarceration and deportation, and survivors of violence.”

One of the interesting facts about New Breath is that Founder/President Eddy Zheng is himself an immigrant – and a former “juvenile lifer” in the bargain. Eddy managed to turn his life around while in immigration jails and the prison system. While still incarcerated he began counseling at-risk youth, created an Ethnic Studies program, and co-edited a book. After his release he set about leading youth development and violence prevention programs, and cross-cultural building activities in the San Francisco Bay Area and nationally.If the NBF mission seems a tall order, Eddy found a shortcut. It’s called (something like) Don’t Re-Invent the Wheel. Or – find people and groups already working toward your goals and give them the support they need. New Breath Foundation therefore, conducts targeted grant-making, education, and advocacy efforts in support of other hard-working groups. In its scant four years’ existence the nonprofit has supported causes and events including an AAPI Women Lead conference, Survived and Punished, the Asian Prisoner Support Committee and a variety of others. Those are the sorts of groups that give me hope.

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Hope that people like my new neighbor will walk the streets of America without encountering hostility and worse. Hope that instant love and acceptance might replace instant hate.

Hope springs eternal.