Guest commentary

What does justice look like?

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As I write this, the trial of Derek Chauvin is underway and demands for “Justice for George Floyd” are everywhere. But what does justice entail? Does it mean something different for different people? Perhaps most importantly, what does justice mean to George Floyd’s family?
By the time you read this the trial might be over but as I sit here in the midst of it; I am filled with doubt whether the community will experience any verdict as true “justice." As the educator and organizer Mariame Kaba wrote in response to the killing of Breonna Taylor by police officers, “We want far more than what the system that killed Breonna Taylor can offer - because the system that killed her is not set up to provide justice for her family and loved ones.” ("We Do This 'Til We Free Us" by Mariame Kaba)
This reality has me both worried and determined. I am worried because I don’t think we can expect the system that killed George Floyd to bring justice – to his family or to all the people impacted by Derek Chauvin’s actions. I am determined because I know that regardless of its outcome, the trial will not be the end of the journey for justice.
Fortunately, Kaba also gives us a framework for what true justice might looks like: acknowledgement, repair, restoration, cessation, and non-repetition. A process very similar to restorative justice.
Regardless of the trial’s outcome, the legal system is not created to provide the justice that Kaba envisions and that I believe is also the desire of the community that created Seward Longfellow Restorative Justice.
Justice must start with acknowledgement – including of the pain caused by hundreds of years of policing that has targeted Black and Brown people and led to the killing of 27 BIPOC people by police officers in Minneapolis alone since 2000. For there to be justice for George Floyd we need to be assured of “non-repetition” - that this will never happen again. In the legal system only Derek Chauvin, and his three fellow officers, are on trial for George Floyd’s death and there is no attempt to address policing in Minneapolis to ensure that no officer will kill again. Justice will require deeper work from the police department and from all of us.
At Seward Longfellow Restorative Justice we are witnessing our community’s desire for change, including an increase in inquiries from people who have been harmed by crime but who do not want to involve the legal system. While each person who calls is unique, their reasons for pursuing restorative justice are strikingly similar - they don’t believe that involving the police or legal system will bring them the outcome they need. There are also common threads in what they need – to tell the person who harmed them how they were impacted, to ask the other person to make things right, and to receive assurance that it will not happen again.
Organizations are also reaching out for support after recognizing the ways their policies and “codes of conduct” are perpetuating a harmful system of punishment. Policies that give escalating consequences for a range of behaviors, ending in removal from the organization, actually resemble our current policing and legal system. We have engaged organizations in exploring ways to become more restorative, such as involving participants in the creation of policies, going beyond the dichotomy of “victim and offender” to understand an incident, and creating a pathway back to the organization if someone does need to be temporarily separated for the safety of others.
Fortunately, recognition of the need for change is coming from within the legal system, too. Hennepin County recently created an advisory committee to “focus on developing and implementing policies, programs and practices that aim to eliminate disparities in the juvenile justice system and increase resources for youth and their families that positively impact the community and enhance public safety.” Subcommittees include Eliminating Racial Disparities and the Youth Advisory Board with participation from youth who have been impacted by the justice system. To learn more and to get involved visit, https://www.hennepin.us/residents/public-safety/youth-justice-council
How can we each contribute to a community that creates true justice for all? How might we create a community where we respond to harm through a process of repair, restoration, acknowledgement, cessation and non-repetition? A good beginning might be: Consider alternatives to police and courts and suggest restorative justice to others. Think about how harm and conflict is resolved in your own life. Advocate with elected officials for restorative justice and legal system reform.
You can also reach out to SLRJ for support and information. SLRJ is eager to shift from virtual programming to in-person services this fall. Because the Coliseum on Lake Street where SLRJ had its offices was damaged in the unrest, SLRJ is in search of a new location. With so many buildings being revitalized we hope to find a space with opportunities for more collaboration and collective action. Together we can create the community we want to live in.
Michele Braley is the Executive Director of Seward Longfellow Restorative Justice. Find out more at SLRJ.org and by contacting Michele at 612-202-0027 or Michele@SLRJ.org.

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