Most in the peace and justice community took it as a foregone conclusion that Darren Wilson wouldn’t be indicted by the system of injustice that he was a part of. We had hoped somehow for a miracle, that the system and the culture that reinforces it would indict itself. What we need instead are civilian indictments of the system – many of them. Communities all across the country need to hold a candle of justice up to our legal system and call it what it is: polarizing, fear-based, classist and racist. Indictments from civil society – when presented and argued with civility and reason could have real moral authority. And while the outcomes of these indictments and the civilian tribunals that could follow may not be enforceable under current law, they provide grounding for the establishment of just and moral local communities.
Local communities can design alternative systems for justice and nonviolently refuse to participate in the morally bankrupt systems that currently rule. In moving to a peaceful future we need to experiment and establish these alternative models and inquire into the foundations of justice. Restorative justice programs are already in operation across the country proving there are functional and effective alternatives to what currently is and showing what an ethically based system of justice can look like. At the local community level this is a viable possibility we need to pursue.
Engaging in the design of alternatives may seem like sidestepping the necessary dialogue required to transform the mainstream system of justice. This is hardly the case. Yes – we need inclusive dialogue – lots of it. That is essential for the establishment of a just moral community for all. However, our social, economic and political culture is so damaged that reason and civility rarely preside. Dialogue requires that we listen: more specifically, it requires that we listen to understand one another. Talking past one another, as we are doing now, only reinforces stereotypes and breeds opinion and misinformation. We need to be able to listen and hear the voices of all those who have been victims of the indignity and inhumanity that is bred by our justice system and manifest in forms of police brutality, racial profiling, and the mass incarceration of the majority of young black men in America.
Telling our personal stories and engaging in “truth telling” can be an opening process, revealing the indignity of the system that transcends individual racial and class identities and helps to bind us together in our collective humanity. Truth telling is a bridging process that opens up the possibilities for civil dialogue to occur. It allows us to connect emotionally and then move to reason. There is great work happening on the ground in Ferguson that seeks to do just this. The Truth Telling Project is gathering video testimonies and reactions in response to the grand jury indictment decision. This is part of a bigger project that will be launched soon that will gather voices of victims of systemic racism from across the country. I encourage us all to listen to listen to these voices and add our own to the mix.
Injustice will continue to prevail if we don’t engage in alternative, just processes and dive deep into inquiry into our own attitudes, fears, and misperceptions. Justice, in my experience, is about achieving wholeness – internally and in community. It is about returning to whole that which has been broken. Wholeness can’t be achieved without understanding, without listening, and without civility. Wholeness is the manifestation of the vision of justice in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Beloved Community.” Let’s aspire, prepare, and engage in the reflection, learning and action to achieve this vision.
Tony Jenkins is the Director of the Peace Education Initiative at The University of Toledo. He is also a board member of the Peace and Justice Studies Association.