The need for a truth and reconciliation process
The killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner have sparked a national outcry to end the epidemic of police brutality against black men. I believe our greatest hope lies in creating a truth and reconciliation process—starting in Ferguson, Missouri—that can get to the roots of a long history of racial trauma and open the way for healing.
I say this as someone with direct, personal experience of the shock, pain, and grief of racial violence.
I grew up on Birmingham, Alabama’s, “Dynamite Hill,” so-called because of the bombings of black families like ours who moved into this previously all-white neighborhood. The Ku Klux Klan killed two of my close friends in the 1963 Sunday School bombing at the16th Street Baptist Church. In 1969, police broke into my home in Del Mar, California, and shot and nearly killed my husband—because of our involvement with the Black Panthers. And in 1970, the government framed my sister, Angela Davis, on capital murder charges in an effort to silence her calls for racial and social justice.
I have also felt fury. I have been a combatant in the civil rights, black power, women’s, and most of the major social movements of my time. I spent years organizing an international movement to save my sister from prison and possibly execution. Later, as a civil rights trial lawyer, I worked to protect people from racial discrimination.
After more than three decades of fighting, I felt burned out. I began studying with African and other indigenous healers, and this ultimately led me to the restorative justice work I do today in Oakland, California.
Every day, I see teens of color coming of age in a culture that criminalizes and demonizes them. Black youth in the U.S. are fatally shot by police at 21 times the rate of white youth. Children of color are pushed through pipelines to prison instead of put on pathways to opportunity. Some make it through this soul-crushing gauntlet. But many do not.
In Oakland we are seeing glimmers of hope. A broad cross-section of the community, including police, is participating in restorative justice trainings. Residents and police are working together to keep children out of prison. Racially inequitable school suspension rates are decreasing. Youth and police are sitting together in healing circles, building new relationships based on increased trust and recognition of one another’s humanity.
A Ferguson Truth and Reconciliation process could likewise bring our communities together to search for the truth about the causes and consequences of police violence, and for ways to put an end to the killings. Youth, families, police, and communities affected by the violence and allies could partner with the federal government to establish commissions in communities throughout the country.
South Africa’s 1995 Truth and Reconciliation Commission can be a guide. The entire nation watched, riveted, as the traumas of the previous decades were recounted, and apologies and calls for reparations and institutional reform made. Though far from perfect, South Africa’s process is hailed for helping the country to transition from apartheid to democracy without bloodshed.
In communities across the United States, a Truth and Reconciliation process could create safe public spaces for survivors of police violence to share their stories. Law enforcement would have opportunities to accept responsibility for their actions. Everyone involved could co-create plans to “make things right,” including, for example, official apologies, restitution, public memorials, police training and demilitarization, new police policies that prioritize hiring community residents, new curricula, etc. The stories told, truths learned, and recommendations made would be shared nationwide.
The commission’s task would include facing and beginning to heal the massive historical traumas that damage us all but take the lives of black and brown children. The killings today are only the most recent expressions of a long history of unhealed racial traumas that reaches all the way back to the birth of the nation. Changing form but not essence over four centuries, this history has morphed from slavery to sharecropping and lynching, from Jim Crow to convict leasing, to mass incarceration and deadly police practices.
It’s time for us to take on this history, tell the truth about how it continues to harm our whole society, and respond with a justice that heals. Taking a page from the great Nelson Mandela’s book, a truth and reconciliation process based on restorative justice principles offers the greatest promise. Let’s roll up our sleeves and start the messy, challenging, but hopeful work of creating a more just society.
Fania Davis is a civil rights attorney and co-founder and executive director of RJOY, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, http://rjoyoakland.org. She also has a Ph.D. in Indigenous Studies. This article is adapted from a longer piece published at www.yesmagazine.org.