Racism and Restorative Justice

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #4 in February 2007]

Restorative Justice is often put forward as a novel approach to reforming the justice system. But as Shirley Jones (SJ), Yusufu Mosley (YM), and Paul McKenna (PM) revealed in a wide-ranging discussion with Toussaint Losier (TL) at Wallace’s Catfish Corner on the West Side, the principles and practices of restorative justice have deep roots in African history. Whether as Egyptian principles of healing or contemporary street repentance, restorative justice is an old idea in new language.

TL My understanding of Restorative Justice is that its offers us an alternative approach to dealing with crime. Rather than the focus of punishment in today’s Criminal Justice system, Restorative Justice seeks to restore or repair the damage caused by a particular action that took place. What does Restorative Justice mean to you?

YM Well, there are pieces of the restorative argument in what you just said. One, it’s not a crime in restorative conversations; it’s a damage, a harm. Not just the person that the harm happened to, but to also to the whole community. And then, the second question is accountability. The person who did that action has to be held accountable for his or her actions. And the third thing is safety by a confrontation with that person. Confrontation may be a hard word, but acknowledgement and attempts at reconciliation not just with the person, but with the community. You harm the community by your actions and those actions, to be restorative, you have to take responsibility for what happened and you have to offer the method to, for lack of a better word, heal the harm that has been done. And there are a variety of methods to do that. There are circles, there are panels, there are different kinds of methods that we can use.

PM Every crime has a person that benefits from it. Whether we agree with the benefit or not, the person who does the crime believes that he benefits from it. But in our community, we don’t even benefit from the crimes we commit. A kid standing on the corner selling a bunch of drugs, people ain’t benefiting from that because you can’t even really make no real money, you see what I’m saying. And the part that’s dealing strictly by the law—for example former Chicago Police Commissioner John Burge who put cases on all these guys and then sent them to death row, which is another form of attempted murder—they never should have been able to say that this man’s statute of limitations ran out.

SJ That they wouldn’t allow him to be charged.

PM There is no statute of limitations on murder, attempted murder, and rape. So you got a guy on Death Row this month or this year. So some of the stuff I agree with what you all saying, but some of the stuff, it leaves the racist system off the hook. And what ends up happening is when you try to talk to the people, just the people at large about “Ok, we know you have a drinking problem,” it doesn’t take into account the son that is raised up by the crack mother. It isn’t his fault that his mother is on crack. He ain’t committed no crime. He go out and steal, or he ain’t going get nothing to eat. It doesn’t take into account the dynamics of our entire community. That’s why I’m saying this terminology, I don’t know if it can fit my ideology.

SJ There are two sets of laws. There is laws for them and there is laws for us. They give people more time for selling crack cocaine, a small amount of crack cocaine, than a white person would get for selling a large of powder cocaine.

PM Black codes. That all it is, Black codes. The laws are made to deal with us. It isn’t supposed to deal with the problem. A kid gets years for selling drugs, but the guy he buys the drugs from doesn’t go to the penitentiary at all. That’s the case with Larry Hoover [Gangster Disciples leadership figure, who was sentenced to multiple life sentences in 1973—ed.] , he’s in the penitentiary but he’s supposed to be running a large drug empire and he got to use a state phone. Black folks, they give them harsher and harsher sentencing, you know what I’m saying. They demand that these black folks be accountable. No, we don’t have to be accountable if the system is illegal.

YM No, when I say accountability, I ain’t talking to the system, I’m talking to the community.

PM How are you going to be accountable to the community, if the community don’t deal with their issues?

YM I’m not disputing what you are saying, I’m just saying that the possibility and problematic is that you’re dealing with two systems. Right now, I’m not talking about the Euro-American Justice system as being accountable to it. All of those brothers have been done wrong. Larry is in prison, Freeway is in prison, but Oliver North isn’t in prison. In fact, Oliver North is out making money off of selling the drugs. The people in Nicaragua that he was buying them from are walking around free. And you have to look at all of that and say well that is the nature of the system that we are offering this alternative model for. We are proposing a system whereby those who are in power recognize those things in our community that are bringing harm and destruction, not a system where those that have power sit there and make judgment on our community. Creating accountability to each other that is how I see the difference in restorative methods versus their retributive methods or punishment methods.

PM I agree that with the idea of restorative justice when you put it that way, but I wanted to make it clear that their system as is now doesn’t work for us. I understand that that’s basically what you were saying.

SJ The other thing is that we can’t get the funding to work in the community, the grassroots community. If we come up with a good idea and come to the table and even bring the agencies to the table and talk to them about what actually needs to happen in the community to make it better and we help them to develop a proposal and all of that. When the funding comes down, we get shut out. The people who are willing to work in the communities, it never comes down to us. Those [who] aren’t from here are never willing to do what really needs to be done. They come in the morning and leave in the evening but it doesn’t work like that. After hours, the weekends and they can’t wait and stay, to be really committed.

PM Our community is raped everyday. It’s raped for the business community. It’s raped through the social service community. And one of the main reasons they are allowed to keep raping the finances and quality of life for my people is the silence by black leadership. To have restorative justice—because I do like the way this sounds, because [in] any society, whether it be Communist, Capitalist, African, Black nationalist—you would want laws to govern people by. I wouldn’t want you to steal my wife, kill my child. I don’t care how bad I am, I wouldn’t want that to happen to me. It is black leadership, mostly that participates, actively participates in it.

TL What would it mean for grassroots folks to be in the position to actually get the recognition and resources to continue their work? For instance, reentry work is now getting more attention from non-profit foundations. What can be done to make sure that folks getting money are doing work that is reflective of peoples’ needs?

YM For me that’s two-fold. One, its what we are [already] doing—there are numerous organizations and people in the community who are actually [practicing] what the conversation is about, specifically with those returning home. As Ms. Shirley has pointed out, there is the first highest recidivism return rate from all the prison systems in this state. The second one is, what do we do in terms of talking to the people that have monies and stuff? The community has responded, but as Ms. Shirley has also pointed out, a lot of the agencies, funding sources, et cetera don’t want to fund things with ex-offenders. So what we have to do is first organize the community around those concerns and then mobilize them in an organized kind of way so that they can let the powers that be know that these are the programs that the people need and want. We can’t have intermediaries, because it’s about restorative justice in form and as a goal too.

If you look at where we are, here on the West Side, I grew up over here, not too far from here. If you look at the community where I come from and the community now as they develop it into these condos and all of that kind of thing, you see a totally different contrast. They willing to give money to these developers, but they not willing to give money to the community people who actually organizing, so we can’t restore our community to its traditional greatness. We can’t do the work, because we don’t have the funding. Even when we have a little bit of funding, we can’t get the appropriate support in place.

SJ The other thing too is that there is a gap from services that cover the youth, from grammar school on. There are gaps in the system that actually create problems. Our elementary schools are a direct line to the penitentiary. By the time a youth is sixteen, if he’s gotten in trouble in grammar school, there is a bed waiting for him already. Him or her. As teenagers, the gap is even wider as to services that we can find to help these youth to even keep them from being caught up in the system. In fact, there is more in place to help them after they break the law than to help before. I’ve found that it is deplorable the way this system treats our young people. Then, if you have a project that you want to put forth, you don’t have the funding, but if you find somebody who will give you a little bit of money here and a little bit of money there, and you put it together, then those funders want to interject how it should be held, how it should happen. That’s not helping me either.

YM And what you talked about the pipeline to prison that schools provide, everybody’s being so punitive, but it’s hard to separate those kind of people who actually have an interest in the young people and seeing them grow. We participated in struggles to get the board of education to drop its punitive policies towards youth. Every time a kid does anything, they get sent to the office and then the Principal had the option of calling the police or not. Once the police get there, all conversation stops because their job is to take control of the situation and arrest and lock up and that’s it. No conversation.

I can tell you numerous stories about young people who shouldn’t have been arrested at all. If somebody had done some primary inquiries, that young person would never had that experience of being taken to the police station, fingerprinted, photographed, and sat in the jail cell until their parents get there. Once the police get there, it is over. So now, what we are doing in the community, what we are reading about in the community is a very strong and righteous attempt to take this out of the hands of the people who have been holding it since it’s not working and they don’t care about how we think or what we think. Those people that I work with and worked with have said, “how do we do this? how can we do this effectively?” If Yusufu can’t do it? Shirley can’t do it? Paul can’t do it?—then who can do it? The community can do it. All of us spend time educating the community on the issues that plague the community and our people, which are sometimes the same issues. Most of the time these are the same issues. But then we have the people who are in a position to change and they throw up roadblocks. Like these newspaper columnists with the Sun-Times, they want to get personal rather than deal with the issues. They want to make it a problematic with personality rather than with programs. They don’t question the band-aid type programs that are in the community that don’t do anything keep the same situation going.

SJ The other thing is that those who come into our community are not culturally sensitive enough. When it comes to our own and the things that we have gone through, they don’t give us a chance to accept what we have gone through, understand it, process it and then try to deal with life from then on. They want to offer everything but that.

PM I want to address something else that has come to the fore, but we are constantly talking around it. In our community in the city of Chicago, the first to have a black senator in the North and has a Senator in there now. And a city that has down in Springfield, at the capital, has a black man representing down there as the Speaker of the House. We also have organizations such as The Nation of Islam, Operation PUSH, The Urban League. The question that has to be asked then is, why is it that in this city you have such a high recidivism rate? Prison is the result of a failed community. It ain’t just the result of a lot of crime. Certain behavior warrants certain actions. But on the larger level our community has been failed, so it produces—when you in a community that got 80% of all the black men ain’t working. When you in a community where they done tore down the projects and the young women is homeless. Now the young women out there in the streets—because they ain’t prostituting, that era is gone. These women doing what the young men are doing. When you in an era when they attacking the seniors, putting out people trying to close they buildings down, when they got all they grandkids living with them. We are living in a community that is a failed community by black leadership. Prison is a by-product.

As far as what he was saying as far as street repentance, when a person gets out of jail, he needs to spend a period of time making up for what he did. You have a struggle with the church saying that is not in the Bible. Well, they didn’t have the word street back then, but there is the idea of going back out where you harmed and hurt people, accepting responsibility for what you did, and improving the community. If you shot somebody, you can’t take that pain from them, but you can influence some other people from being shot. These things can never really come into fruition with a leadership that is directly working for this system. It’s not just the white man is doing something alone, it’s the black man with the white man. Like Mother York says, “yeah, they got some blue eyed devils, but they got some brown-eyed devils you better pay attention to—that’s right there going along with this stuff.” So we can straighten our community out, that’s all we saying, we can straighten our community out with the right resources, without being attacked.

TL How do you feel about using the models of restorative justice programs implemented in other cities to solve some of the problems we find here in Chicago?

PM You know Chicago is a very unique city because Chicago is the most segregated city in America. But not only that, Chicago has been called Northern Mississippi. And in so much dealing with Chicago, so as Chicago goes, so as the nation goes. And so they grip on Chicago must stay real tight because folks may see what we doing in Chicago—basically there is like a blackout on us and that’s another thing we’d like to bring to the table. There are things that we do every day, every week that the media, especially the black media, as well as the white media, either does not report or does not speak about it. Or if they do speak about it, they show it in the negative.

SJ Everything in the negative.

PM Everything in the negative to make people shy away from it. One thing about Chicago, there is no money in trying to help your people. But there is a lot of money in selling your people out in the city of Chicago. So you ain’t going to see no real rich deliberators in Chicago, but you will see some rich people saying that they are deliberators in Chicago. So what they doing up there in New York may be a good thing, but Chicago is just another animal within itself. And so we have to use a whole ’nother…

YM Framework. But we can always look at other models. Because Chicago is the first place where they had juvenile courts… pm Set the pattern..

YM Right, set the pattern for the world not just for the state, nation. So in doing that, they have a unique position and those of us in Chicago – and that came from grassroots up that didn’t come from top down. So with people like Jane Addams and people like that who were protesting against having children in the labor force and treating children as adults no matter how—

PM Ms. Ida B Wells.

YM —Ms. Ida B Wells and people like that who stood up and said enough is enough. Those are our children. They not just my biological children but those are our children. So one of the things that I’ve learned is to take into account that there is a women’s perspective as well as a male’s perspective. And there is a struggle among the both that is going to be long and difficult. One can tell no lies. We cannot claim any easy victories. It was a hard fought battle. Men and women we got to do it together to challenge the larger system but we can also do it in our own individual splendor. Because we have to be willing to listen to each other and dialogue with each other so that the opposition—I ain’t going to say the enemy—won’t divide us into men/women camps. Tall blacks versus short blacks. Light skinned blacks versus dark skinned blacks. Professional blacks against non-professional blacks and all of that stuff. And then working with our allies from whatever community because all communities of color face almost the same thing.

We really have to really focus on these things and put ourselves into the spirit of doing the work. And just keep on struggling. Because we going to win, we just going to keep on struggling. If we give up, they win. And you know, they say they done what they have to do. As Paul was saying earlier, he knew something about this from our history. Restoration work comes from our history. It’s not just something that we picked up. It goes all the way back to when we were ruling in Egypt. It wasn’t about rule based on force and violence, but on service, service to the community. [Restorative justice] has seven areas that I wrote down on the way over here that I think we can focus on while we do this: to raise up that which was in ruins; to repair that which is damaged; to rejoin that which is severed; to replenish that which is lacking; to strengthen that which is weakened; to set back right that which is wrong; and to make flourish that which is insecure and underdeveloped. Those come from the ancient Egyptian teaching on repairing and healing the world. I walk with these words everyday and I talk with them everyday, I don’t often give credit to them, but they are there. Some us may disagree, but we know that we both on the same path. And Paul’s tactic may not be my tactics. His address to the oppressor may not be my address to the oppressor. But we both know that that’s the oppressor and we try to deal with our liberation more than the oppressor. The oppressor feels that he or she has to stand up and move out of the way.

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