Restorative Justice for Trayvon Martin

I'm writing this because I'm hurt, and I'm angry that Trayvon Martin was shot dead in his own neighborhood by a man who thought he looked suspicious.  I'm writing because I'm upset that people like me are unable to hear that what happened to Trayvon, and what continues to happen in the aftermath of his death, is about racism and the vast racial disparities that are embedded in the very fibers of our country, our society, our communities. I write because the only way the unforgivable power imbalances that we perpetuate every day can change is if we're honest about them.

Troy Davis Lives

I woke after a fitful sleep yesterday morning and my throat hurt from yelling and my body ached from marching. But in my head all I could hear was "I am Troy Davis! We are Troy Davis!" and if the dull sense of numbness that I'd lain down with a few hours before didn't quite disappear, it did get light enough for me to pull myself up, and to get back to work. This is an amazing moment, not just for the darkness of such blatant and abhorrent injustice, but also for the opportunity to build this movement and change the course of history.

When we heard that Troy's execution was going forward, we were still gathered in front of the Supreme Court in DC. We were a smaller crowd, but such a cathartic moment feels bigger, feels louder. For hours, we were many, having marched from around the city to this spot, colliding in solidarity with students from Howard University who had marched from the White House only moments before. We'd spilled into the street, calling back and forth, "I am Troy Davis! We are Troy Davis!" We'd rallied, forgetting about the rain, our voices echoing off of each other, moving in rhythm, only stopping for a few brief moments to talk about next steps, to plan beyond the night no matter what was in store.

When we heard, we gathered around a woman reading from her smartphone in the quiet now, many of us who were left frantically tried to confirm, knowing well what was happening a few hundred miles away in Jackson. As bright camera lights moved in, a few people spoke their outrage and their disgust. Amidst quiet sobs and angry words, one man called out, slowly and deliberately, "the Supreme Court Justices are murderers!"

A Revolution?

This Saturday will be a Global Day of Action in solidarity with Egyptian protestors who continue to cultivate Tahrir Square as not only a symbol of freedom, but as a space for peace and celebration.  Of course, marches and rallies have been happening virtually nonstop in some parts of the US and around the world, making clear that eyes remain on Egypt.  And while the voices are diverse and their messages are mixed, everyone seems to agree that Egypt will never be the same.  This is Egypt's revolutionary moment.

So why is everyone so certain of what the outcome should look like? Why are there so many calls for how the process should unfold, and who should be involved with the negotiations, and what changes need to be made in the constitution and how Egyptian democracy should function?  If anything's clear at this point, is that up until now, there has been no Egyptian democracy--so why should we try so hard to put this experience of freedom, of having a voice, of agency and participation into a box? 

Today Thomas Friedman layed out some of his observations and hopes about this revolution in his op-ed piece in the NY Times.  Besides the poignant signs and the myriad voices that he recounts, he also wrote that the fact that "no one is in charge and everyone in the society is here" is both a strength and a weakness of this movement.  I see so easily how it's a strength, but want to question whether it's a weakness.  

Democracy has a very specific meaning to most of us who live in the global north and/or west.  We think of representatives who are well dressed sitting in rows and casting votes on our behalf.  We think of men and women at the helm, guiding a process and making decisions.  We think of presidents and executives.  We think of triangular structures, in which power is concentrated in that top point.  

Relationships to Power

Change.org revamped their entire platform just the other day.  Gone are the articles that keep readers informed about the issue and inspire us to take action.  In their place on the front page is a list of petitions that anyone can create and anyone can "sign."  This is clicktivism at its finest. 

As founder Ben Ratray says in his blog post about the launch of the new site--the only one really directly accessible on that front page, I should add--this change comes from the desire to be a more effective engine for social change.  If people have the chance to post petitions, and everyone has the opportunity to sign as many petitions as they can, then the voices of the 2.5 million people who visit the site each month will be amplified.  In short, says Ratray, those who create the petitions, who bring the campaigns to center stage, will be able to win.  

Even as such piecemeal victory becomes paramount to those who created and direct Change.org, the feedback page reverberates with criticism.  When we checked on the evening of day one of the new format, every single post reflected someone who was upset about the changes, and who cried out for the old format.  While it may not be uncommon for those who are against such a big ripple in the system to speak out first, I was stunned to see such homogeneity across the critical spectrum. 

What would it take?

On my way home from work today I started reading Michael Eric Dyson's "April 4, 1968," which chronicles the authors reflections on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s death.  In a way, he says, this book is his first attempt to come to terms with the moment when, as a 9 year old, he heard the news first that King had been shot, and then that he had died.  Between the two announcements, Dyson sat mesmerized for the first time by King's eloquence.  He spent years thinking about that moment, and the moments leading up to it, and the consequences of not only the life, but the violent death of a man that cultivated himself as a symbol of nonviolence.  

So in some ways it's fitting that I would pick up this book now, when I'm struggling with questions about violence and nonviolence and freedom and justice and peace.  Especially when a year or so ago I set my intention to write more, and to write here, and to write now, starting on the anniversary of Gandhi's assassination.  My goal is to write most days, if not every day, until April 4 about all of these themes.  It's a Season for Nonviolence, so the least I can do is reflect.  And while it's hard to plan reflections, as I put this into words now, it all feels much more real, more tangible.  

The Struggle

This evening while I was cooking dinner I listened to Amy Goodman tell me the day's news.  After the headlines and the day's first story, Danny Glover came on to talk about a new film being shown at Sundance.  The actor is not the star this time, and instead is the co-producer of "The Black Power Mix-Tape," which features incredibly rare footage of people like Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis.  Discovered in the basement of a Swedish public television station, this 35-40 year old footage captured these and other giants of the black power movement as they first began to articulate their position.

Now I've always been a strong proponent of nonviolence.  I've never called myself a pacifist, and instead preferred the pragmatism of nonviolent struggle as espoused by Gandhi, who was so willing to suffer publically, and so committed to the integrity of his cause as to virtually assure cannonization.  There's a certain romanticism in that story that I've always held onto tightly, even despite pangs of uncertainty.  But whether I've wanted to defend the theory and practice of Gandhi's ahimsa or satyagraha against someone who doubted its relevance, or dismissed peace movements that have employed tactics without conviction, those pangs have continued throughout my own years of study and activism.  

What did Howard Zinn say about a moving train...?

This morning, after a two hour delay and an icy commute, I restarted my workday by opening an email from a friend in Maryland.  It was an article from Saturday's Washington Post with the headline, "Maryland Lawmakers to Revisit Use of the Death Penalty," splayed across the page.  At first I was curious, even a little bit excited to think that abolishing the death penalty was in the Post, but when I skimmed through the first lines I saw quickly that this was an article that came from the other side.

The first punches in this year's round of Maryland's fight over capital punishment have been thrown by Senator Mike Miller (D-Calvert), who over the years has been the strongest and most vocal proponent of state execution in either house. Now, Senator Miller is once again leading the charge toward executing people, promising to pursue action on regulations that currently ban the use of the state's lethal injection procedures.  This may be nothing but political smoke and mirrors to sway public scrutiny from substantive arguments about repeal, and though the tactic may have some effect, it's time to make sure that we see through it to the core of truth about the death penalty: it should not be reinstated, it should not be expanded, it should be abolished. 

Blogging for Nonviolence, Justice, and Peace

Today we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday as a country.  Well, most of us did--though it was a federal holiday, schools across the southern US had to make the difficult decision to have an official, if optional school day to make up for the days missed because of weather over the past weeks.  While I don't have a strong opinion about that decision--it sounds like most, if not all of those schools made a special point to learn about Dr. King today--I have decided to begin writing today, and tracking my thoughts about nonviolence, justice, and peace over the next few months.  While a Season for Nonviolence does not officially start until the end of this month, my hope is to gain personal momentum so that I am better prepared to participate during those days, and beyond. My plan starting then is to reflect each day on a nonviolent warrior, a man or woman or group that has changed the course of history using nonviolent means.  This is a warm up, because Dr. King is on my mind, and so is the death penalty. 

So, while we take inspiration from the vision, beauty, and life of Dr. King, let's realize that it's time to abolish the death penalty now.  There is perhaps no larger step that we can take as a society to address the abhorrent challenges of racism, poverty, and violence, against which Dr. King fought.  I know that I'm fresh off of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty's annual conference, and both inspired and incredibly humbled by this movement, but I am convinced that taking a strong stand on this issue, and making our voices heard now is the most we can do to affect broad social change, and bring about a more just, respectful, and peaceful world. 

Integration

Having arrived back on US soil just a couple of weeks ago, I notice that there remains a sense of being lost, even in the city in which I’ve spent most of my life. At first glance, it may seem to be a case of culture shock; though this place is very familiar, I have spent the last month of my life in the midst of very different cultural contexts. It’s difficult to put into words or observations what exactly seems shocking here, but it’s very clear that just the existence of profound differences must be difficult for my system to cope with during such a quick turn around. Yet I think there’s more to what is going on inside of me than just my response to my environment.

Playing at the kindergartenPlaying at the kindergarten in TehranFor the first week after I left Tehran, I did not have a complete night’s sleep, and those nights that I did seem to get some solid chunk of rest I had very vivid dreams. Confused dreams. Repetitive dreams. Unsure of whom I’m talking to, or what task we are trying to complete, I wander through the dreamscape with a certain sense of desperation, simply trying to figure out what is going on. The only thing that seems to represent a sense of continuity is that each of these dreams are intimately connected to the faces I saw and things that happened while I was in Iran. Reconciling the momentous shift in my life that happened in the two weeks that I was there and back again with landing here and moving forward with the next step has bubbled to the surface even of my dreaming life.

New layers of realization

I woke up on the second day of the workshop at the University full of ideas and inspiration, and ready to really deepen what had surfaced the day before. With this renewed sense of clarity about what I wanted to present, and what I thought we could achieve, I was vibrating with anticipation as I sipped my tea in the lunch room and waited for Eva and Kamran to arrive. When they did, I shared briefly an outline of my plan with Eva, who seemed willing to go along on whatever ride I wanted to offer.

When we finally started--this time in a new room that was much smaller and more comfortable than the gymnasium the day before--everything went incredibly smoothly. We talked about some real, tangible examples of applying a needs-based approach to projects, and we drew lessons from stories. We practiced receiving the life in another person, and expressing the pain that was deep in our hearts. By lunch time, the group felt incredibly close and connected, and I was happy to move into the afternoon, when we would talk about taking action on our own projects. But first, I wanted create an experience that would uncover some of our underlying assumptions about power dynamics.

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