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.

I write this as a white American male with a steady job that ensures that I not only won't have to miss a meal, but that I can put a small amount aside each month for my future.  I write, in other words, from a perch of privilege, at the top of the social and cultural heap.  So as I try to sort out the thoughts and feelings as I learn more and more about what happened to Trayvon Martin, what has been happening in Sanford, and the massive response from people around the world, I write this not so that I can put one more opinion out into the internet ether, but so that I can better listen.  I'm not the only or the first white male to write about my anger about Trayvon Martin's death, and I'm also not the only one who has thought about this through the lens of restorative justice, which asks for participation from everyone affected directly and indirectly by an act, which asks for accountability and responsibility from all who are touched by a conflict, which seeks to repair that which is broken. My intention is to contribute to the conversation, but more than that, it's to learn how I can participate more fully in the kind of justice that Trayvon, his family, and the rest of us deserve. My guess is that some will be angry about what I'm writing, and as much as I want to have my words understood, I want to hear that anger, too. Overall, I want to know what restorative justice, what transformative justice, what real justice would mean for Trayvon Martin. 

So many - hundreds of thousands, at least - have raised the call of “Justice for Trayvon.” From the streets of New York City to professional sports teams to high schools to Twitter feeds around the world, that call is more than prevalent. Yet nearly all of the calls for “justice” have actually been calls for the arrest of the man who killed Trayvon, George Zimmerman.  Citing a history of impunity in Sanford for crimes that have racial overtones (or undertones), people from around the country continue to say that what’s most important is that an arrest be made, that a prosecution carried out, and that a jury should be able to decide whether Trayvon’s death was murder.  In other words, in the month since Trayvon died, justice has not been served because nobody has has been arrested or charged with a crime.

This is an amazingly public case study of our US criminal justice system, and to paraphrase Angela Davis, we will do well not to exceptionalize Trayvon’s death.  But it’s also an important case study of the many assumptions about justice, in general, and criminal justice, in particular, that are embedded in our society.  Justice is about adhering to laws, not about recognizing that something is wrong.  Justice is about proving that one person broke a law, and not about the needs of people directly or indirectly affected by an act, or about collective responsibility. Justice is about punishment, more than it is about accountability. 

In the month since Trayvon died, justice has certainly not been swift, and the voices of the people who are feeling this loss most deeply are the ones that are most drowned out.  Justice, in this sense, is not necessarily about making sure that a community emerges stronger so that the harm done now is neither compounded nor repeated.

This call for "justice" confuses me.  As angry as I am about Trayvon Martin's death, I can't quite understand why we would want to lean into a set of institutions that systematically oppress black and brown communities.  Why ask a system that has shown itself to be one of the strongest pillars that holds up racism in our society to address the many layers of direct, racial, and social injustice that are now on the surface of so many conversations?  Doesn't calling for this oppressive system's use validate not only its existence, but its means?  If you don't believe that the US criminal justice system is one of the most powerful systems of social control the world has ever seen, then do some work.  If you're not from a community that has been devastated by the US criminal justice system, if you've decided to ignore or just haven't taken a moment to see how the criminal justice system perpetuates racial inequality, read Michelle Alexander, read Jeffrey Okbar, read Mark Mauer.  Ask someone with a different color of skin, a different experience of this world.  It should be more than understood by now that our accepted way of addressing harmful acts, of addressing injustice, is itself a primary perpetrator of both. 

I'm angry about Trayvon being killed while walking in his hoodie and carrying his Skittles and his Arizona tea.  But I'm also angry that so many young men and women are coerced into pleading guilty - whether innocent or guilty - by the threat of a longer prison sentence. I'm angry that so often people are encouraged to throw their rights away for the promise of a shorter sentence, only to exchange them for a lifetime branding of "felon" across nearly every aspect of their lives.  I'm angry that once they get out, every time they apply for a job, every time they apply for housing, that label might block them.  We need to call for justice, yes, but that call for justice has to be more radical, and has to include changing the justice system. 

In the face of my anger, there are things that give me hope, and those things seem to echo the call for restorative justice, for transformative justice, for community justice.  There’s a sense that the deeper truths about our communities and our society, especially in relation to race and maybe class, must rise to the surface of any conversation.  There are Million Hoodie Marches and Facebook dialogues and a Plan4Trayvon.  There’s the beginning of understanding that the latent conflicts that have not been fully experienced in the Sanford community and beyond need to remain in focus, and that collective responsibility should be taken toward transformation.

But what would it look like to really have a restorative approach to Trayvon’s death?  Who is directly affected by the act of Trayvon's shooting?  And who is the conflict community – who needs to be present for the conflict to be transformed?  What kind of process and/or practices might be implemented to address this act?  Does the answer to those questions change now that it’s weeks after the act occurred, now that so many have raised their voices? What else would have to happen to create a restorative system, to meet restorative values, and to create agreed actions?

I would argue that real restorative justice for Trayvon Martin would not mean a mediation, a community conference, a restorative circle, or any restorative practice that just brought his parents and George Zimmerman together.  It would not even be a process that included them and many other who were most directly touched by this case.  At this point, it would not be a truly restorative practice if it ended with a set of agreements that centered on the lives of Trayvon's family and Zimmerman.  Yes, an agreement that included 1000 hours for Zimmerman at Highlander would have an element of accountability, but I don't think that goes far enough, and who knows what he really needs, or what his parents need.  Rather, I would argue that restorative justice for Trayvon Martin demands that we all participate, that all of us who are indirectly affected by Trayvon's shooting are intentional about hearing from each other about our experience of this tragedy.  More than that, restorative justice for Trayvon Martin requires us to each take responsibility for this horrendous act, to make new agreements about how we treat each other, and to keep developing new systems for challenging the injustices of our societies. 

It's easy for me to write all of this, I know.  But it's not easy to know what any of this would or should look like, and so I'd rather ask than just propose or postulate.  We asked our students at Georgetown, and got some interesting responses.  Now I'm asking here.  What would a restorative response to this tragedy look like? What would it mean to transform the layers of conflict that have produced the violence of that night? What would it mean for us to fully and honestly experience all of those layers, rather than concentrating them on a specific group or groups? What processes or practices would we use, where would they happen, and who would be involved?