With my sons at their father’s for the week (minus a little interlude in the middle for celebrating the spring equinox), I have spent this week reading zines and books and websites and blogs about transformative and restorative justice. Many of you are familiar with restorative justice, a program of community mediation which is integrated into the criminal systems of many cities, including ours here in Albany. Transformative justice is different in that it seeks to avoid contact with the corrupt “justice” systems of our cities entirely and handle conflict (very typically assault perpetrated upon one activist by another) without any contact with authorities at all. I don’t know anyone in Albany who does this work.

Mostly these zines have amazing ideas. However, one of them scared the beejebus out of me. I couldn’t sleep the night after I read it. I tossed and turned in bed, feeling sick to my stomach with fear for the activist community.

The zine was written to a theoretical person who has been called out by another activist. It purported to advise the called-out activist on how best to respond. It gave good tips like, “If [the victim] says she doesn’t want to talk, accept her no; don’t push for mediation.” Unfortunately, no where, no where at all, did it acknowledge that someone might be falsely accusing you. In passing in one paragraph it did mention that if you think you might be wrongly accused, you could read more and meditate more until you understand what you did wrong. Then it went on to explain that by attempting to tell your side of the story you would be engaging in abusive silencing behavior.

Funny, because telling someone, “if you try to tell your story, you’re a monster,” sounds like abusive silencing behavior to me.

Why I was horrified by that zine, I realized, is the same reason I am horrified by our “justice” system: key elements in just process are missing from it. There are four parts of a good justice system, three practices dependent on the first principle.

Principle 1. The humanity of each human is acknowledged in a just justice system.

Part A. In a just system, before one is ostracized and periodically again while being ostracized (sent away from everyone else for the safety of everyone else) they are given the chance to rehabilitate, redeem, transform themselves; the separation is carried out in such a way as to minimize trauma to the person being made to leave.

Part B. In a just system, before they are given the chance to rehabilitate and transform themselves they are actually FOUND guilty of a crime, meaning they are given a fair chance to prove they did not.

The system in our cities only gives Part B to the privileged and skips Part A entirely. The system advocated in that zine allows for Part A but skipped Part B entirely. We need both parts. We need rehabilitation. We need due process.

Part C. Because it can’t yet go without saying: everybody must have access to and be subject to both these things for the system to be just, including black teenagers and corporate executives.

If a person does not have a fair trial, if a person does not have the chance to rehabilitate, redeem and transform themselves after guilt is established, then that person’s humanity has been ignored.  So has the humanity of the victims (or accusers) because it is that when we treat other people like people that we affirm our existence as people.

If the justice system does not apply to everyone, we are saying some individuals are more of a person than others.

I tossed and turned in bed that night because I am afraid of living in a culture where the humanity of each person is not acknowledged. Our cultural mythology says that for a few hundred years, since good old Zenger, we have lived in a place where a rare amount of justice has been available. Let us keep fighting to make that universally available and let us not, in so doing, give up what justice we have.

I have seen things as big as a tent protests and as “small” as a single life fall apart from lack of such a two-part justice system. Every day I hear activists speak up on warmongering, jailing black kids, rape culture, cop culture, corporate criminals killing the environment, but no one is calling for a 2-point justice system as described above, and a system like this is a necessary underpinning to solving all of these problems.