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Restorative Justice for Trayvon Martin

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The Restorative Circle transformed this conflict into an opportunity for healing, increased understanding, critical analysis of policy and practice, and lasting change. The participants courageously walked into the unknown. Eric Williams, John T. Williams's brother, said: "It was painful. I didn't know what I was walking into. It was pretty cool that everyone had a lot to say and share -- the police, the lawyers, us."

The participants expressed their difficult, often excruciating, experiences and revealed their hopes and needs for how it could be different. As one police commander stated: "I thought it took immense courage on Rick's part to share so much and was helpful to see other carvers share their hurt/pain. I took away a deeper appreciation of what they do and its challenges. I also took away a share of the sense of loss of a brother, son, friend, and artist."

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While tense, sometimes messy, and often uncomfortable, the sharing and mutual respect in the circle allowed for deep conversation between the Seattle Police Department command staff and members of the family that had never happened before. It was safe to be real."

In her article, Brenneke described a variety of ways the Circle increased mutual understanding and built relationships among those present. In many ways, these relationships are more important than any specific agreements made in the Circle, but to the degree that we are interested in systemic change, a process that did not lead to such change would be, at least partially, unsatisfying. In this case, the parties present produced several pages of agreements designed to address the needs of Williams' family, the native community, and the police department (Seattle Times, 2011). 

Among the agreements were promised briefings by command staff to patrols at roll calls regarding what transpired during the Circle and a commitment to explore more in-depth changes to Seattle Police Department policies, training, and practices, including a plan to increase understanding and cultural sensitivity to First Nations peoples. The Seattle Police Department also agreed to implement immediate changes to how new officers are trained.  Notably, the agreements included a feedback loop back to the Circle participants regarding the implementation of these and other policy changes and personal ongoing communication between the police chief and Williams's family regarding the department's investigation into this case. 

It appears that the agreements are having the desired effect. According to Brenneke (2012, Participants' Assessments section), Rick Williams reports: "People are seeing a difference in how police are engaging on the streets, it has gotten much better. People tell me that they appreciate what we are doing. What we need are more opportunities for safe, direct, communications like those we had."

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Moreover, the Circle also yielded a resolution of the family's civil rights claims (the family and city agreed on a $1,500,000 settlement (Seattle 911, 2011), without the unpleasantness and expenses of extended litigation.  It also resulted in the police command staff's participation (with support from the family and Native American community) in memorial events honoring John T. Williams and inspired a community healing process -- a public art project to carve and raise a totem pole to honor Williams and the native carving tradition.

The Circle also seems to have given Rick Williams the ability to rehumanize the man who shot his brother. According to Brenneke (2012, The Participants Meet Again section), "Rick Williams now articulates the shooting by the officer as a terrible "mistake arising from fear,' and, along with other participants and community leaders, is exploring the possible adoption of the RC process as part of a long-term strategy for transforming police/community relations in Seattle."

Notably, like Zimmerman, officer Birk, the man who shot Williams, still had to negotiate the mainstream criminal justice system. In cases of criminal conduct, it is rare that a restorative process like RC would replace a criminal proceeding, though the judge might take what transpired during the restorative process into consideration. In this case, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg decided not to bring criminal charges against Birk, which, in the minds of many, demonstrated yet again the failure of the criminal justice system to produce justice.  In Martin's case, though criminal charges were filed and the case against Zimmerman brought to trial, our formal justice system similarly failed to produce an outcome that feels just to a significant portion of Americans.

The Williams case shows a different type of justice system at work, a system that would greatly benefit the Sanford community and serve as a model to the rest of the nation for both how to "do justice" and heal from the tragic events that led to Martin's death. Moreover, unlike our formal justice system, restorative systems can be activated for any conflict, no matter how large or small, which means that a similar (probably much shorter) process to the one just described can also be used to work through racial microaggressions and other types of racial conflicts.

The John T. Williams Circle is unusual in its visibility but not at all atypical in terms of outcomes. To the contrary, the outcomes described by Brenneke (2012) are consistent with a growing body of literature documenting the effectiveness of restorative practices in general and Restorative Circles in particular. As just one example, the United Kingdom-based National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA), which recently selected Restorative Circles as one of just ten international public programs exemplifying "radical efficiency," reported a satisfaction rate of 93% by surveyed participants of 400 Restorative Circles in São Paulo and, in one school district, a 98% reduction of police school visits following a school-wide adoption of Restorative Circles in 2009 (Gillinson, Horne, & Baeck, 2010). Moreover, a recent review of research on restorative justice across multiple continents showed that restorative systems reduce recidivism in both violent and property crime in comparison to traditional justice systems and provide a variety of benefits to the "victims", including improved mental health and greater satisfaction with the justice process (Sherman & Strang, 2007). Especially in the United States, which incarcerates a fifth of the world's prisoners at a cost of more than $75 billion a year (Schmitt, Warner, & Gupta, 2010), these are compelling findings.

Outcome studies are important, but they are unable to capture either the nuances of the process or the internal shifts that typically occur when individuals gather not to blame and punish but to repair and restore. The Williams case provides one such example. Could not the Martin case be another opportunity?

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Certainly, in many important ways, the Martin case is different from that of Williams. For one, Zimmerman is not a police officer and, therefore, is not assumed to represent or serve the city and its people.  For another, what happened in the moments leading up to the shooting are less clear (and therefore much more contentious) in Martin's case. The national visibility of the Martin case and the country's different racial history with Black and Native Americans are also significant.  No doubt there are other differences. There always are. The point here is not that the two cases are so similar that they should be treated the same way but to show what a restorative response to a situation like Martin's can look like.

I don't know what restorative justice would look like for Martin's family or, for that matter, for Zimmerman. In all honesty, despite doing restorative work with incarcerated youth for several years, given the trial's outcome and our nation's preoccupation with assigning blame, it is hard to imagine Martin's family and Zimmerman to agree to participate in such a process, especially if they have not had previous experience with it, as I assume they haven't. It's not clear to me how to create the conditions where a restorative response is not only familiar but normative. What I do know is that our conventional justice system, even at its best, is severely limited in what it offers, and restorative systems provide the best way I've seen thus far for justice, for healing, and for the kind of world where, at least in matters of justice, there really isn't a Black America and a White America. Till's case spurred a social justice movement.  It's time now to take the next step.


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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a teaching associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity, Theories of Psychotherapy, and a graduate-level courses on restorative justice. An autobiographical essay of Mikhail's interests in race relations and basketball is available here.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been studying and working with conflict, particularly via Restorative Circles (a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and associates) and other restorative responses to conflict. Together with Elaine Shpungin, he now supports schools, organizations, and workplaces in developing restorative strategies for engaging conflict, building conflict facilitation skills and evaluating the (more...)

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