Reflections by Ken Butigan
The great challenge and opportunity of our time is to build the Beloved Community.
To achieve Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of a multiracial, just, and nonviolent society is profoundly challenging. It was challenging in Dr. King’s time, and it remains challenging today, as the recent events in Ferguson and New York City make unmistakably clear. These high profile cases—high profile, it must be noted, because largely nonviolent protest campaigns have put them before the public—are only the tip of the iceberg.
As Professor Michelle Alexander so persuasively establishes in her 2012 book The New Jim Crow, a through-line of racial subjugation has run systemically from slavery, to Reconstruction, to the Jim Crow South, to the post-civil rights era. Today it is less auction blocks and chains and more mass incarceration, disenfranchisement, limited job opportunities, and a criminal justice system that bears down on young people of color, especially African-American men, who are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than their white counterparts, as recent research has shown.
When we decry the failure of the criminal justice system to indict white police officers in these cases we are not rushing to judgment about their guilt or innocence. Instead, we are heartsick precisely because it is the system itself that has rushed to such judgment.
The national outpouring of anguish and action is a clear critique of legal decisions that short-circuit a full adjudication of these cases in a transparent judicial process where both sides can put on their case and where jurors have a higher standard to meet than they do in a grand jury. In Ferguson, it led to the discounting of witnesses who said that unarmed Michael Brown had his hands up. In Staten Island, it led to a lethal chokehold, a tactic that had been officially discontinued by the New York Police Department.
But there is much more to the present crisis than these particular cases, however grievous. These recent tragedies illuminate a severe systemic inequity and disparity that must be faced, challenged and dismantled. Not in the spirit of retribution, but with the goal—and methods—of active nonviolence and restorative justice. The goal is equality: equal justice before the law, but also the more general equality that remains elusive in our society, and which these recent events only serve to reinforce.
Restorative justice is an emerging process of transformation and healing where all the parties to a conflict are brought together to address the harm that has been done. It is a growing practice in communities across the U.S. and elsewhere. (I have been deeply moved by a center on the South Side of Chicago that uses peace circles to achieve restorative justice.) How can such restorative justice come alive on a broad scale across our society to address the terror and inequality of racism and injustice?
By building a powerful, nonviolent movement.
Restorative justice was the goal of the women’s suffrage movement and the larger women’s movement, the disabilities rights movement, the LGBTQ movement, the U.S. civil rights movement, and many other efforts. Each of these movements over time drew the nation into a kind of society-wide “peace circle” where all the parties engaged, grappled with, and–sometimes willingly and sometimes not immediately willingly–found themselves taking a step forward, often in spite of themselves.
Like these other historic ventures, the current movement can help our society engage, grapple with, and eventually head into uncharted historical territory where the well being of some begins to move in the direction of the well being of all. The renewed movement for racial justice spreading across the country in the wake of Ferguson has a chance of becoming such a movement.
In this moment of challenge and opportunity, the vision of the Beloved Community paradoxically looms before us, urging us beyond our present impasse. Concretely, this vision calls us to find one another, connect the dots, cross all the barriers that keep us apart, train together for nonviolent living and nonviolent action, and build a powerful and comprehensive movement for the well-being of all, including those with whom we struggle.
In the end, we will need everyone to take Dr. King’s vision to the next level.
Alicia Keys has captured this longing and potential in a song she wrote and produced this week in light of Ferguson and Staten Island. Hear “We Gotta Pray” on this video. See the New York Times article about it here.
Common Dreams has published a great roundup of reports on nonviolent actions across the nation that took place December 4 protesting the Staten Island grand jury’s decision. See it here.
Also, a list resources has been complied by peace studies scholar Barbara Wein and others for studying and reflecting on Ferguson and, now, Staten Island. I have not read through them yet (they arrived on December 4) but you may find them helpful. You can download them here.