Truth, Justice, Reconciliation
Dr. Nathan C. Walker | August 2, 2020
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner recently announced the formation of a Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission. The purpose is to address systemic racism and brutality in Philadelphia’s police force and criminal justice system.
This model was made famous in South Africa, where a commission chaired by Desmond Tutu heard thousands of public testimonies about the atrocities of apartheid—a colonialist legal system that divided people by race.
Today, Mr. Krasner joins with the district attorneys in Boston and San Francisco to launch three local commissions. They hope to replicate it in cities around the country.
Their initiative is both timely and timeless. Every day, it seems like America is closer to being ruled by martial law.
The United Nations banned riot control agents in warfare. And yet, our government gives law enforcement the ability to use tear gas to quell domestic unrest.
What is forbidden in war is authorized in America.
Two months ago, here in Philadelphia, military-equipped police used tear gas against 146 protesters. The police did not seek to disperse the crowd. They entrapped them between the concrete embankments of I-676. The police trapped between concrete walls forcing them to scale a grassy knoll. The police used riot control agents while shooting our people with rubber bullets.
Cruelty in the face of suffering is evil.
This excessive abuse of power is just one example of the decades of modern police brutality against black and brown bodies. We have seen decades of misconduct by prosecutors and judges who issue excessive sentences.
You remember the “kids for cash” judges who, only two hours from here, took 1 million dollars in bribes for incarcerating over 6,000 children.
This cruel and immoral behavior mirrors the rise of for-profit prisons, whose profits have increased in the last two decades by over 500 percent.
You get an America that made this presidency possible.
Rejecting subpoenas. Obstructing Justice. Abusing power. This isn’t an isolated problem. This is the plan.
A New Plan
For those of us who study the law and who commit our lives to educate the public about First Amendment rights and human rights, we see what has been happening.
This presidency is the tip of the iceberg that breached from the sea to reveal America’s icy, corrupt core. What emerged from the sea is not a broken system, but a system intentionally built to endure under the surface for centuries.
This morning, our generation confronts this truth. It is our time to see the tip of the iceberg in broad daylight. The morning sun gives us the light to study the veins in the ice and examine the patterns. The morning air provides us with the oxygen to dive into the icy waters and chip away at America’s legacy of genocide, slavery, segregation, mass incarceration, police brutality. We see clearly the iceberg of white supremacy.
And what do we know about the nature of ice? Sunlight melts it, just as truth dissolves injustice. Sunlight melts it, just as reconciliation evaporates contempt.
And such is our charge: each generation must dive into the waters to release billows and billows of oxygen so that the ice mass breaches from the sea. With each dive, the iceberg is exposed to the day and dissolved by the sun.
South Africa. Rwanda. Bosnia. They know. They know the power of this intergenerational process. For they have, in their own time, and in their own ways, formed Truth Commissions.
Building Upon a Legacy
The year 2021 marks the 25th anniversary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. Throughout the world, this model was used to help people recover from political unrest, racial segregation, war, and genocide. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have become one of the most effective geopolitical tools for local communities to create cultures of resiliency.
Let me be clear, not all the commissions have been effective. Not everything worked as planned. But they dared to publicly confront their bloody histories. They had the collective will to compel truth, not through a system based on retribution but on the ethics of reconciliation. They knew the lasting horrors that plagued their minds, having lived for generations with similar patterns of invidious discrimination and chronic abuse.
Timely and timeless is our district attorney’s charge to form a Truth Commission here in Philadelphia.
The work begins by learning. It starts by interrogating what did and did not work in other lands. It begins by crafting a model of truth-telling that meets our history and our current culture.
It is in this context I offer three recommendations. Ever since I heard that a Truth Commission is coming to Philadelphia, three visions keep entertaining my moral imagination. I offer these three visions to help us conceive of a process that will result in a communal experience of reconciliation in our nation’s first capital.
Vision Number 1: No Truth. No Trust. No Truth. No Trust.
The Truth commissions that I have studied were only are as good as the truth they exposed. If lies persisted, if deception prevailed, everything else fell apart.
This is why it is critical for Philadelphia’s Commission to have the financial resources to hire two teams: a robust legal team and a hawkish team of investigative journalists. Why both? We need lawyers to expose breaches in the law, but we need journalists to break the story. We have to be masterful communicators for the public to be able to look clearly into the mirror of our history. A legal press release won’t cut it. We must be storytellers. Together, the legal and the journalistic investigators will verify the evidence and cultivate the public’s legal literacy about the rights afforded to them. If there is no shared understanding of our rights, we cannot take shared responsibility to protect one another. If people do not understand the law or believe it is designed to protect them equally, there will be no trust in the process. This is critical because it will be Truth and Trust that will prevail against the disinformation machines that will undoubtedly seek to discredit our public investigation into systemic racism. No truth. No trust.
Vision Number 2. Justice is Balance Not Revenge. Justice is Balance Not Revenge.
When faced with injustice, we can often be lured, memorized by notions of retribution. “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind,” Gandhi said. If we are to experience true healing, we cannot say our work once truth is revealed. Truth-telling is the starting point, not the endpoint. We have a far more significant challenge before us: to never become what we set out against. The righteous anger we feel today is a signal that something is very wrong. But it is not the solution for how we envision tomorrow. Our enflamed sensitivities over today’s injustices cannot blind us in thinking that the bonfire of revenge will save us. Only morally focused, ethically grounded action will allow us to completely extinguish the fire. Our objective is to find balance. Our aim is to heal our culture by empowering victims to tell their stories, speak their truth, be seen, and to be known. The Commission’s role is to legally proclaim that these victims belong and that Black Lives Matter. This is how we achieve balance. We must tirelessly work to preserve the dignity of black and brown families who have been destroyed at the hands of our government. Only then will we begin to walk toward the breaking dawn of restorative justice and forever leave baron the fields of retribution that have poisoned us for too long. Justice is balance not revenge.
Vision Number 3. We must create a halo effect.
It is not the Commission’s sole responsibility to cultivate reconciliation between people of different races. It is our collective duty. This is why every sector of Philadelphia must join together in a cultural revolution.
Imagine educators teaching mediation skills to kids of all ages. Imagine if the work of truth-telling is shared by artists of all kinds. Imagine murals throughout the city depicting scenes of truth and reconciliation. Imagine dance troupes and musicians and filmmakers crafting performances awakening our moral imagination and calling us to action. Imagine us finding theatre artists like Anna Deavere Smith to embody and reenact the stories of truth and reconciliation. She did this in response to the Crown Heights and Los Angeles riots. She did this again in her HBO show, “Notes from the Field.” She speaks truth and creates her own halo effect.
Imagine our city crying out, “Where are the storytellers,” the Commissioners will ask? “Where are the truth-tellers,” the city will announce? Where are the coders who will build the app called Charting Compassion? It will allow us to digitally chart acts of truth and reconciliation, giving the people the chance to tell their story in every neighborhood. Creativity is the opposite of destruction. Our collective inventiveness will generate the necessary light to create a halo effect and melt the ice that encases us all.
This is why we collectively chant, “No truth. No trust.” Without trust, we cannot shed a system based on supremacy and retribution. We must earn one another’s trust so that we can lay the foundation of restorative justice.
This is how we inspire every person to harness their unique skills and talents to help illuminate our shared halo as part of a revolution of reconciliation.
In a society that rewards leaders for demeaning the most vulnerable among us, we need tools to help us make meaning about our city’s character. Truth commissions throughout our country will help us make meaning of our shared story. And when we tell our truth, we begin to widen our circles of compassion and make justice not a political slogan but a way of life.
I hope you will join me in finding creative ways to cultivate empathy by preserving the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We do this by leaning into one another’s stories, witnessing one another’s suffering, and building impenetrable systems of solidarity.
I believe there is still time for us to find the truth and earn each other’s trust. There is still time to save the soul of our country, our city. The future of our democracy depends on it.
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I guess this is what it feels like to preach during a pandemic. Here I am crying out to an empty room aware that I hear your own cries from your own rooms. Even though we are experiencing isolation, we are deeply connected and bound to one another.