“It’s been a big week, in so many ways,” said Law Professor Andrea Roth, as she spoke to the crowd at Boalt Law School on the UC Berkeley campus last Friday.
Roth was referring to the ample coverage of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and the cascading reports of his involvement in cases of sexual assault, overconsumption of alcohol and lying under oath. Even if I'd wanted, I couldn’t dodge clips from the hearing, with its questions from elected officials and resentful testimony from Kavanaugh—it was a show. Underneath it all were ever-present divisions based on the -isms that create a social hierarchy that plays out all across this country, from classrooms to courtrooms. And I knew how this show would end.
I needed to change the channel; I needed see an example of justice actually being served. And that’s why I was in the lecture hall at Berkeley’s law school Friday night, in the back, my hat pulled low, eating pupusas along with the rest of the audience: educators, nonprofit workers, a grad student here, a PhD student there, and a handful of academic administrators. There was one young man who also had his hat low—but I could tell he had more tattoos than I do, because they protruded from the sleeves covering his arms.
We were gathered to watch a documentary called Circles, an award-winning film by Cassidy Friedman, which focuses on the practice of restorative justice as a means to solve problems within a school setting.
The school in which the film is set is West Oakland’s Ralph Bunche High School, often referred to as a continuation school, which specializes in giving young people a second chance at doing the academic work necessary to earn credits and graduate. A couple of years ago I taught an after-school class there, around the time the documentary was filmed. And though I didn’t know any of the students in the film, I knew the main subject, Eric Butler, the campus’ restorative justice Coordinator.
I was familiar with the practice of restorative justice through previous educational gigs, plus my good friend Spencer Whitney had written about it for the San Francisco Chronicle.
I had also heard about restorative justice in prisons, and how people used it to heal fractured romantic relationships. I'd even heard how restorative justice was rooted in ancient exercises, where people of early civilizations would gather, sit in circle, and converse in order to resolve issues amongst the community.
But I had never seen it done how Butler did it. Not until I saw the film Circles.
Butler is this charismatic, short and stocky, African American man who has roots in New Orleans and moved out west after Hurricane Katrina; his southern accent still sometimes makes appearances in his speech.
In the film, Butler is shown as a whole human—flawed in his own right, but trying to do good in this world. He has a big heart, but often becomes stressed by the work he does, causing him to lean on smoking cigarettes as a catharsis. He’s a father, trying to raise a teenage African American man in Oakland. He’s an educator, working to do the impossible: give justice to working class black and brown children.
According to Butler, restorative justice is about establishing a common value system, the first step to repairing a damaged relationship. “We’ve never experienced justice," he says in the film, "we just want to make things as just as possible."
I thought to myself: How can you restore justice to a people who never had justice in the first place?
The film had some thought-provoking content, some corny points, and a few spots where tears reached the thresholds of my eyelids.
Case in point: not too far into the film, one of the young ladies that Butler works with opens up to him, and the other students in the class, about being raped when she was younger. Her story comes after a light conversation, and is blindsiding. She recalls being a preteen, her mother’s boyfriend abusing his access to the house and walking into the child’s bedroom. She shares memories of how she tried to hide in the closet, to no avail. She tells Butler how she was silenced during the act. Lastly, she expresses how she still lives with thoughts that she has yet to fully process—although she's years removed from the heinous act.
The comparisons to Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony—and the many, many people sharing stories under the “Why I Didn't Report” hashtag—were clear on Friday night. And in the film, Butler takes the lighthearted conversation-turned-heavy traumatic tale a step further: he divulges information about his own experience of being molested as a child.
He established common ground. He opened up to the young girl, and the other students, and let them know that they're not alone. It wasn’t a competitive comparison of pain, or a dismissing "Oh, we’ve all been through some shit," it was a nod, like: "Hey, I’m here. I see you."
After their conversation, hugs are exchanged, and the film proceeds to show more examples of restorative justice circles. But that one sticks with me.
One thing to note is that restorative justice isn’t clean-cut. There is no pretty bow tied on at the end of the process. There isn’t really even an end to the process; it’s an ongoing conversation and constant healing mechanism. And even still, it doesn’t always work; both Butler and Friedman know that.
But statistics show that Ralph Bunche High School has had a greater graduation rate and lower suspension rate since incorporating restorative justice practices. And along with those numbers are anecdotal stories of healing that are universally relevant.
During the Q&A after the film’s screening, Butler signaled for the guy with the low hat and tattoos to come to the front of the crowd; it was his son. Butler noted that raising a young man in a place where he didn’t know many people was only made possible by having a strong circle around him. Not a restorative justice circle, just an ever-present circle of people in order to deal with the ups and downs of life.
I was still in my seat, hat even lower, pupusa fully consumed, and holding on to a burning question: How can you take this method of resolving problems by coming together around a common value system, and bring it to two warring factions on a larger level—say, maybe Congress?
Co-producer Becca Vershbow told me that there is a screening in the works for members of Congress, hopefully in December of this year. Which of course will be after the Kavanaugh appointment and the midterm elections.
Days later I had a follow-up conversation with Friedman. “I want this message to reach people in schools primarily," he told me, "but I also want companies to start looking at themselves as community. When you're at work, that's your community. If you're not building relationships there, you're failing.”
Friedman said he’s excited to get down to Silicon Valley, in hopes of addressing the inequalities shown by dominant white male culture and the flimsy efforts to change it. Friedman said he’s interested in showing how community can be built by “establishing and maintaining relationships based on shared values.”
I got off the phone and thought about it. Changing the culture in a continuation school is one thing, changing it in Silicon Valley is a long shot, and changing it in America is nearly impossible.
After all, the problem in America might just be that all Americans weren’t represented when we established the “common shared values” we ostensibly abide by.
And again, I ask: How can you restore justice to a people who never had justice in the first place?
Pendarvis Harshaw is the author of 'OG Told Me,' a memoir about growing up in Oakland. Find him on Twitter here.
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