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Seeking Transformative Justice in Ferguson, Dearborn and Beyond

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September 3, 2014

This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post on September 3, 2014.

By Sheila Bedi

The rest of the country may try to forget about Ferguson, which incisive commentator Chris Williams deemed "America's selfie." But an inspiring collective of Black activists associated with Black Lives Matter spent Labor Day weekend in Ferguson organizing and strategizing with young people from the community to ensure that Michael Brown is the last young man to be killed at the hands of police.

Much has already been written about why Ferguson went down the way it did -- and what needs to change.

It's about the over-militarization of our police. And the complex racial dynamics of the town which has a majority Black population--and a white minority, which controls the politics and the police. It is also because the cops around the country behave with impunity, despite national movement-based efforts to integrate transparency and accountability into policing. It is because every 28 hours law enforcement kills another Black man. It is because Black lives are consistently dehumanized and devalued. Because the epidemic of mass imprisonment has made Black synonymous with criminal.

But there is another reason why this keeps happening.

Why after Trayvon Martin, was there Renisha McBride? And after Renisha, why was there Eric Garner?

It's because when we call for justice for these victims of race-based violence, we're calling for the criminal prosecution of their killers. And criminal prosecution alone will do nothing to shift the culture of fear, hatred and oppression that allows these race-based killings to happen over and over and over again.

That is because a criminal prosecution is not about justice, healing or repairing harm. And it's certainly not about preventing such harm from re-occurring in the future. And there's a deep, terrible, tragic irony here -- that we have to look to the very system that was an accomplice to these killings for relief -- for some facsimile of justice.

It's the criminal justice system that perpetuates the myth of Black criminality and functions as a tool of social control. It's a system that targets our neighborhoods and prohibits 13 percent of all Black men in this country from voting, from receiving public benefits, from living in public housing, from receiving aid to help them access higher education. It is this system that allows cops to dehumanize Black men and allows white men with guns to shoot first and ask questions later.

A criminal prosecution is focused on the narrow actions of the individual alleged to have broken a law. Because a prosecution is an inherently focused, individualized inquiry, the larger cultural forces that have shaped the wrong-doer are left unaddressed. But true justice requires that we confront these cultural forces head on. And a criminal prosecution simply can't do that.

Two days before Michael was killed, many of us breathed a collective sigh of relief. Renisha McBride's killer was convicted. Renisha, a 19-year-old young woman, knocked on the door of a white man's house in Dearborn Heights, Michigan after getting in a car accident. The man who came to the door shot her dead, allegedly mistaking her for an intruder -- a criminal.

It's clear that had Renisha been white, and had all other circumstances been the same--she would have lived.

This certainty is grounded in part, in the cultural and historical context that shaped the interaction between Renisha and her murderer. Renisha's murderer came from a community that for almost 40 years, was lead by Mayor Orville Hubbard, who was famously known the most devout segregationist north of the Mason-Dixon Line. He was beloved by his community. And he was a public, vehement racist. (Renisha was murdered in Dearborn Heights -- a town that was annexed from Dearborn in the 1960s and one that shares overlapping public schools and culture with Dearborn).

In 1965, the United States Department of Justice indicted him for encouraging a crowd of his constituents to throw stones at white resident who was mistakenly believed to have sold his home to a Black family. Mayor Hubbard was acquitted of these civil rights violations--and took the jury who acquitted him out for steak dinners after his trial.

In the wake of the 1967 Detroit protests, he ordered his police department to shoot those they deemed "looters" on sight. He bragged of an unwritten law that kept Black families out of his town -- and affirmed his commitment to "complete segregation, one million percent, on all levels.'" In 1968, he told the New York Times: "If you have integration, first you have kids going to school together, then next thing you know, they're grab-assing around, then they're getting married and having half-breed kids...Then, you wind up with a mongrel race. And from what I know of history, that's the end of civilization."

His constituents and predecessors ensured that his racist legacy carried on long after he died--passing a 1986 ballot measure that restricted use of the city's parks to residents only (clearly aimed at keeping Black people from Detroit out of the city.) In the 1990's allegations surfaced that Dearborn Police were targeting Black motorists -- who comprised less that 1 percent of the total population but 90 percent of those pulled over by police for alleged traffic violations. More recently, Arab-Americans reported being barred from voting. This is a place where white supremacy runs deep.

But this fact does not make the Dearborn area unique. The same legacy of white supremacy fueled the killing of Michael Brown. Much has been written about the extensive proof that police engaged in racial profiling in the community and the "role the police force has preserving the racial order of Ferguson." St. Louis, Missouri is the home to the Council of Conservative Citizens, the self-proclaimed "only serious nationwide activist group that sticks up for white rights". The cultural and historical factors cannot be separated from the killings in either place.

That's why the successful prosecution of Renisha's murderer doesn't make the Dearborn area safer for Black and Brown folks. To the contrary, it appears to have inflamed the murderer's supporters who have posted vile, hate-filled messages on his Facebook page.

And that's why young people organizing in the wake of Michael Brown's killing known that justice must be about more than the criminal prosecution of his killer or police reform. Justice for Michael Brown, for Renisha, for Trayvon, for Eric requires that we confront and acknowledge the legacy of racial hatred and violence that infects our communities and has launched the epidemics of criminalization, brutal, abusive policing and mass incarceration.

Scholars and activists have developed a framework for doing just this called Transforming Historical Harms. Communities in Ferguson, in Dearborn and Detroit, in Chicago, in Los Angeles -- in just about every city in this country are struggling with what scholar and practioner David Anderson Hooker has deemed "traumagenic historical experiences" that create and/or contribute current disparities and forms of oppression.

These are collective experiences that continue to hurt or limit the lives of individuals, groups, societies and nations. Collective experiences like slavery. Like Jim Crow. Like mass incarceration. Like living in a community that is under siege by the police. This same approach has been used with survivors of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and to address collective harm caused in Australia when the government there systemically and forcefully removed Aboriginal children their homes. The human rights atrocities experienced right here and now in the United States are no less real or urgent.

The approach takes a page from Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, which activists in Michigan, recognizing the deep racial wounds in the state, have proposed for years. In the words of Anderson-Hooker "Traumagenic events, their legacy and aftermath are all interconnected and fueled by each other. Beliefs held by one group can inflict trauma on another, and traumatic reactions can support the institutionalization of beliefs. These create aftermaths, which continue to inflict trauma and reinforce beliefs." It this cycle of aftermaths -- which in the United States is currently manifesting in murdered Black young people -- that the Transforming Historical Harms approach aims to end.

The approach requires a collective process through which communities face the realities of their history and the historical harms endured by community members that have current, persistent disparities. Once the reality of the historical harms has been established, communities reform the relationships that serve to currently perpetuate these disparities in the current context. Next comes both healing and taking action by "interrupting the multi-generational transmission of trauma by changing systems and policies." Every single community in the United States needs this process -- but Ferguson and Dearborn are uniquely situated to lead the way.

There are undeniable, historical realities regarding our communities, the history of racial oppression and the ways in which the criminal justice system perpetuates this oppression currently. More criminal prosecutions won't tackle these realities at their very roots -- and certainly won't stop the body count from continuing to mount. But the young people leading the movement in Ferguson know their history. And know their current realities. They are poised to help that community--and perhaps the entire country -- confront the historical collective harms in order to create healing and transformative ways forward.

-Sheila Bedi is a clinical associate professor of law at Northwestern University.

Topics: Opinion