Restorative Justice At OWS


The world movements for social and political change that have risen up during the last 2 years have one thing in common, their flexibility. When pressure is applied to one area, because it’s part of a whole with equality for all humans as the foundational value, the whole is able to absorb that pressure, to include it, to shift enough to make room for the distortions without compromising itself. In other words something can be learned from everyone and there’s room for everyone. There’s no room here for the mindset which, in the present social condition, formalizes security to separate individuals from each other and to protect the privileged. As a result the machinations of the entrenched power structure can’t stop this constantly shifting process even with all the money, all the force, all the legislation, and all the media distortions that it brings into the field. The world Occupy movements’ growth continues because there is a desperate need in the world for the truths expressed in the voices of the people to be given a space, time and respect and for a democratic process that’s inclusive and accountable. The struggle is to create new non-hierarchical social and political relationships where individuals can exercise personal power by finding a voice, can use the power of protest and direct action to effect systemic change and can build a new democratic community. David Graeber beautifully described the process as building “deeply personalized new forms of democracy.” The personal is political.

However these “deeply personalized” new democratic processes will of necessity encounter obstacles and trip blocks which can bring to the surface individual and collective hurt or trauma; or in other words conflict which can obviously be strong enough to provoke violence. What’s referred to as the “cycle of violence” I interpret to mean that violence of any kind is internalized, whether it’s one on one or it’s a result of systemic mechanisms of oppression. In existing institutions the only way to deal with the manifestations of that violence and resulting hurt is by establishing bureaucracies which take the communal responsibility for healing, resolution and restitution away from those involved and structure a process of adjudication, a rational process which is adversarial, argumentative, doesn’t support or hear everyone involved and doesn’t recognize the harm done to the community as a whole. Community involvement is limited to placing the bureaucrats in positions of power.

In OWS, a turning point was reached when the GAs and Spokes meetings were abandoned because of violent conflict. People with dedication and right intentions lost hope, got fed up, got angry, got out and moved on. Out of that state of affairs came discussions about how to deal with that violence and conflict which had damaged the decision making process. From those discussions the Grievance Council was structured. Its name was later changed to Transforming Conflict Lab which better represented its meaning. From subsequent meetings of the TCL a plan was consensed on to bring Kay Pranis to New York from Minneapolis for training in restorative justice circles. Ms. Pranis is at the top of the field of RJ and a pioneer in the use of circles for the process. She agreed to come to conduct this training for airfare and food only; she had free lodging with a friend. Her usual fees would have been completely prohibitive. She conducted an arduous three day training workshop June 1st through 3rd, 8 hours a day plus an additional 3 hours on the first evening for a teach-in for OWS and community activists and she did it all because as she said, she was “thrilled”   to be able to bring her work in healing and community building to OWS. We the participants in the training, numbering 15, were also inspired, grateful and exhausted.

A brief history of restorative justice: restorative justice in its present context has centuries old antecedents. Simply put, the process is to bring people together to resolve conflict where everyone is given an equal say. In the 1950s in North America the seminal idea became associated with criminal justice methods and was influenced by Marxist theory via a transformative justice framework. The thrust was that crime couldn’t be dissociated from political and economic conditions. A new field of theory, conflict criminology, sprang up from this fusion which expounded the proposition that conflict shouldn’t be avoided but should be embraced, and that conflict forged relationships. In the 60’sand 70’s radical social movements fought for prison reform and ideas in criminology moved toward restorative, transformative justice and further from punitive. Peacemaking faith based groups such as the Mennonites and the Quakers brought a special focus to prison work in the 1970s and much of the present ideas of restorative justice are influenced by their philosophies of transformative power and right thinking inherent in humans. One enduring example of this is the Alternative to Violence Project (AVP), a conflict resolution and community building experiential workshop model developed in prisons through collaboration between Quakers and inmates, which is now used internationally inside and outside prisons. The practice of restorative justice methods in the criminal justice system really took off in the 70’s after its successful use in replacing a trial in a criminal proceeding in Canada.

Peacemaking Circles as a form of restorative justice imitate what has traditionally been used in Native American and Aboriginal cultures as a way of addressing whatever is impacting the community and as a way to heal harm done in a community. The process brings together the agent of the harm, the victim, family members and members of the community where the harm was done, identifies the values and issues of the participants, seats them in a circle and, using a “talking piece” allows everyone in the circle to speak without interruption, with attention and with respect. There are no outsiders, observers, directors; everyone is an equal including the “keeper” who is vaguely like a facilitator except she doesn’t make decisions or push the agenda. Decisions are made by consensus and nothing is completed until all have finished saying what they need to. As you can imagine this process takes time, it takes patience and it takes deep listening. Confidentiality must be respected and the participants must feel safe. It was feminist scholar M. Kay Harris who, calling for restructuring criminal justice to reflect feminist values, definitively characterized this approach:  “that all people have equal values as human beings, that harmony and happiness are more important than power and possession and that the personal is political” Sounds like what OWS is fighting for.

While working for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, around 1996, Kay Pranis became a Peacemaking Circle Keeper and started using Circles for Restorative Justice in her work for the criminal justice system. As she told me, the process quickly generated national interest and she has since helped to implement circles for conflict resolution in adult and juvenile justice systems, schools, social services, workplaces, neighborhoods, churches and families.“ I have worked on community building in government agencies, community non-profits and universities.” What Kay Pranis imparted to all of the participants in NYC besides the technical structuring of the Peacemaking Circle was a profound respect for human potential to want to care for others, a way into our hearts for healing and community building, a way to take responsibility without harm, a sense of interconnectedness and a way to make the process safe and inclusive. It’s easy to see how this can be helpful in many different ways and in many different communities. What goes to the reason why Ms. Pranis was so “thrilled” to be in NYC is expressed in her writing:  “… to have strong, cohesive communities it is important for all legitimate interests to be understood and addressed – and for those to be addressed in a voluntary, collaborative process, not through an adversarial legal rights process. Everyone must feel included, respected and served by the process and the solution.”

The list of progressive activist organizations that use RJ or conferencing or whichever of its iterations is impressive. Starting with the Civil Rights Movement and prison reform in the 60’s stretching through social justice education in many Universities from the 60s and 70s to today, the work of the Mennonite and Quaker faith based groups in prisons, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, work with child sex abuse, domestic violence and even police brutality.

The teach-in organized by TCL and held at the Commons in Brooklyn on Friday evening gave us hope. About 30-40 people came, were given an intro by Ms. Pranis, representatives from Teacher’s Unite and The New York Peace Institute spoke about their work in RJ after which breakout groups discussed and reported back on  issues of interest with respect to the implementation of RJ. The evening was a great success because of the curiosity that was generated and especially insofar as some healing actually took place-some good people who had given up on OWS after the winter of discontent, decided that this was a hopeful and fruitful project which they would return for.

Ongoing Transforming Conflict Lab circles will be facilitated on a regular basis. Announcements will be made via Google groups, ows-tcl@groups.google.com/forum. These circles will be open for anyone to attend; organizations and activists from NYC and elsewhere and groups from the communities at large will be invited as well. Please come. This is going to be a great service to OWS.

Ms. Pranis sent us this message from Minneapolis:

“This work (the restorative justice circle) feels like the heart of what needs to be done. I will make myself available for further work with OWS.”

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