“The past must be examined closely, I believe, before we can leave it there …” —Alice Walker, Democratic Womanism
In 2014, Fania Davis declared the need for a national truth and reconciliation process. Davis’ call came in the wake of the Ferguson, Missouri, protests following the police killing of Michael Brown. She wrote, “A Ferguson Truth and Reconciliation process based on restorative justice (RJ) principles could not only stop the epidemic [police killings of Black men], but also allow us as a nation to take a first ‘step on the road to reconciliation,’ to borrow a phrase from the South African experience.”
The occurrences this past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, illustrate the urgency for such a process once again. At the Truth Telling Project in Ferguson, which was established after Brown’s death, we believe a truth and reconciliation commission is needed to heal the racial divide and redress past harms.
However, the examples thus far in healing anti-Black racism have not been successful. That’s because the processes have focused more on reconciliation than truth.
Most attempts have had little impact on structural racism in places like South Africa because White people can be granted forgiveness from wrongdoing without changing the conditions that fostered the wrongdoing. For many Black people, reconciliation is viewed as empty apologies and expectations of forgiveness. We applaud Heather Heyer’s father, who told a Florida news outlet Tuesday that he forgives the driver who killed his daughter, but mass forgiveness of Whites by Blacks is very different.
Traumatization can impede reconciliation. We need to precede the process with truth.
The Truth Telling Project emerged by and for community members who experienced police violence to share and hear each others’ stories, to address and heal trauma, and to educate and build political efficacy. Part of our work includes reconciliation through community healing. The continuing war of increasing militarization of our communities—while White supremacists were essentially allowed to terrorize Charlottesville initially without interference from police or local officials—impacts and constantly re-traumatizes and heightens Black existential fear. Traumatization can impede reconciliation.
We need to precede the process with truth.
A grassroots truth-telling process that formalizes listening, learning, and action. We believe doing so would provide a hard, moral reset for the TRC.
For example, a formal Decade of Truth-telling, Listening and Action—to begin next March 24 on the International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims—can provide a U.S. framework for the UN International Decade for People of African Descent. The Decade of Truth-telling would include programming, actions, and policies that challenge and work to redistribute power back to communities.
It could involve communities across the country engaging in semi-formal hearings where Black and brown voices are actually listened to, their stories documented for learning, and then acted upon by communities and allies.
What histories would be uncovered through this action?
This past July marked 100 years since the East St. Louis massacres, where over 7,000 Black people fled for their lives and between 200 and 500 were murdered by angry White gangs unhindered by authorities. The roots of this travesty are familiar; the elite used working-class White frustration to deflect their unwillingness to provide fair-labor environments, and Blacks and other people of color become targets.
World War I was winding down, and Northern factories recruited Southern Blacks, who, after arriving in towns like East St. Louis, were blamed for the low wages and joblessness of White workers. Not unlike the rhetoric used in the 2016 election season, and last weekend in Charlottesville, tension was increased by inflammatory news, racist claims, and stereotypes about Black workers. On July 1, 1917, the allegation that a Black man assaulted a White man sent White people on a killing rampage that saw indiscriminate beatings, property burnings, and lynchings.
Protests in Black communities across the U.S. followed. There were investigations and a trial. While over 1,000 White people participated in the massacre, 100 suspects—Black and White—were indicted. Ultimately, 10 Blacks served time for murdering two White plainclothes police officers.
The U.S. has never formally listened to the grievances of those impacted by racial hatred.
Almost a hundred years later, when Michael Brown Jr. was killed, the nation began to notice the deaths of Black people by police officers, who were often not indicted or acquitted; when found guilty, they were given light sentences.
As we remember the East St. Louis massacres, little has changed. The U.S. has never formally listened to the grievances of those impacted by racial hatred. It has never accepted responsibility for the ruins of families impacted by structural racism, nor has it made policies or provided education to address racial hatred and structural racism.
Instead of leading the nation to address the impacts of slavery, and the many government-initiated injustices, the U.S. has systematically continued the genocidal policies against Native Americans, despite the fact that Natives, immigrants, and the free labor of enslaved Africans and their descendants built this nation.
Ferguson and beyond
While we support Davis’ call for a truth and reconciliation process, we call for a focus on truth first. Reconciliation and forgiveness is not always possible in the wake of ongoing trauma. Many transitional justice, healing, and trauma specialists understand the detrimental effects of forcing people to forgive their assailants.
Much of the mainstream analysis fails to acknowledge publicly that Ferguson did not happen in isolation. The scholarship of Imani Scott, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Jamala Rogers point out how the long history and trauma from economic and social violence is compounded by today’s school-to-prison pipeline, gentrification, and continued police violence and militarization of Black communities.
We believe the rhetoric of angry White middle-class people who voted their frustration are not seeking our forgiveness, and is unlikely to be conducive to reconciliation. As with nonviolence, reconciliation is imposed by White scholars, policymakers, and nonprofits who come to Black and brown communities pedaling programs that are often unsustainable, culturally irrelevant, and staffed by Whites and Blacks who know nothing of the communities they come to help.
In the Ferguson-St. Louis community we started our own process to hear our own stories and to heal and support ourselves. While a TRC process can reset, and even lay the groundwork for, a new society, Americans first must listen to, learn with, and be led by people whose experiences reflect the issues we are addressing.
The Truth Telling Project is hosting a webinar on August 17, where members will share stories from their online learning platform “It’s Time to Listen.” The webinar is the beginning of a series of events in preparation for TTP’s call to action for a Decade of Truth-telling, Listening, Healing and Action to begin March 24, 2018.
David Ragland is one of the co-directors and co-founder of the Truth Telling Project and is the Director of the Campaign for Truth and Reparations.