I met lifelong poet, writer, speaker and activist at the 4th National Conference on Restorative and Community Justice in Toledo, Ohio in 2013. The conference, for me, was a contentious one, because my key message was that Restorative Justice and the Abolition movement has already failed. I was harmed by an offender in 1997 released through the intervention of an early Restorative and Community Justice group in Iowa, and my experience directly countered the narrative that courts, police and prisons harm. In fact, on the first day, I raised that concern in a striking question to keynote speaker Angela Davis, a question that was impossible to answer.
Throughout the conference I would see Erica sitting one on one with participants of the conference having quiet, very calm and thoughtful conversations. I could see she was just there with the person, not off thinking about anything else, not debating, just speaking and listening. I was there with a different purpose. I was there to argue. To challenge. To debate. I wanted my message heard, and I wanted Restorative Justice to stop immediately. I wanted a global ban.
At the same time, I went in understanding that people of color see Restorative Justice differently than me. In communities of color public votes to institute RJ are successful nearly across the globe. It has been utilized in New Zealand to combat increased native incarceration rates over those of white residents, descended of European colonizers. People of color feel they have an opportunity to express themselves, be heard, and have a fair outcome while whites see it as inconsistent, unreliable, unable to be tracked, and soft on crime.
The reality is a mix. It sometimes results in positive outcomes, but it takes significant effort to evaluate to insure that intrinsic cultural racism, patriarchy and other power structures don’t naturally fill the void. Also, more and more, simple honest storytelling is being named ‘restorative,’ even outside the context of a courtroom process.
On the last day, as people were heading out of the morning session I was sitting in a chair near the lobby. I was exhausted from being on alert the whole time. Erica came and sat with me to talk for a few minutes.
I remember her studying my eyes as we spoke. We talked about meditation and she told me she practices a non Western form of meditation. I told her I meditated for a long time, but had to stop. I was too ungrounded, too floating. I was going by but not getting by. I needed my feet on the ground. Erica told me she had friend that told her the same thing.
I told her about my experience in college working with the Black Genesis Dance Theater as their videographer and working with black graduate students on media production for their thesis projects, including one on the Middle Passage, the transport of slaves by ship from Africa to the Americas. Erica listened like she wants to know the heart of the person she’s in conversation with.
This week I watched The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and saw Erica speak the same way she listens. Her thoughts in a way bookend the film. At the opening she speaks about a kind of parable of three blind men approaching an elephant. Each experiences it differently; one like a wall, another like a spear, another like a snake. She says the Black Panthers were similar, that it was so broad that there wasn’t just one totalizing notion of the movement. At the end we see and hear her heartbreak over Huey P. Newton’s increasing violence, drug abuse and victimization of some of the longest standing Panthers.
What struck me about the openness and honesty of the Panthers that were in the film was that it recognized the real, legitimate harms that came out of the movement, and the hope too. Another Panther says, “we didn’t know we were following a Megalomaniac.”
Huggins simply states, “The Huey that he became is not the Huey I knew in the beginning.”
I believe these open, honest and unassuming statements open the door to begin looking at examples that share similarities, such as people acquitted in court of crimes of violence that are also politicized.
A comparison would be Huey P. Newton was charged and acquitted of killing a police officer, a politically charged situation. George Zimmerman was acquitted of the killing of unarmed African American teen Trayvon Martin, a politically charged situation. Zimmerman, like Newton has been accused of a pattern of physical abuse, throwing a wine bottle at a girlfriend, threatening his estranged wife and her father with a gun, punching his father in-law in the face, as well as flaunting his crime, in 2015 tweeting a crime-scene photo of Martin deceased. Prior to their charges, both Newton and Zimmerman espoused carrying firearms as a political right and a means to achieve justice. Both seem to have suffered from a grandiose sense of self following acquittal, as though they became untouchable.
These comparisons are cursory and obviously need far deeper analysis, but my point is this: I learned something from Erica Huggins about the opportunity we create to learn far more deeply about a scenario when party lines can be removed and when people can tell the whole, messy truth about a situation where injustice and injury are the primary drivers of the story. Basically, without any official “Truth and Reconciliation” commission in the US on race and the history of genocide and slavery of people of color the Panthers are jumping ahead and laying their story bare. It opens the door to much more nuanced discourse, one that allows Huggins and Newton and all the rest to be whole people, and for us to see their stories dynamically in relation to those that might initially seem rigidly aligned in contrasting and oppositional paths.
I’m deeply grateful to Erica Huggins and all the participants in the documentary Vanguard of The Revolution. The narratives are deeply heartfelt, and they reveal, not only the facts, but also the feelings of those who were there. This story is real in the best sense of the word, and it sets the bar for personally narrating personal histories that are less than perfect. My hope is that we can see some similarly honest storytelling about the injustices that led to the perceived need for a militarized wing within the civil rights movement.
Check out the trailer for Vanguard of The Revolution here.
Buy your copy of the film on Amazon.