My Turn: America needs a truth and reconciliation commission

Published: 7/6/2020 6:47:09 AM

While some cities may end up making minor reforms as a result of protests and shifting public sentiment, I think deep down, no one believes we will actually “defund the police.” It is equally true that while systemic racism and police misconduct have always been part of our lives, it has never been more spotlighted. We’ve never been this aware of the real, urgent, desperate need for change. There is a way forward and South Africa led the way.

At the end of Apartheid, South Africans were faced with the reality that there simply were not enough prisons to lock up everyone who had committed racist crimes. The police and the military, the secret service, the entire apparatus of government had been used to brutally squash dissent.

White citizens, desperate to retain power and terrified that if Blacks came to power, they might be treated in the same fashion that they had treated Black people, helped them justify countless atrocities.

We share this history. With lynchings and home burnings, with the KKK, with the Tulsa race massacre, and with countless, continued injustice by white citizens and by a police culture so ingrained with racism, and brutality and gang-like cover-ups and solidarity even when wrong, there is simply no way forward with the traditional methods of crime and punishment. There is no way to craft new laws (if we could even get them passed) and then ask the enforcers to enforce them when the enforcers are part of the problem.

In South Africa, they created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. To explain it simply: You told the truth, you walked away. Police and secret service sometime confessed to heinous crimes, torture, and even murder. People confessed: They told their story, they told on their friends and co-workers, and then they went back to their (slightly changed) lives.

As a practitioner of Restorative Justice in schools for many years now, I know the power of a shared story. Very often, when young people have conflict, rather than mediate an outcome, I simply ask what happened and negotiate a story everyone agrees on — a shared story. When people understand what happened from a shared perspective, 90 percent of the time there is no conflict left to mediate.

While the evidence is overwhelming that police in America systemically brutalize African Americans (and other minorities), the police don’t see it that way. Cops feel justified in their brutality. They believe their actions are necessary to keep themselves safe. They are wrong.

Protests are going a long way toward the cultural change that necessarily precedes actual change, but we need more. We need truth. We need a truth that everyone agrees on: a shared story. No one is going to tell us that truth if it means going to prison. We must have an American Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

If we share a story, we can share justice.

David Bulley is a resident of Turners Falls.

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