“Spirit of Justice” 1/14/2018

We like to think of ourselves as “The Church that Shows Up.” We have t-shirts that say that on them. And if you want one, I’m sure we can get you one, right? Who can help with that?

In the spirit of being that church, on Wednesday, nine of us – five members of our church, one member of the North Shore congregation, plus Rev. Deanna, Rev. Melanie, and I – showed up at Criminal Court to observe the most recent court appearance of Nicholas Pogozelski, Joshua Simmons, Rashaad Piper, and Dejuan Paul, the four young men charged with second-degree robbery of UUA employees James Curran and Tim Byrne on Bienville Street in the Quarter, last June during our General Assembly. Groups of us have been showing up regularly since their bail hearing at the end of June. Our goal is to be a witness and presence for the defendants at these proceedings, to highlight the humanity of these four young black men, in the hope that we can persuade the attorneys and judge to opt for a Restorative Justice approach instead of throwing the lives of these young men into the destructive routines of our Justice system’s standard punitive approach. To that end, we have also had meetings with Sheriff’s Office officials, staff of the Center for Restorative Approaches, and the District Attorney. These have been surprisingly encouraging – there is more receptiveness to the idea of restorative justice than we had anticipated (though we are not convinced that everyone understands restorative justice the same way). And, to affirm their humanity, we have regularly made donations to the jail’s commissary accounts for these four young men.

Between August and November, there were five court appearances concerned with pre-trial conferences and competency hearings, the first two of which were false starts – the judge didn’t show up for the first one, and the second ended up being rescheduled because the doctors, who were needed to make a determination of competency, were occupied with another case in a different courtroom. We waited several hours for them to arrive before the court gave up and rescheduled. So this part of the process didn’t really get started until October. Competency was affirmed on November 2nd, and the first appearance for what the Court calls “motions” was last Wednesday – scheduled in November for “after the holidays.”

Wednesday’s court session was very interesting. After taking care of some quick procedural business for other cases, Judge Camille Buras called the prosecutor and the four defense attorneys into her chambers for what turned out to be a five-minute conference. When they emerged, the judge stated that since she was not getting the information she wanted in chambers, she wanted to hear the case in open court. The information she wasn’t getting, that she now proceeded to ask for publicly, was the basic facts of the case. That was interesting.

“I need to know facts.” “I need to know the relative roles.” “Count One, second degree robbery of Mr. Byrne, all four defendants as principals. Who struck Mr. Byrne?” Still getting no reply that satisfied her, Judge Buras said to the prosecutor, “The state should have the facts at your command. What is your theory of the case?” It was remarkable that the state’s prosecutor did not present a theory. And I think probably a judge does not expect to have to ask for one in open court, and so bluntly.

I had to wonder why this was happening. In the bail hearings, the state’s whole presentation was to show a surveillance video. Did he think the video spoke for itself? Or was he holding back, hoping that the four defense attorneys would be drawn into the question of facts and maybe lose their solidarity? In other words, was he lazy, or lazy like a fox?

In the end, Judge Buras declared that she did not have enough information for pre-trial, the state and defense attorneys mutually agreed to a continuance, and they set a new date for motions and testimony: the last day of this month, Wednesday, January 31st.

So this is our justice system in operation. As with any sort of system, there is not much reflection involved in its operation. The point of a system, it seems, is to act on reflection that is done and over with. At least, that’s how it shakes out when ordinary people are just trying to do their jobs. Reflecting on the design of the system is easily regarded as “not my job” by those working within it. Those folks are making careers and commitments to that system, or else just trying to get along serving it and not interested in shaking it up. And so it’s real work to introduce a new idea that implies large changes in how the system operates.

In his book, The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen writes that “any theory of justice has to choose an informational focus, that is, it has to decide which features of the world we should concentrate on in judging a society and in assessing justice and injustice.” Judge Buras demonstrated the informational focus of the court’s theory of justice – the theory institutionalized in the court system’s design: who did what, and what does the law say the penalty is for doing that? Sen highlights the role of public discourse and public reasoning to broaden the focus of folks who are just trying to do their jobs. Public discourse and public reasoning, he implies, are forces in society that can shape folks’ expectations about what it means to “do one’s job.” We all interpret the world through an entangled collection of facts, social conventions, and values. Sometimes we lose sight of which is which – is that a fact, or a social convention? Is this a social convention, or a value? Active public discourse can produce better public reasoning, lead to better social conventions, and more congruity between our shared values and the actual operation of the systems we live in.

Ibram Kendi offers a valuable lens for understanding certain social conventions in American public reasoning. The title of his book – Stamped From the Beginning – suggests the power that social systems have to frame our habits of thought and shape our public reasoning.

He describes three perspectives on race that shape American public discourse. The first he calls “segregationist.” This perspective rationalizes oppression, and interprets resistance a signal to remove resistors from society. This was the perspective of the antebellum American Colonization Society, whose purpose was to remove free blacks from American society. Henry Clay promoted it with his famous rhetorical question: “Can there be a nobler cause than that which, whilst it proposed to rid our country of a useless and pernicious, if not dangerous portion of its population, contemplates the spreading of the arts of civilized life, and the possible redemption from ignorance and barbarism of a benighted quarter of the globe?” Yes, Henry, there can. Because it would be nobler not to characterize free black people as useless and pernicious, or Africa as ignorant and barbaric. But you get the point: Henry saw danger, and supported a cause that aimed to remove it. And every northern state legislature had endorsed colonization by the time our church was founded in 1833. Kendri reports that in the 1840s, as antislavery voting blocks began to form in the North, free blacks there were ten times more likely than Southern blacks to be classified insane. The measure of sanity was, in part, acceptance of white superiority.

The second perspective Kendri identifies, he calls “assimilationist.” This boils down to asking the oppressed to get with the program. Instead of removal, assimilationists favor strategies of “uplift” and education. The Freedmen’s Bureau during Reconstruction was an assimilationist program; the eugenics movement was another; so was school integration; and such programs – that treat non-white people as problems to solve, or children to raise – persist today.

Kendri calls both of these “racist” perspectives, because they do not challenge assumptions that white values and white social conventions are superior and to be preferred. Indeed, they depend upon, and reinforce them.

The third perspective, then, he calls “antiracist.” The antiracist perspective seeks to deconstruct and dismantle systems of oppression, rather than protect or adapt to them. The work we are doing in court for restorative justice is of this kind. So is the work we do for reproductive justice. So is the sanctuary movement.

In a passage in The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen interprets the parable of the Good Samaritan. He focuses in on the question Jesus asked at the end of the story: “Who was the wounded man’s neighbor?” Comes the answer: “The man who helped him.” Sen expounds:

“The Samaritan is linked to the wounded [man] through the event itself: he found the stricken man, saw the need to help, provided that help and was now in a relationship with the injured person. It does not matter whether the Samaritan was moved by charity, or by a ‘sense of justice,’ or by some deeper ‘sense of fairness in treating others as equals.’ Once he finds himself in this situation, he is in a new ‘neighbourhood.’” [Sen p. 172]

That is a good summary of the spiritual journey of justice work. Through entering relationship, we become neighbors in a real, experiential way, and as a result find our thoughts “in a new neighborhood” – moved on from disposing of or “fixing” others, into the neighborhood of respect, alliance, and love.

To remind you, the next court appearance for Nicholas, Joshua, Rashaad, and Dejuan, will be on the last day of this month, Wednesday, January 31st. You’re welcome to join us if you are able – it’s at Criminal Court, the big Courthouse on the corner of Broad and Tulane; we’ll meet there at 9:00am. Talk to Jolanda Walter for details about where and how to show up.

May we each find ourselves in the neighborhood of justice and love. Amen.


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