The truth is sometimes very painful,” Dr. Kim Cook acknowledges. The professor in the sociology and criminology department at UNCW discusses with me her work with restorative justice. My two immediate takeaways are: 1) Restorative justice is far more encompassing than many people realize; and 2) it requires some very deep work for all involved.
“‘If crime is about injury, then justice should be about healing,’ and that comes from John Brathwaite, one of the intellectual leaders of the restorative justice field,” Dr. Cook notes. So, yes, restorative justice can address a specific crime, like robbery or homicide—or it can address a larger system-wide use of harm, such as the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission demonstrated.
“It’s a strategy of creating a safe space for people to have conversations about the harms they’ve experienced as it relates to crime and injustice issues,” Dr. Cook explains. “Typically [within] the criminal legal system—when someone breaks the law—the question is: What law was broken and what punishment do they get? With restorative practices, the question is a little different: Who was harmed and what do they need to feel whole again?”
Dr. Cook says the answer to that question literally comes from answers. “When somebody is harmed by a crime, it often creates an existential crisis. Why me? Why my house? Why my car? Why my property? Why my being? My body?” she lists.
However, only the person who committed such harm can really answer the questions. “So that creates a relationship between those two people,” Dr. Cook continues. “That relationship is a relationship based in that harm, and those answers often provide important information to the person who was harmed as they then go on their journey of healing.”
Dr. Cook directly works with people after a specific instance of harm has been committed. As she points out in our current legal system, someone who commits an act of harm goes before a judge, who is a stranger. They’re represented in court by a public defender, who is a stranger, or they’re prosecuted by a stranger.
“But they never have to have a conversation with the person [they hurt,]” she tells, “or have a reckoning over what they did to that person. In a restorative justice case, assuming everything goes smoothly—and I’ve seen it happen many times—the reckoning happens, the accountability occurs, when a person can no longer hide his responsibility or her responsibility behind a mask.”
Utilizing one of the tools of restorative justice, known as “Circle Process,” both parties, along with a restorative justice practitioner, sits in the same room. The practitioner mediates and facilitates.
“So we’re trying to create a safe environment for people to have a dialogue around the harm and a way to make up for it,” Dr. Cook explains. “Or at least attempt to make up for it.”
It is not easy, but it can be incredibly rewarding. The healing process actually speeds up when they get around to the conversation about what someone needs to feel whole again. Dr. Cook has witnessed it first hand.
“The person who was harmed says, ‘I just needed an apology and I’ve received it, so I’m good now.’ And that was pretty amazing when it happened,” she tells.
Dr. Cook is interested in larger community-wide restorative justice practices. In the spring she was part of a group of “Community Conversations,” which focused on implicit racial bias in our school system. During the 2018 holiday season, WECT reported on a specific instance wherein a first-grade black child was the only kid in the classroom who didn’t receive a present from her teacher.
“It was a leverage point for dialogue about racial bias,” Dr. Cook remembers, “a particularly implicit bias. When the teacher realized she didn’t give a gift to the only black child in her class, she was mortified.”
Dr. Cook notes support from the school system was positive. Teachers and administrators showed up to talk, listen and learn.
“Conversations were framed around taking the opportunity to talk and to collectively find solutions, which were put into a report that was given to the New Hanover County School Board,” Dr. Cook says.
Dr. Cook put forth recommendations for responsible parties with access to school-aged children be required to take an implicit bias training class—one of the more widespread use of restorative practices. “It’s a deliberative approach to hiring teachers of color, too,” Dr. Cook tells. “Representation matters, and it doesn’t only matter to children of color, it matters to white kids to see teachers of color in positions of authority in their lives.”
The most high profile example of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa following the end of apartheid.
“We have seen commissions in Rwanda, and the process in Greensboro, in my home state of Maine, with regard to the schools for indigenous children—which were horrifying,” Dr. Cook acknowledges. “So, yeah, I think it’s time for Wilmington to have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to decidedly and deliberately address harms done specifically to the black communities in town—and with an eye toward making amends and reaching a strategy of repairing the harm.”
A larger community project surrounding restorative justice could include two major events in ILM: the massacre of 1898 and The Wilmington Ten from the early ‘70s. The two are connected.
As Larry Thomas likes to say,”You can’t really understand The Wilmington Ten until you understand 1898.” The Wilmington Ten is the name given to 10 people arrested and falsely convicted of arson during the upheaval surrounding the integration of New Hanover’s public schools. That is a condensed version of the events that included the National Guard occupying Wilmington. The Ten were pardoned by Governor Perdue just before she left office.
“We can have a truth and reconciliation process around 1898 and it can incorporate 1898 and The Wilmington Ten because the modern impact of the massacre has never gone away,” Dr. Cook explains. She observes if we begin the process around The Wilmington Ten, when discussing the city at the time, the ramifications of 1898 would emerge and be inescapable. “I think if we were to do one for 1898, The Wilmington Ten would automatically, would naturally, come to the surface as a consequences.”
Dr. Cook also calls the commission one that could be illuminating if done correctly. The pieces needed to make it happen are varied.
“It would have to have a panel of facilitators that would include people who understand restorative practices and are committed to them,” she tells. “It would have to be a group of people representative of our community and the people directly impacted by 1898—particularly, people harmed. So descendants of the victims would be important to incorporate into the commission. Then we would have to have a set protocol of hearing the voices of those who were harmed and voices of those who want to take responsibility for the harm.”
The question remains: How do we make that happen? Either the City of Wilmington or New Hanover County Government needs to appropriate funding first, then create a commission.
“They have to make sure they have the resources to do this well,” Dr. Cook adds. “For example, if the descendants of Alex Manley—editor of The Daily Record, which was fire-bombed during the massacre of 1898—chose to participate, at the very least, their travel expenses should be covered.”
Though I would very much like to see a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for 1898, the need to have one for The Wilmington Ten feels more pressing personally. We already have lost four members of the Ten. We still have a chance to hear from the remaining members and also from the perpetrators who were alive at the time. Also, we can hear from members of the citizenry impacted by the events.
“It’s all part of the same social setting,” Dr. Cook acknowledges. “It’s all part of the same social context. This city is a wounded city.”
Restorative Justice for New Hanover County
Upcoming schedule of events available on their FB page, @RJforNHCNC
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