Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

We need to move from ritualized responses to reparation

By Sandra Bass

Storefront on Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, with names of police officers involved in the 1992 Rodney King beating.
Storefront on Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, with names of police officers involved in the 1992 Rodney King beating. (Wikimedia Commons)

Nearly 30 years ago, the video of Rodney King being brutalized by four police officers offered a rare glimpse into the reality of police brutality against black people. As a young graduate student I was pulled into what I thought was a protest in solidarity with the post-verdict uprising in Los Angeles but which landed me in the maximum security ward of a county jail for almost two days.

That experience launched a ten year journey into the study of policing and a faculty appointment teaching the sociology of policing grounded in years of studying the history of race and policing in America.[1]

It pains me to write that nothing that has transpired in these recent incidents has surprised me. Not the asphyxiation of George Floyd, not the hail of police bullets that ended the life of Breonna Taylor, not the vigilante murder of Ahmaud Arbery, nor the police killing of Tony McDade.

When the Rodney King beating video was released and ran nonstop on television for what seemed like weeks, I held out hope that we had reached a watershed moment. Surely mainstream America could no longer deny the state sanctioned viciousness that black communities have endured for generations under the guise of preserving “law and order”? Surely these officers would be convicted.

However, not only were the officers in the King case acquitted for their crimes[2] (in their essay reel time/real justice, Kimberlee Crenshaw and Gary Peller walk us through how what looked like irrefutable evidence of police brutality was transformed into a narrative of rational action by dissecting the video frame by frame[3]), decades later recordings of police and vigilante violence perpetrated against black people are routinely released and on the rare occasions when justice is served, it continues to be determined primarily by a roll of the jurisdictional dice.

I am also not surprised by the uprisings we are seeing across the country. The sight of George Floyd begging to breathe and calling out to his deceased mother while slowly having his life ebb away is so unbearable I have yet to watch the full video. Perhaps because this murder was committed without recognizable fury, the officers knew they were being filmed, and bystanders repeatedly implored the officers to stop, this death is particularly chilling.

Thousands have taken to the streets across the country to demand all four officers involved be arrested and charged for Floyd’s murder. As of this writing, Officer Derek Chauvin and his three accomplices have all been fired, arrested, and charged. “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”[4].These oft quoted words were first spoken over a hundred years ago and they still ring true today.

As Denise Herd, associate director of the Othering and Belonging Institute recently wrote, these events and our responses are so routinized, they have become almost like a “national ritual” where “we cry with grief and rage, we re-experience the trauma of every other black and brown life cut down, and we demand change, only to find ourselves in the same place a day, a week, a month later.”[5]

Yet even as these routinized response rituals play out a tune with which we are all too familiar, there are also a multitude of differences between what happened in 1992 and what has unfolded in recent days. While protests were nationwide during the Rodney King uprisings, the scale and scope of the current uprising is larger, broader, and deeper. In 1992 there was no national movement organizing to confront anti-black police violence.

Today Black Lives Matter, a loosely organized international movement, sparked by the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, provides both an organizing frame and a call to action. The King beating occurred within the context of long-term poor relations between the Korean American and African American communities in South Central Los Angeles and protesters in LA were predominantly black. Today’s demonstrations are multiracial with Americans of all hues engaging in actions.

Most importantly, concepts like systemic white supremacy and institutional racism among others that describe our racialized hierarchical social order are commonly and rightfully used to frame the issue of police behavior within the value system of the larger society. These shifts in the social terrain, if navigated skillfully and boldly, could serve as the catalyst we need to finally embark on the long journey towards a reckoning that has been over 400 years in the making.

As in previous incidents of unrest, after the rage has cooled there will be calls for changes in law, policy, practices, and the redistribution of resources. These changes are essential, yet they do not go far enough. The American experiment with extreme wealth inequality and a hyper-individualistic economic order must end.

We cannot build a society that honors black lives within a scheme that glorifies a monstrous manifestation of capitalism. Moving away from an extractive, exploitative economic model towards one that is restorative, regenerative, and sustainable is critical, but also not sufficient.

In his testimony before the US Congress last year, Ta-Nehisi Coates brilliantly laid out a compelling case for reparations for the descendants of African slaves. Coates forcefully argued that America could not lay claim to the triumphs of its history without equally owning up to its sins and debts. While I believe monetary reparations for African American Descendants of Slaves are justified, materialist solutions have their limits.

Materialist solutions alone cannot bring the US into right relationship with its African American citizens. It cannot redress the harms centuries of ideological, psychological, and systemic white supremacy have inflicted on all Americans (particularly Native and African Americans) or chart a path forward grounded in our shared interdependent destinies rather than merely our settled debts.

Americans have a long history of defining ourselves by myths and perverse distortions. The ideology of manifest destiny justified the attempt to exterminate Native Americans. The fallacy of the “gallant south” belied the horrific truth of a system defined by physical and psychological torture, rape, exploitation, and dehumanization. The belief in unquestionable American benevolence obscured the reckless and self-serving expansion of the American Empire.

Anti-Blackness is embedded into the American psyche. Until we have the courage to acknowledge that truth and embark on the long, difficult, painful process of reckoning with our past and its current manifestations, we cannot repair the harms that have been caused, we will continue to be torn apart by the unending onslaught of violent racial injustices, and reconciliation will remain a distant dream.

The call for truth, reparation, and reconciliation may seem beyond the bounds of possibility, however there are organizations across the country that have spent decades seeding the ground for this work. These include efforts such as Coming to the table, an organization founded by a descendant of slave owners and dedicated to healing the wounds of anti-black racism.

Bryan Stevenson, a legendary human rights attorney and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative spent years pulling together the support to create the National Museum for Peace and Justice, The Legacy Museum, and the Community Remembrance Project as means of telling the truth about the legacy of slavery and lynching in America. The Kellogg Foundation has been funding community based work on truth and racial healing for the past four years. Restorative justice, a conflict resolution model that centers addressing harms and repairing relationships has been mainstreamed at schools across the country, including on our own campus at UC Berkeley

Police departments around the country are also taking affirmative steps towards relational reparations. For example, the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice is developing trust-building interventions that include fostering meaningful reconciliation processes among other measures.

The Cities for Peace Project brought together police officers, community activists, and gang members to become certified nonviolence trainers who could then share these practices within their organizations and communities. During her tenure as Chief of Police in Emeryville California, Jennifer Tejada introduced mindfulness practices to the police force as a means of addressing stress and burnout which are linked to police abuse and misconduct.

Last year I co-moderated a listening session between the San Francisco Police Department and the San Francisco LGBTQ+ community where the department heard the harms the police had committed against this community and Chief of Police William Scott issued a formal apology for those actions. These conversations are continuing with the LGBTQ+ community and the department is planning to extend the process to engage with other marginalized communities within San Francisco. All small steps, but steps nonetheless.

The unending incidents of police violence and brutality towards black people must end, yet we would be remiss if we focused solely on changing policies and practices related to policing or community safety or economic development. With the multitude of risks we face as a country and as a world, we can no longer afford to engage in well-intentioned but ultimately ineffectual attempts to patch up our untenable social order. We have to reach into the heart of America, claim our shadows and our light, and trust that we can make it through the painstaking process of truth telling and reparation that is necessary for all of us to be, finally, in right relationship with our country and each other.

(featured on the homepage of Campaign Nonviolence: A Project of Pace e Bene Nonviolent Service https://paceebene.org/)

[1] See Sandra Bass, “Policing Race, Policing Space: Social Control Imperatives and Police Discretionary Decision, Social Justice Vol. 28 No. 1

[2] A subsequent federal civil rights trial found Officer Laurence Powell and Sergeant Stacey Koon guilty and they were sentenced to 30 months in prison. Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno were acquitted of all charges

[3] In “Reading Rodney King, Reading Urban Uprising edited by Robert Gooding-Williams.

[4] Attributed to Mark Twain

[5] On George Floyd and the struggle to belong https://belonging.berkeley.edu/george-floyd-and-struggle-belong