Inspirational: Fania Davis and Restorative Justice in Oakland

Allow me to take you on a bit of a journey; Fania’s evolution over time, from militant radical to cultural societal healer… This clip thrilled me to the bones, as I hope it will for you.

Even as far back as 2007, it is said that she signed her emails with this quote:

It it clear that the way to heal society of its violence…
and lack of love Is to replace the pyramid of domination
with the circle of love and respect

~ Manitonquat, Wampanoag elder

The ‘pyramid of domination’ might indeed refer to centuries of male authoritarian rule domestically, or ‘the violence in the way the society is ordered’. The metaphor could also stand for Imperialism and constant wanton destruction of anyone deemed (as in: constructed) as ‘enemies’, whether in the original ‘Axis of Evil’, PNAC’s list, or those targeted so blithely in the Everlasting War on Terror’, which theme allows a constantly changing/evolving list of ‘enemies’. We have seen up close and personal how that construction has worked: it’s created more and more global citizens who (small wonder) wish this nation harm…and has created a continuous loop the military/security/contractor/news complex loves. That permanent war stance is mirrored throughout the citizenry, fightingshootingkilling each other, rather than utilizing any other alternatives, including mental or spiritual healing.

Just prior to finding a piece by Davis at Yes! Magazine, I’d read a piece at the Guardian: Black pre-schoolers more likely to be suspended, US report shows: Half of pre-schoolers suspended more than once are black (I will slide by Eric Holder’s contribution to the subheading, curse him)…

Now the idea of suspending pre-schoolers at all is odious enough, but of course we know that blacks, and to a slightly lesser degree, Hispanics, are suspended and expelled at far higher rates than white students. That’s what the school-to-prison pipeline depends on, no? Now this study is as useless as tits on a boar because it never sought out the offenses that ‘caused’ the suspensions, but there are other out there that do indicate that phenomenon. This 2012 piece at the NY Times includes that, but also includes this horrid trend:

According to the schools’ reports, over 70 percent of the students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement were Hispanic or black.

Black and Hispanic students — particularly those with disabilities — are also disproportionately subject to seclusion or restraints. Students with disabilities make up 12 percent of the student body, but 70 percent of those subject to physical restraints. Black students with disabilities constituted 21 percent of the total, but 44 percent of those with disabilities subject to mechanical restraints, like being strapped down. And while Hispanics made up 21 percent of the students without disabilities, they accounted for 42 percent of those without disabilities who were placed in seclusion.’

‘Restraints’; OMG, how evil.  Seclusion: that means solitary confinement, or one of the weasel word terms that covers for it: ‘Secure Housing Units’, ‘Special Management Units’, or ‘Administrative Segregation’. Piffle: it’s torture.

Now who better than a long-time Black Panther who helped her sister fight her way out of being railroaded for murder, and having grown up with all the hellish nightmares that Angela and her family had experienced would know that this recurring nightmare for not only blacks, but dissidents of all stripes…is one of the key toxins and sicknesses of our society and must be changed?  Oh, the tensions she must have felt as a young woman, listening to Gandhi and MLK against all of that!  Listen to ‘What’s Love Got to Do with It? from 2012:

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. defines justice as “love correcting that which revolts against love.”

Dr. King made this visionary and audacious declaration at the first mass meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association at the Holt Street Baptist Church on December 5, 1955, just days after the arrest of Rosa Parks. It was the meeting where Rev. Ralph Abernathy put forward the resolution to initiate the Montgomery bus boycott. The church was located in a black working-class section of the city. Both the sanctuary and the basement auditorium were filled, and an overflow crowd outside listened via loudspeakers. (after the hymns…)

King then delivered an address that included this definition of justice as love correcting that which revolts against love. He later recalled his thoughts before the address:

“How could I make a speech that would be militant enough to keep my people aroused to positive action and yet moderate enough to keep this fervor within controllable and Christian bounds? I knew that many of the Negro people were victims of bitterness that could easily rise to flood proportions. What could I say to keep them courageous and prepared for positive action and yet devoid of hate and resentment? Could the militant and the moderate be combined in a single speech?”

Is Dr. King’s definition of justice context-bound? Or is it a universal definition of justice that withstands the test of time? Is it relevant today, or is it bound by the particulars of place and circumstance?

At first blush, on a personal level, this definition of justice bears no resemblance to the justice I pursued in my lifetime as an activist and civil rights lawyer. Love seems to have had little to do with my warrior-activist pursuits, whether as a militant black student fighting against racism and in support of the Black Panthers in the 1960s, or as a socialist fighting the evils of capitalism, or as a black woman fighting to save my sister Angela Davis from a legal lynching based upon fabricated charges of murder and conspiracy to murder a Marin County judge in the 1970s.

We were at war. Our relentless pursuit of social, racial, and economic justice in those days had nothing to do with love. It was us versus them. Or so it seemed.

And this continued through the 1980s after I became a civil rights lawyer fighting all-out civil rights wars in the courtroom against employers and on behalf of clients who were victims of employment discrimination.

What does love have to do with the hypermasculinist, hyperrational, aggressive, warrior-like personal qualities I was compelled to cultivate in order to be successful in these pursuits?’

(Ironically, the rest of the article is behind a paywall; we might then wonder about how serious is Tikkun’s banner: ‘to heal, repair, and transform the world’, given that…but never mind; now we do know what ‘love has to do with’ her journey: becoming a civil rights attorney, studying Indigenous cultures, and eventually weaving a glorious tapestry with the woof of her Warrior spirit and the weft of her loving, Mother heart spirit across it, as per the Zulu spiritual healer she apprenticed with. His 2008 message to the world is here.

And as per the topic of this post, she is the force behind the Restorative Justice initiative at Oakland Public Schools and larger juvenile justice community; and bless her for all of it.

Jasmine: ‘I’m just stayin’ out of trouble, and…that’s my New Year’s revolution.

The site’s About page notes the successes of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa coupled with New Zealand’s restorative justice legislation having led to youth incarceration almost nonexistent as having inspired this long-time civil rights attorney and dedicated activist to creating the Oakland initiative, beginning in 2005. By and by, as she was joined by others and received some money to proceed, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY) was born.

She knows that it’s no panacea, but it offers a great alternative to the punitive, retributive justice meted out ever-increasingly in schools and courts.

What is Restorative Justice?

Restorative justice invites a fundamental shift in the way we think about and do justice. In the last few decades, many different programs have arisen out of a profound and virtually universal frustration with the dysfunction of our justice system. What distinguishes restorative justice from all these programs is that it is not a program. It is a theory of justice which challenges the fundamental assumptions in the dominant discourse about justice.

What are the dominant assumptions?

If you commit a crime, you incur a debt to society, you create an imbalance in the scales of justice. The only way to pay back the debt and re-balance the scales is to be given your just deserts. This is based upon the Roman, Justinian notion of “to each his due”. If you caused someone to suffer, you will be caused to suffer. If you have inflicted pain upon someone, pain will be inflicted upon you. Pain, suffering, isolation, deprivation, even death are often viewed as the only way to make right the wrong, the only way to pay back the debt and the only way to re-balance the scales.

In this sense, dominant justice may be viewed as officially-sanctioned vengeance. Instead of the person harmed who retaliates, it is our justice system that strikes back on the victim’s behalf. Our criminal justice system tends to focus on determining blame and administering pain – judging and sentencing. The retributive essence of our current system has spawned the highest absolute and per capita incarceration rates in the history of the world. Scholars speak of how it has “prisonized” the entire North American landscape. We see this phenomenon very clearly in our urban schools which are beginning to look and function more like jailhouses than schoolhouses.

However, in the last three decades, humanity has been making has been making an historic shift from a justice as harming to a justice as healing. From a retributive justice to a restorative justice.’ (more here.)

More on the school (some say cradle) to prison pipeline from Glen Ford:

‘Newly-released data on the nation’s public schools document what every Black school kid already knows: African American students are far more likely to be suspended or expelled than whites. Most striking, is how closely school discipline data tracks with racial incarceration numbers. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection statistics for the 2009-10 school year, more than 70 percent of students arrested or referred to law enforcement for school related incidents were Black or Hispanic – an approximate match to the ethnic composition of the nation’s prisons.’

Add in the fact that thousands of children are held in solitary confinement in the US, and especially girls, for a variety of reasons, we might weep…then rage, and hope more communities and schools sign on to Restorative Justice initiatives. Discover more here or at RJOY (there are more videos there, as well, including the ‘talkig circles’, a la the Diné); your schools or communities may want to make use of the theory.

The legacy that the KKK and others had bequeathed to Fania was the same as that of her sister, leading her to ask this interviewer and the world at large:

‘…and you ask ME if I approve of violence?’

(cross-posted at

4 responses to “Inspirational: Fania Davis and Restorative Justice in Oakland

  1. As I posted on your fdl diary, wendye, this is an important introduction to a very worthy project. Here is the link to the version of that as documented on maori tv – warning, it is a long piece and probably difficult to follow the accents, though a bit of maori is translated in the final segment. I found it interesting because the focal point, Manukau, is the place where I was born – vastly changed of course from when I was growing up.

    Thank you for presenting this important subject. I am reminded that years before the restorative project in South Africa, Alan Paton, who wrote “Cry the Beloved Country” had himself run a youth prison along these lines in apartheid times – his autobiography describes the experience. Even though it seemed his efforts came to an end, something from that did develop into a positive outcome.

    May that also happen here.

  2. i do remember the film made from alan paton’s book, but not very clearly, to say the truth. what a title, too! i will try to watch more of the maori tevee program; i’ve only made to five minutes so far, and i did try to find the segment on youtube to embedded, seeing that they have their own channel and all. but never mind, this link is plenty good.

    but life does tend to unspool for me at times (perhaps lot of times), so…i can’t promise.

    rjoy started in 2005 and by 2007 they were running different programs out and about, but oh, my, yes: we need some healthy alternatives. our kids are dying of the ugliness in schools and in court and prison.

  3. Aotearoa, commonly translated as ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’, is the Maori name for New Zealand. The piece shows three or four reconciliation meetings between perpetrator and victim, with family an important adjunct – the last taking place at a whare or meetinghouse.

    New Zealand culture, whilst not in any way perfect, is well reflected in the film overall. I liked very much the character of the facilitators in the piece, very down to earth and pragmatic about what they could or couldn’t accomplish.

    Thanks for sending me hunting!

  4. yes indeed; mr. hinton as low-key an very earthy during all four meetings. i wish i could have understood all the words patrick said to pete, but a hug at the end? a modicum of hope, my goodness. interesting that they used ‘restoring hope’ as opposed to ‘justice’, but perhaps because the focus was pre-court. in islamic nations, the payment of blood money is encouraged, even though antithetical to western values.

    there are plenty more school talking circles at the rjoy website; i chose the one with the best overview of the project the diné use a talking stick as the object signifying that the one who holds it will speak his or her heart, and will not be interrupted. some go very long because of that rule… :)

    oh, and the family being involved: pete’s sister is the one who move him to tears, which was quite important as far as him ‘hearing’ the pain he’d caused.

    gorgeous children, all of them.

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