There is a lot of distrust in what I will call the social justice community, at least some segments protesting the Picnic Day incident, that came out last night. In my view, the reality is that without the work of Mayor Robb Davis this would have been a lot worse – at least the Picnic Day 5 will get a chance to sit in the room with the police officers they fought with in April, rather than being in a Neighborhood Court setting as some seem to have desired.
The reality is that, while some were calling for the charges to be dropped, the plea agreement allows that to happen in accordance with the way the system actually functions.
As Robb Davis likes to say, or perhaps is liken to say, since undoubtedly he does not like it, this is a broken system and, if anything, restorative justice could be seen as a metaphor for finding a new way forward through the unjust system.
For those complaining that there is an asymmetry of power and that the defendants are being made to participate in this process by force – well ‘no shit Sherlock,’ that’s what the criminal justice is. The most powerful person in the room is not the impartial judge, but the partial prosecutor, representing not justice but rather the power of the state.
It is under these circumstances – realpolitik of the criminal justice system – that you have to view a restorative justice process.
The district attorney and by extension the police have all of the power in this current system. And a restorative justice process with a trained facilitator, confidentiality requirements, and rules to allow all sides an equal opportunity to speak is the best way that I know to equalize the disparity of power.
We need to be real, this process is not what the DA wanted, it is a real way to bring a greater sense of equity into the conversation. And it forces a conversation into a space where there is no chance for a conversation otherwise.
The power disparity is in our criminal justice system. The nature of our criminal justice is such that, under normal conditions, defendants very rarely are enabled to even testify for fear – even if they are innocent – that they can get trapped on the stand.
Power gets displayed in that criminal justice system, and it is an absolute and asymmetrical power. These young people get to do something rather extraordinary – they get to confront their accusers on equal footing. When they enter that room they will have the opportunity to lay out how they were harmed by this situation and explain to the police officers why they responded as they did.
There has been a lot of judgment leveled against these individuals. One downside of the plea agreement is that the five defendants will not get to clear their names through an acquittal by the jury.
But I heard it from a public commenter on Tuesday night who talked to someone who referred to the defendants as “thugs” – in a letter I recently received they were called “thugs” and “losers.”
The remarkable thing is that none of these guys had a criminal record. Deputy DA Ryan Couzens, in fact, specifically cited that as a reason why he felt they were deserving of a chance to get the deferred entry of judgment.
As Jann Murray-Garcia writes in a recent column, “I get that they engaged in violent actions against the police, but clearly there is ambiguity, as well as their own admissions that they did not know they were fighting police officers. At least initially they thought there was a group of civilian men who made an aggressive U-turn and subsequently drove up as close as they could to a Picnic Day party crowd, after perhaps a verbal exchange.”
I think she makes an important point, that “clearly there is enough ambiguity reflected in the official actions of city of Davis officials that we can pause at what this incident has meant for our officers, our community and these defendants.”
The willingness for people in our community to write these young people off as “thugs” and “criminals” is unfortunate. I say that as someone who watched the video – I saw the police make a number of policy and tactical errors that I think contributed to the situation and I saw a group of young people responding to a dynamic and very rapidly unfolding situation in a way that probably would have been better considered to have been handled in another way.
But lost in the slow moving footage is how little time elapses from the arrival of the van to the end of the fight. It is very quick and no one has a chance to really deeply consider their actions.
As Jann Murray Garcia points out, “They have admitted they would have done things a different way.”
But then she adds, sadly and correctly, “I think the most important lesson they learned was this: Don’t come to Davis. Your future is in danger if you do.”
The initial reaction to this incident from a lot of people in this community was to ask why these outsiders or strangers were coming to Davis, as though their purpose was to cause trouble. The message that we have sent is that people of color, do not come to Davis. And that is a horrible message, but one I think a lot of students who come to UC Davis end up learning as well.
To me we need to change the structure of our criminal justice system. We need to change the way the police interact with citizens, especially those of color. And we need to find better ways to fix our mistakes once we’ve made them.
—David M. Greenwald reporting