By Sarah Lustbader
Last week, the family of a British teenager, Harry Dunn, who was killed in an August car crash in England, traveled to the White House to push President Trump to waive diplomatic immunity for the American woman who was driving the car that killed him. Anne Sacoolas, the wife of an American official, was driving on the wrong side of the road when she struck and killed Dunn, who was riding a motorcycle. Sacoolas initially engaged in the police investigation and promised not to leave the country, but soon claimed diplomatic immunity and fled back to the U.S.
Dunn’s parents met with Trump last week, but soon after they arrived, Trump surprised them by revealing that their son’s killer was waiting in the next room. He tried to convince them to talk to her, but the Dunn family refused. A family spokesperson said that photographers were waiting in the wings, which made the meeting feel like an attempted photo op. The parents described the encounter as an ambush. “We are extremely angry,” they said through the spokesperson, adding they also felt “taken advantage of.”
The couple had no idea Sacoolas would be in the building; they were stunned. They have said that they would want to meet with Sacoolas at some point, but not in a surprise meeting orchestrated for reporters. “If there’s going to be a meeting like that, it should not involve a surprise, a jack-in-the-box, pop-out-of-a-circus-tent meeting seven weeks after the loss,” said the spokesperson. “For this to happen, you would want some heavy-duty therapy and you want to meet in a neutral environment.”
In Trump’s television-warped worldview, he may have thought he was staging a “very special episode” of a reality show with a crossover guest. But in real life, it turns out that people whose children have been killed don’t necessarily want to be surprised by a meeting with their child’s killer. At best, it sounds like the worst possible attempt at restorative justice.
Restorative justice is “a set of ideas, ideologies, visions of the world that determine the ways in which we will interact with each other when harm occurs,” the activist, educator, and abolitionist Mariame Kaba told Chris Hayes on his podcast “Why Is This Happening.” “It means that people that were harmed are centered in terms of their harm being seen and valued and addressed. It means that bystanders are called to be part of encircling that person and it means that the person who has harmed is also called in to take accountability for what they’ve done.”
It’s a far cry from the adversarial system we have, Kaba explains, where harms occur and the state intervenes. In a restorative model, a community of people intervenes and asks a set of questions. Criminologist Howard Zehr popularized the concept of restorative justice in the U.S. in the 1970s, but the ideas came from indigenous peacemaking practices from the Americas, Africa, and Australia, places seeking communal ways to solve problems. The idea is that “harms engender needs and that those needs should be met,” says Kaba. “And the issue is, who’s going to meet the needs and how will people meet those needs?”
Kaba gives Hayes an example: Your cousin Bill has a substance use problem, often borrows or steals money from family, and you come home and find your TV set and entertainment system gone. You immediately suspect that Bill took it. What’s the first thing you do? “Call Bill probably,” says Hayes. Exactly, says Kaba. And if you can’t find Bill? You call his parents. Not the police. “So, in our lives, we are much more restorative about people we care about often than we are about strangers,” Kaba says. “That is by necessity in part because who would you call if it’s a stranger? You’re like how am I going to get my stuff back? I guess the cops will help.” But restorative justice creates some of the proximity necessary to make dialogue with that person possible.
In North Carolina, restorative justice was recently applied in a manner less absurd than the way Trump did it, but for many observers it was not far off. A white former North Carolina police officer pleaded guilty to “beating a Black pedestrian in a case that sparked outrage after graphic video of the violent 2017 encounter surfaced,” reports the Associated Press. Body camera footage showed Christopher Hickman, the ex-Asheville officer, hitting Johnnie Rush and putting him in a chokehold after officers accused Rush of jaywalking. Hickman was sentenced to a year of supervised probation.
Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams said that the plea deal was brokered after Hickman met with Rush through a mediated process they called restorative justice. The process, Williams said, was overseen by a legal scholar who specializes in mediation. Williams also noted that he first spoke to Rush and asked him “what justice could look like for him in this case.” Williams said it gave Rush an opportunity to sit down with Hickman and have his questions answered. “Mr. Hickman answered questions at length, took responsibility, and offered an apology,” the prosecutor said, adding that Rush said he was “more at peace” after meeting with Hickman. If Hickman complies with probation and doesn’t break the law for one year, his conviction will be expunged.
Rush was represented by well-known civil rights attorney James “Fergie” Ferguson, an Asheville native who led early desegregation efforts and opened North Carolina’s first integrated law firm. He praised Williams and the restorative justice initiative, saying it presented new “opportunities to move our justice system.”
It was the first known example of restorative justice in a case of police brutality in the U.S. But community leaders, including Black officials and residents, have characterized the sentence as another example of systemic bias. “Chris Hickman could have killed Johnnie Rush,” said DeLores Venable, the Asheville Black Lives Matter president and vice chairperson of the city’s Human Relations Commission. “I know people who have gotten jail time for misdemeanor marijuana charges. This man is getting the system to expunge his egregious beating of a Black man. This is why Black people do not trust police.”
According to the district attorney, Hickman told Rush: “I pretty much left you with no choice and I left myself with no choice on how I’m supposed to react and that’s not what I want to do for either one of us, but that’s on me that’s what I did and that’s stuff I should have done better and I’m sorry about that and I’m sorry that that situation happened and I’m sorry that the mistakes that I made made it get to that point.” Rush, who agreed to the process, was asked after the hearing if he forgave Hickman. He shook his head no and offered no other comment.
Jon Powell, the scholar who helped guide the restorative justice arrangement, said forgiveness doesn’t have to happen for the process to succeed. Most important, he said, was allowing victims to question perpetrators and recognizing the harm done to them.
The prosecution did not, at first, seem focused on righting the wrongs done to Rush. The incident took place in August 2017, but Hickman was not arrested until March 8, 2018, a week after body camera video was finally leaked to the press. Many suspect another motive behind Hickman’s seemingly progressive plea arrangement. If the case had proceeded to trial, a judge may have moved the case to a county where where there had been less publicity, which could have meant a more rural county with different attitudes about policing, attitudes that would have made a conviction much less likely. The prosecutor, then, may have offered the “restorative justice” deal as a way to secure any conviction at all.
It seems not too much of a leap to assume that this sentence would not meet Kaba’s standard for restorative justice, which prioritizes accountability and making victims whole above such concerns as, for example, securing a conviction.