In April, Fania Davis delivered the 2017 Bayard and John Cobb Peace Lecture, “Restorative Justice: A Justice that Heals.” Following are some excerpts of her address.
I was a closet yogi and a closet meditator for many years because when I was a Marxist, when I was working with the Black Panthers, when I was this militant fighter adopting a very combative stance, and even as a trial lawyer—meditation, yoga? It was seen as a sign of weakness. It was seen as a sign of adopting metaphysical ways of being present in the world, which were frowned upon by us Marxists who were dialectical materialists. But today this has shifted. So it’s a great time for me because I get to be who I am. I don’t have to be in the closet as a meditator and as a spiritualist any longer. I can be both a warrior and a meditator, a warrior and a healer.
Let me talk a little bit about my personal journey. I was born in Bombingham, Alabama. You may know it as Birmingham, but we experienced it as Bombingham because this was a place, the most segregated city in the South at the time, where the Civil Rights Movement was beginning to emerge, and the response of the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizens Council, and other regressive elements in the White community was terror, was to engage in racial terror by burning our homes, the homes of those who were active in the Civil Rights Movement, by bombing homes. And that’s how it got the name Bombingham, Alabama.
Many people know about the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, September 15, 1963, but this was one of many, many bombings. My neighborhood was Dynamite Hill. That’s where we lived in Bombingham. That’s part of my origin story. That’s part of who I am. It was called Dynamite Hill because we were one of the first Black families to move into a previously all White neighborhood and the response was bombing. We were fortunate. Bombs never struck our home, but they struck the homes of families all around us. We often were wakened in the wee hours of the morning by the terrifying sounds of bombs exploding. My father and other fathers in the neighborhood armed themselves to protect themselves. My sister remembers, I was too young, but she remembers there were times when my father heard noises and grabbed his gun and went downstairs to make sure that there were no Klanners lurking in the bushes and to protect his family.
I went to a church just a block or so from my home. We had some interracial meetings there. That church was burned because of those interracial meetings. Just across the street from the church was the home of attorney Arthur D. Shores, an amazing civil rights lawyer, who worked with Thurgood Marshall to bring down the system of segregation through litigation. His home was bombed twice. And when I was fifteen years old, two of my best friends, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, were killed at Sunday school in the Birmingham Sunday School bombing in September of 1963.
Those experiences coming out of the South, being active in the Civil Rights Movement, and directly experiencing the racial terrorism of the time, created this deep yearning inside of me to do all that I could do and be all that I could be to create a different kind of world. So I left the South and the Civil Rights Movement and joined many other movements. I joined the Black Nationalist Movement, I was active with the Black Panthers, I joined the Black Student Movement, I joined the Socialist Movement, the Women’s Movement, the Anti-Apartheid Movement, economic justice movements, and every major movement of my time, I was a part of. I was a warrior for justice.
Davis explained that she became a trial lawyer to combat the racism in the courts that she witnessed when her sister, Angela Davis, was charged with capital murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy. After thirty years as an activist and trial lawyer, she felt the need to restore balance by bringing more healing energy into her life.
I was intuitively and sort of synchronistically guided to the program at California Institute of Integral Studies, Recovery of Indigenous Mind. That allowed me to study with healers all over the world, mostly in Africa. After getting the PhD and returning from Africa, I came back and I learned about restorative justice. I learned about restorative justice from a District Attorney by the name of Ronnie Earle in Austin, Texas. He had been targeted multiple times for defeat in the elections, but was able to win because he had been able to reduce crime through restorative justice.
Learning about this justice that heals, instead of adding to the original harm—adding one harm or another harm to the original harm, it seeks to heal harm. Learning about this justice that seeks to create peace rather than deepen conflict. Learning about this justice that is a healing ground and not a battleground was an epiphany for me because for the first time, I felt I could be lawyer, warrior, and healer. I could be all of those things at once.
Davis then guided us through the basics of restorative justice, including how restorative justice differs from traditional retributive justice.
It’s important to understand that restorative justice is not solely a conflict resolution method, but it is a way of being present in the world. It’s a way of being. It’s a way of knowing based on indigenous principles and especially on the fundamental indigenous insight that we all participate in this luminous web of wholeness. It is rooted in the fundamental principle that understands reality to be comprised not of things and atoms that are disconnected but of relationships.
It is also a theory of justice and it is inclusive. It brings together everyone affected by wrongdoing, the person causing harm and the person harmed and the community that might be harmed, family members of the parties. Everyone comes together. It’s not just professionals in a courtroom in a very hierarchical setting. It is about shifting the locus of the justice process from systems and professionals to community and ordinary people. It’s a needs-based justice. We ask: What are the needs and responsibilities of the persons affected by harm? And it is about healing the harm, not adding to the harm. You could say that our system of justice is based on the Roman notion of just desserts: if I cause you harm, then that creates an imbalance in the scales of justice, and the only way to rebalance the scales is for me to be caused like harm. So you could say that ours is a system that harms people who harm people to show that harming people is wrong. And all that does is replicate and reproduce harm until harm saturates our very existence.
Another way to understand restorative justice is to do this exercise. What are the three questions that restorative justice asks and what are the three questions that retributive justice asks? Retributive justice asks what law was broken, who broke it, and what punishment is deserved. We’re very focused on blame and judgment. Restorative justice asks a different set of questions. … Who was harmed? … What are the needs and responsibilities of the persons affected by harm? … How do all impacted come together to address needs and responsibilities and to heal the harm as much as possible?
Fania Davis, PhD, is the co-founder and director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY) and a national thought leader in the field. The Los Angeles Times named Davis a “New Civil Rights Leader of the 21st Century.” Her honors include the Ubuntu Service to Humanity award, the Maloney award recognizing exceptional contributions in youth-based restorative justice, World Trust’s Healing Justice award, the Tikkun (Repair the World) Award, the Bioneer’s Changemaker Award, and the LaFarge Social Justice Award.