Today, the same day that Dane County’s District Attorney failed to indict Officer Matt Kenny in the shooting death of Tony Terrell Robinson, I came across a face from my past, posted on Facebook. He hasn’t changed.
“I’m sure he’s a nice guy, overall,” I said to myself. “He was just too young to know better.”
“And I didn’t say no very loudly,” I said to myself. “I probably wasn’t forceful enough. It would have been easy not to hear me.”
“He was too drunk to know what he was doing, or hear what I was saying,” I said to myself. “He was—wait, what?!”
I’m one of the most pro-woman, pro-femme and pro-feminist people I know. And I had just repeated how many all-too-familiar, all-too-common excuses. And I’ve been repeating those lines to myself for almost twenty five years.
I never realized until today that the scripts I’ve called out as bullshit so many times were scripts I had internalized myself in my own history.
I curled up on the bed and sobbed for an hour as I never did when I was eighteen, not one iota less humiliated, confused, guilty-feeling than I was then, but finally allowing myself to give expression to those feelings and admit what happened to me.
I was in a situation one night that felt pressured, threatening, unsafe, and unwinnable. The next day he smiled at me. So did his friend.
That guy was not a bad guy, you know? That’s why I didn’t realize what had just happened to me.
I hear Officer Matt Kenny is a nice guy too. Our justice models fail us by focusing on individuals rather than systems. I’m no criminal justice expert. But today it was brought home to me, twice over, that something isn’t working here. How do we define justice, when (in the words of Walt Kelly’s Pogo) We have met the enemy, and he is us?
(This famous quote was originally used for Earth Day. Although it’s not within the scope of my small reflection here, I think a compelling case could be made that moving to a restorative justice model could revolutionize environmental movements as well.)
It’s hopelessly complicated. It’s hopelessly tangled and ambiguous. I rely on voices from the Young Gifted and Black Coaltion and Justified Anger to help me learn. Some other day I’ll figure how all this fits with environmentalism and spirituality and whatever this thing called Paganism is…but I feel pretty strongly this: the voices and stories in any situation need to be heard—and heard by all of us. Safe space needs to be created for speaking truth and deep listening on all sides. And stories, witnessing, need to be a bigger part of the justice equation. What if we focused on healing the harm on every side, rather than punishing (or failing to punish) the perpetrators of violence? By focusing on individuals, we too easily and often miss the larger, deeply entrenched and internalized systemic injustices which form and inform us, day in and out.