What Does Justice Mean Besides Police and Prison?

A poster saying "I am renisha mcbride and my life matters."

It's been over a week since 19-year-old Renisha McBride was shot and killed.

For those of you who missed the news, Renisha McBride was a recent high school graduate whose car broke down in Dearborn Heights, a predominantly white suburb of Detroit. McBride knocked on the door of a house to ask for help. The man who answered the door shot her in the face.

I guess this is where I should mention that Renisha McBride was black. The man who shot her is white. As of this week, no arrest has been made. Michigan prosecutors are still considering whether to charge the homeowner in McBride's death. The lack of police action has led McBride's family to hire a private investigator.  

As others have pointed out in the days that followed, McBride's killing is the latest in a long history of murdered black women whose lives have been devalued. From the lack of police action, hers is also the latest in a long line of murders not taken seriously by the police and the legal system.

This is not, of course, a new problem. In 1979, a series of brutal murders occurred in Boston’s primarily Black Roxbury and Dorchester neighborhoods. Each of the victims was a black  woman. Police remained indifferent. In contrast, during that same time period, police reacted swiftly to a number of rapes in a predominantly White neighborhood.

But it's not like looking to the police for justice is always a good option—in many communities, the police themselves have been instigators of violence or subject to corruption, leaving a legacy where many people are not able to trust that the police will actually work to help them get justice. The racial and economic bias of the legal system make the institution unreliable for many people, as well. On Wednesday, we got yet another reminder of how the legal system views black women. At a bond hearing for Marissa Alexander, whose conviction was recently overturned, a judge made no decision about her request for bail, instead setting another status hearing for January 15, 2014. Marissa Alexander, who was prosecuted fired a warning shot at her abusive husband, will remain behind bars, away from her three children.

Unnamed Dearborn homeowner, on the other hand, continues to live at home.

McBride's family—as well as outraged people nationwide—have been calling for justice. Color of Change started a petition demanding the police take up the case. Justice and accountability are equated with arrest and prosecution. But what else could justice look like? In a world where the options presented are limited to arrest, prosecution and imprisonment or absolutely nothing, what can we do to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe?

Looking to the response of the community after the 1979 Boston murders helps offer some ideas. Following the second murder of a Black woman, residents of the neglected neighborhoods organized the Dorchester Green Light Program. The program provided identifiable safe houses for women who were threatened or assaulted on the streets. Program coordinators, who lived in Dorchester, visited and spoke at community groups and gatherings in their areas. Residents interested in opening their homes as safe houses filled out applications, which included references and descriptions of the house living situation. The program screened residents and checked references. Residents attended orientation sessions, which included self-defense instruction. They were then given a green light bulb for their porch light. When someone was at home, the green light was turned on as a signal to anyone in trouble. Within eight months, over 100 safe houses had been established.

In 2000, the police murders of two young women of color sparked a dialogue about violence against women among members of Sista II Sista, a collective of women of color in Brooklyn, New York. The group’s work to empower young women of color to identify and work towards solving their own problems led them to form Sistas Liberated Ground, a zone in their neighborhood where crimes against women would not be tolerated. Sista II Sista instituted an “action line,” which women could call, inform the group about violence in their lives, and explore the options that they—and the group—could take to change the situation. In addition, Sista II Sista established Sister Circles which provided space for women to talk about the violence and other problems in their daily lives but encouraged the community—rather than the individual woman—to find solutions.

While these models doubtlessly made a difference to the women in those communities, neither would have saved Renisha McBride's life that morning.

Some locales have started utilizing restorative justice models in cases that involve harm. Common Justice in New York City, for example, works with youth charged with assault, robbery and burglary. It also works with the people whom they've harmed to address their needs and to participate in determining the outcomes. San Francisco's Sheriff's Department also employs a restorative justice process through its Resolve to Stop the Violence Project. Neither has worked with a person who has killed another person (yet).

As I've said before, there is no easy alternative to the police and prison system, especially in a senseless death like Renisha McBride's. But relying on these institutions doesn't solve the issues underlying McBride's killing. Arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning the man who killed her will not bring her back. It will not stop the prevalent fear of black people. It doesn't change the ways we talk (or don't talk) about racism in this country. It won't stop the next gun owner from shooting an unarmed black person. It doesn't make our loved ones safer from racist violence.

Renisha McBride's family deserves healing. They deserve justice. What they really deserve is not to have had their loved one killed. What justice might look like in a world without prisons is hard to imagine, let alone put into practice.

Poster of Renisha McBride designed by Robert Trujillo and Dignidad Rebelde.


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