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Posts Tagged ‘restorative justice’

A new colleague at work recommended The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater to the One Book, One Manchester committee.  I read it over a few nights before bed and the only problem I have with it is I got less sleep — rather than drifting off after a few paragraphs or even a few pages, I kept reading, wanting to know what happened.

Otherwise, I loved this book. It’s the story of Sasha and Richard, two teens in Oakland California. Richard, an African American young man, is a student at Oakland High. Sasha is a white agender senior at Maybeck, a small private school. As Slater notes, “Each afternoon the two teenagers’ journeys overlap for a mere eight minutes. If it hadn’t been for the 57 bus, their paths might never have crossed at all.”

In a moment that changes both of their lives forever on November 4, 2013, while Sasha is sleeping on the bus, Richard, who has been goofing around with some friends, lights the edge of Sasha’s skirt on fire. This book tells their stories before that moment, and after. It’s an incredible story both because Sasha and Richard are not unique — there are teens like each of them all over this country. And because Sasha and Richard — and teens like them all over this country — are unique.

Slater explodes the idea that there is equal justice under the law, which frankly is an idea that had already imploded on its own. But she also portrays people in the criminal justice system fairly, neither demonizing or lionizing them. And she also manages to make both Sasha’s middle class, educated, liberal parents and Richard’s working class single mom fully human rather than stereotyped representations of their types. The opportunities denied Richard and provided to Sasha are spooled out naturally, as part of their stories. Slater does not club readers over the head with the truth.

But she does make clear that despite Sasha’s suffering, they were ultimately ok. And that despite Richard’s imprisonment, he was also ok. And she celebrates the generosity, compassion, and kindness that Richard’s mother and Sasha’s parents exhibited towards each other and towards their children. You’ll learn about what Sasha and their friends think about being nonbinary, what Richard thinks about being a young black man in Oakland, how they each tried to get what they needed at their schools. And you’ll learn about the media’s influence on a crime’s narrative, and how that impacts what the offender, victim, and their friends and families experience. And about restorative justice, an alternative to criminal proceedings that is about addressing the harm done and how to repair it.

I think this is a beautiful book. It’s honest, thoughtful, and ultimately hopeful. Slater did a great deal of research and spoke at length with all the people she writes about. I thought it was a terrific read, and would make for good discussions.  In an interesting twist, Slater’s charge to readers comes at the end of the very first brief chapter, rather than at the end, and it has stayed with me: “Surely it’s not too late to stop things from going wrong. There must be some way to wake Sasha. Divert Richard. Get the driver to stop the bus. There must be something you can do.”

Of course she doesn’t mean me, or you. She means us. There must be something we can do.

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When I was looking for nonfiction for a summer reading display at work last month, The Forgiveness Project caught my eye. The subtitle, Stories for a Vengeful Age, seemed very timely in a summer of violent act after violent act being beamed to us constantly. I read it this weekend and it is terrific.

Cantacuzino includes forewords by Desmond Tutu (longtime bookconscious readers know I am a fan of this prophet of our times), and Alexander McCall Smith, whose work I also admire. Tutu writes, “To forgive is not just to be altruistic; in my view it is the best form of self-interest. The process of forgiving does not exclude hatred and anger. These emotions are all part of being human. When I talk of forgiveness I mean the ability to let go of the right to revenge and to slip the chains of rage that bind you to the person who harmed you.”

McCall Smith notes that his interest in forgiveness came about from his work in criminal law, and later as he wrote novels featuring Precious Ramotswe, a lady detective in Botswana who would “often forgive those whose misdeeds she had unmasked.” He was surprised that readers did not seem to mind this, despite the fact that it was an unconventional approach to crime writing.

Cantacuzino explains in her introduction that she felt a need to make sense of the world in 2003, as Britain marched towards war in Iraq despite massive protests. Within a short time she saw a photo of an Iraqi boy shell shocked by the war (much like the photos we see now of Syrian children) and a man on television embrace and forgive the doctor whose mistake had killed his small daughter. It hit her, as a journalist, that people trying to deal with the former might really need stories like that of the former, of people who were overcoming pain and suffering by letting it go. She used her skills as a journalist to get to work gathering such stories.

When she was through she named her collection “The F Word,” because she found “forgiveness seemed to inspire and affront in equal measure.” She created an exhibit and showed it at a gallery in London. It was so successful it led to Cantacuzino’s nonprofit, The Forgiveness Project, and this book.

Each short chapter is someone’s first person story. Some were perpetrators of violence and hatred, some were victims. All had experienced the transformation brought on by forgiveness, whether granted informally, person to person, or through a reconciliation or restorative justice program. I was delighted to see stories from members of Combatants for Peace; I wrote in March 2009 about having gone to see two members of this group speak here in Concord. One of the men I heard speak, Bassam Aramin, is featured in The Forgiveness Project. 

A man named Oshea Israel who was only 16 when he committed murder says “I have learnt that if you hold on to pain it grows and grows, but if you forgive you start to starve that pain and it dies. Forgiveness is pretty much saying I give up holding on to that pain. Hurt people usually haven’t forgiven and have so much pain they end up causing even greater pain.”

I’ll let you sit with that a moment.

I’m not sure what is most striking about this book. That there are so many people who are willing to undergo the process of trying to forgive, or that we almost never hear about it? That there are so many people who recognize that children are not born murderers or white supremacists or  suicide bombers and that we therefore must learn what damaged them, or that damage of that nature continues to occur?

I think what’s really gripping is that there is no right answer anywhere here — Cantacuzino makes it clear that forgiveness isn’t neat or simple. The only universal is that it seems to radically change the people involved. I highly recommend this book, but I would advise you not take it all in at once like I did. Keep it around and dip into it. Discuss it with people you love, people you don’t know well, people you don’t get along with.

 

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