Transitional Justice in America: Sustaining the BLM Momentum

Transitional Justice in America: Sustaining the BLM Momentum

With former Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin’s trials well underway, we are reminded of a summer that, while marked by the global pandemic, was also defined by the ongoing fight for racial justice. Chauvin has been charged with the second and third degree murder of George Floyd, a 46 year-old Black man who died last May. A man whose death would become known all over the world and his name a cry for justice, Floyd was pinned under the Minneapolis police officer’s knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds while three officers, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao watched. 

These 8 minutes and 46 seconds became the rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter movement which swept across 75 American cities. The momentum also rippled into other countries which were demonstrating their solidarity but also standing up against racial injustice within their own borders. 

Police brutality, which is what killed George Floyd, speaks to the wider systemic racism plaguing the United states. The protests following his murder sought not only to seek justice for him, but also for a more just society for all Black people living in America. A historically lacklustre response to calls to address racism within the country bolstered protester demands for justice. Specifically, they called for the acknowledgement of racial violence, accountability for perpetrators, reparations for victims, the creation of memorials, and legal reforms.  

Systemic racism, in America, traces back to state-sponsored slavery. Slavery was used to fuel the country’s economy, therefore, racism is built into America’s foundation. Since then, institutions have continued to build on top of white supremacy. In more recent times, Black communities have experienced disparities through redlining, the systematic program aimed at pushing Black communities outside of designated ‘white neighbourhoods’, as well as discriminatory transportation infrastructure designed to limit the movement of poorer people into wealthier areas. Racism is enacted in countless ways: Redlining, workplace inequality, monuments of slave owners, the prison industrial complex, unconscious biases, and environmental racism are only the start of the list. With this cascade of injustice against Black individuals, there is a demand for America’s racist systems to simultaneously be held accountable and dismantled; this sense of justice was what Black Lives Matter protests were calling for this past summer.

Healing could be achieved through a transitional justice process. Transitional justice refers to “The ways countries emerging from periods of conflict and repression address large-scale or systematic human rights violations so numerous and so serious that the normal justice system will not be able to provide an adequate response.” This is carried out through several mechanisms including but not limited to, truth commissions, reparations, criminal trials, and tackling the systems which have led to the abuses themselves. Hence, transitional justice, directly responds to the demands that were made by the BLM movement this summer. 

Some may contend that transitional justice would not be appropriate within the American context because it is not experiencing a political transition. The process of transitional justice, however, does not necessarily have to be linked with transitions to democracy. For example, transitional justice took place in Canada, a consolidated democracy to respond to human rights abuses pertaining to Indigenous communities. Even American regions have previously engaged in truth seeking against racial injustice. In 2004, the community of Greensboro, North Carolina established truth commissions examining the 1979 ‘Greensboro massacre’. Further, the Maryland state legislature has developed a state-level commission to investigate racial terror lynchings which occurred between 1854 and 1933. These examples, demonstrate that while commissions can start with contemporary issues, they have the capacity to stretch back as far as slavery.

Transitional justice is necessary in America because it offers a “precise and clear-eye comprehension of what it is we are ending.” In order for these systems to be dismantled, time must be taken to first listen to truths and hold individuals accountable. Transitional justice approaches such as truth telling provide a platform for victims to be heard. As illustrated by key scholars in the field, Eduardo Gonzalez and Kelebogile Zvogbo, such commissions are necessary in raising public awareness, cultivating civil support, and sustaining momentum amongst leaders. In other words, it is a way to make sure that the momentum surrounding the BLM protests from the summer continue. Transitional justice offers a means to rectify the conditions which led to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others. 

In recent months, members of congress have put forth proposals for truth commissions to deal with legacies of racial violence against Black Americans and other people of colour. Specifically, Rep. Barbara Lee and Sen. Cory Booker, proposed a bill which would introduce a Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation to reckon with racial abuse and with the intention of generating change.

Such a suggestion by American politicians has been rare in the past, as transitional justice has historically been suggested to developing countries by the United States. In 2015, the American National Security Strategy claimed that “We will work with the international community to prevent and call to account those responsible for the worst human rights abuses.” However, American policy makers and state officials fail to look inwards to address the human rights abuses taking place within their own borders.

In contrast to the current world order, where ‘the West’ tends to impose their expertise on other countries, this scenario invites the opportunity for developing countries, which have experience with the transitional justice process, to advise the US on how to properly deal with their human rights abuses. For example, while paying attention to important contextual differences, South Africa’s 1995 Truth and Reconciliation Commission might provide pointers as to how a transitional justice might be pursued in the US.

While there is a demand for what transitional justice has to offer, Adam Kochanski, a Postdoctoral Fellow at McGill University’s Centre for International Peace and Security Studies, finds that a national strategy to combat racial injustice may be too ambitious. He states, “I just don’t think the country is ready for a truth commission.” In his eyes, American political divisions are too deep and would most likely inhibit the success of any truth commission.

The bill previously mentioned has not received republican support. Furthermore, within this, perpetrators could refuse to testify, preventing them from having the necessary participation to be successful. 

Further, a sweeping national narrative could overshadow local realities. Kochanski argues that more local approaches should be adopted to conduct this ‘groundwork.’

Hence, for a transitional justice approach to racial justice in the US to be successful, a capillary of localized approaches should be adopted rather than a centralized approach. The Greensboro case illustrates the significant change that local approaches can instigate, given that it resulted in police reform.

In the university context, the University of California, Berkley has launched a campus wide initiative which investigated social justice and racism. This has led to reforms of the campus police department and scholarships (reparations) for students of colour. These localized approaches are taking place right now and, if they continue to proliferate, could bolster a successful nationwide transitional justice plan.

In the summer of 2020, momentum surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement brought much of the public to experience a long overdue awakening to the vagaries of systemic racism in America. There were worries that the intensity behind the movement would soon subside and not turn into meaningful change.

However, while the US may not be ready for an ambitious national transitional justice approach, more local approaches offer a meaningful way to tackle racial injustice. Eventually, these local responses will run parallel to transitional justice taking place at the national level through possible forums such as a federal racial justice commission. The rallying cries of the summer of 2020 can be kept alive through transitional justice. 

Edited by Gabriela McGuinty. 

Photo credits: Woman Holds Up a Sign at the Black Lives Matter Protest in Washington, DC by Clay Banks, published on 06/06/2020, licensed under Unsplash. No changes were made.

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