A Call For Peace Through Transformative Justice
Once again, our city has been gripped by violence. Last week, we lost a precious, priceless, image-of-God bearing young person to gun violence: William Chavis Raynard Miller, Jr.
The reality that this act of violence took place on the school grounds of Mt.Tabor High School makes it all the more painful and communally traumatic. We want to imagine schools as “safe spaces” and portals to flourishing futures, not danger zones and sites of death. Yet, here we are, forced to grapple with not only this tragic incident, but the underlying conditions that made it possible.
First and foremost, as sibling organizations, Lit City Youth Development and the Drum Majors Alliance want to extend our deepest condolences to family and friends of “Will,” as he was affectionately known. His light was taken from them much too soon. We have not ceased to pray for his loved ones, the Mt. Tabor student body and staff, and parents traumatized by this tragedy. And yes, we are praying for the alleged shooter and his loved ones as well. Yet, we dare not stop at prayer alone. To borrow from the words of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, “[we] take prayer too seriously to use it as an excuse to avoid work and responsibility.”
Since 2011, Lit City has had the honor of working with Black and Brown teens in the city of Winston-Salem through leadership development programs on the campuses of schools (Mt. Tabor being one), mentoring and advocacy work, sports and fitness, and the arts. We approach our work with the fundamental assumption that Black and Brown youth are not problems to be solved, but treasures to behold, with destinies that a loving and just village helps to unfold. Yet, these destinies are placed in jeopardy by living legacies of racial and economic injustice and isolation. When villages are systematically targeted and destabilized, gangs and other poisonous elements organically form in response. Our belief in the fundamental dignity and promise of our young folks, linked to our analysis of their material conditions, has led Lit City and the Drum Majors Alliance to embrace a “transformative justice” approach to violence.
Transformative justice calls us to center the work of healing the harmed, while being sensitive to the reality that harmers are generally those who have experienced deep harm themselves. Such was the case in this most recent incident. The student who allegedly committed the act of gun violence had recently been a victim of gun violence, as well as harassment. All the research around violence shows that victims of trauma who are not cared for properly, are more susceptible to traumatizing others. To be clear, this is not about excusing inexcusable behavior or abdicating responsibility. It is about understanding context and expanding who we hold responsible! Context always matters in peacemaking work, and to varying degrees, we are all responsible. As poet Gwendolyn Brooks put it, “we are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business.” Transformative justice is an approach that calls us away from the “individualization” of violence. We will not overcome peer-on-peer aggression in our communities by zeroing in on, disappearing, and demonizing individual youth and adults. We must address the larger conditions and structures. We must come to see that the kind of society and systems that produce these outcomes is the problem. Transformative justice calls us to ask deeper, and more layered questions. In asking deep and layered questions, we are equipped to make deep and multi-layered interventions. This means that we cannot pit the personal against the political or the societal against the familial in our work. Like the Gospel of Jesus, a transformative justice approach is deeply personal, profoundly communal, and unrelentingly political in its scope. It calls us to wed relational efforts like mentoring programs for vulnerable youth, with structural efforts to eradicate the injustices that create their vulnerabilities.
One of the most important aspects of transformative justice is that it calls us away from our dependence on systems that “at best” are response-based, and at worse, germinate and exacerbate the very issues we seek to overcome. It helps us avoid the pitfall of thinking that police, prisons, surveillance, and detention centers are how we get free and create peace. In the wake of this tragedy, we have seen key players in our city’s power structure engage in what we might call “disaster carceralism.” The word “carceral” refers to systems of punishment and captivity like policing, prisons, monitoring, detention centers, etc. Similar to “disaster capitalism”, disaster carceralism is an attempt to seize a moment of tragedy to further the economic drain, strengthen the systemic grip, and boost the public approval of “solving” issues of violence with law enforcement. As calls are being made for more SROs, more cops, so-called “zero tolerance policies”, and metal detectors in schools, it is important that we don’t repeat the mistakes that some within the Black community made during the carnage of the 90s “crack era.” It is well documented that anti-Black politicians committed to anything but the well-being of Black communities, called for and created “get tough” policies that created mass incarceration during that era. The often overlooked reality of that moment is that some well-meaning Black folks who genuinely wanted safety, echoed and championed these calls to their community’s own peril. As a result they were complicit in causing more devastation and criminalization, not restoration. Let us not make that mistake in this moment. We need radical (root-cause) solutions, not carceral ones.
The carceral state has mastered the art of (re)legitimizing itself in the wake of tragedies, but study it closely and you’ll see that carcerality helped create the climate of peer-on-peer aggression in our communities. Leaning on its structures and employing its logics will not get us free, nor will it heal us. More police, more SROs, more cages, more surveillance, more punishment, more metal detectors, more “reforms” will not save us. We the people must create, sustain, and expand community-controlled systems of care, safety, accountability, healing, and transformative justice. To that end, we call on three key sectors of our city to meet this moment with wisdom and compassion:
- As organizations rooted in the Way of Jesus, Lit City and the Drum Majors Alliance have an intrafaith responsibility to call on the Body of Christ and churches in Winston-Salem to move beyond thoughts and prayers, and towards sustained, compassionate, inclusive, and holistic efforts of peacemaking. Loving our neighbors as we love ourselves demands that we open up our hearts, ears, minds, buildings, and budgets for this important work!
- Secondly, we call on the Winston-Salem Forsyth County School System to dismantle, not strengthen the school-to-prison nexus. Invest in more counselors and trauma-informed therapists, not cops. Create on-ramps for skilled youth workers to be on campus, not metal detectors. Employ anti-racist restorative approaches to displine issues, not punitive anti-Black ones. Center Black and Brown student’s futures, not white fears. Thoroughly investigate multiple reports of Tabor students being mistreated by law enforcement during last Monday’s ordeal. There is video evidence of one Black student being slammed to the ground and handcuffed by a sheriff during the lockdown. Now is not the time to engage in suppression or repression. It is time to uncover and progress towards transformative justice.
- We call on the city‘s power structure to “let justice roll down like an everlasting stream!” Embrace what Martin Luther King Jr. called “a revolution of values.” This revolution demands an end to the unjust distribution of resources in the city of Winston-Salem. We can no longer accept bread crumbs for the most oppressed communities. Instead, it is time to reorder city and county budgets to meet the pressing needs of housing, community-controlled violence interruption programs, community-controlled youth development work, mental health resources, and much more.
We close this statement with a word to the broader village:
None of the above named institutions will move towards justice minus our agitation, organization, and determination. We who believe that our own flourishing and futures are bound up with the flourishing and futures of our most vulnerable young folks cannot rest til this city “embraces the things that make for peace.”
Lit City Youth Development
Drum Majors Alliance
Contact phone #: 336-750-6266