“If one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected-those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most-and listens to their testimony.”
James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket
I’ve always been a sucker for a movie in which the main character is on a quest for justice. That’s what I told myself, anyway.
Give me a Liam Neeson going after the guy who took his daughter or a Count of Monte Christo dramatically settling scores, and I’m pleased as punch. When the line of police cars is tearing up the road to Shawshank Prison and you know the evil warden is going down? Forget about it. I’m all about making sure the moral tally sheet is balanced as the credits roll.
There was so much pain, so much harm in my life and in the world around me, and I wanted wrong things made right. I wanted there to be consequences. I wanted bad guys to pay. The problem with that is what I was really seeking was vengeance.
We talk a lot about our justice system in this country. It is huge- almost 114K employees, with a budget of over $31 billion dollars. It also has exactly nothing to do with justice.
What we have is a Retribution Department. A Punishment Department.
Please hear me when I say this, I am not saying that crimes don’t deserve punishment. It may be the best bad option when someone is grievously harmed. Make no mistake, though, no matter how swiftly the verdict is reached, no matter how severe a sentence is imposed, justice is never served. The scales will never feel balanced because justice is not the answer to injustice, it is the absence of it.
The scales will never feel balanced
because justice is not the answer to injustice,
it is the absence of it.
When my cousin Mary and I wrote our story for Boston Magazine, the first title that got assigned to the article was, How to get revenge on a dead man.
I recoiled and shrieked a little when I read it. I had a visceral reaction to the word revenge because that is not what we were seeking. It is not revenge to go to the police when harm has been done to you. We asked that the title be NOT THAT and they changed it. Eventually, it was entitled, How to get justice from a dead man. That is infinitely better and still not quite right.
We got no justice. Traditional justice, as is meted out by the penal system, was never going to be an option anyway because our perpetrator was long deceased. If he was still alive should he have gone to prison? Yes. Yes, he should have. I sorely wish he’d been reported and prosecuted back when he was abusing us because other victims would have been spared their trauma. That didn’t happen. Other girls were harmed and suffered injustice because he escaped punishment. That is sometimes harder to live with than my own trauma.
When we walked into that police station that cold January morning we were not seeking vengeance. I’m not sure we were even seeking justice. Our untold story was screaming inside us. It had made itself known in a myriad of toxic and harmful ways and we were desperately tired of dragging it around. We were looking for a place to lay that dark and heavy thing down. We needed to tell our story. We needed a witness. We needed an opportunity to say, “LOOK. This terrible thing happened.”
My version of finding some measure of peace is using the knowledge I have as a survivor to try and prevent other kids from being sexually abused. I can raise awareness, talk to parents about prevention and what to do if their kids do disclose abuse. I find freedom in telling my story and helping other survivors tell theirs. My healing is largely born of using my experience to help others to heal. I am grateful for that peace and healing. I am thankful for that freedom.
Justice would have been not having that experience and knowledge in the first place. I would have preferred not to have that story to tell.
Justice is what should have happened, not the solution to what did.
When I was at Wild Goose this summer I heard Reverend Otis Moss III speak. He talked about how our purpose on this earth is to make way for the next person. To make a path, open a door, create space for the person coming up behind us.
Some crimes demand punishment. They do. It is the best way (so far) that our society has come up with to underscore the fact that behavior is unacceptable and dangerous. Sometimes individuals are so dangerous that society requires protection from them. Period.
I think we get so invested in punishment as justice. And if and when we do get it, we wonder why it doesn’t lessen our pain, why we’re still bitter, why it feels empty.
How many times have we heard families of victims say they thought they’d feel better when the perpetrator went to jail, but it was hollow? That it wasn’t enough, somehow?
Of course, it’s not enough. Because we’re left with just us and our pain. No justice. The harm is still there. The trauma is still untreated. Healing from trauma – whether it be our own or that of someone we love – is work. HARD work. Long term work. Healing cannot be handed down in the form of a sentence. It just does not work that way.
Retribution is not our work. Vengeance is not our work.
So, if those of us who have been abused, harmed, violated – by a person, an institution, or society at large – do seek justice it will not be for ourselves. The injustice we suffered is a fact and facts are not negotiable. It already happened. There is simply no unringing those terrible bells.
We can raise awareness, we can educate, we can advocate, we can fight, and we can resist – because if we do that sacred work we can ensure the next child, next woman, next person of color, next LGBTQ kid, next prisoner, next refugee, next whoever, does not experience that same thing.
If we want justice we go to those who have suffered injustice and ask what happened and what should have happened, then we work to make that happen for the next person. We look at and acknowledge who we are and who we have been. We do our individual work, and then we do our familial work, our institutional work, our societal work – then and only then – will things change.
Just us, then justice.