Restorative Justice In Times of Social Distance

By Kerri Hughes

Featured Image by Angi Vita – Model: Kuan Young

Before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down bars and clubs, I was deeply involved in nightlife activism with the group 24HrPHL, where I and other activists practiced restorative justice. This organization focuses on creating a progressive nightlife, including fair wages, zoning policies, and safer space. A few of us in the group specifically focused on making safer spaces. Safer spaces is the concept of creating best practices to ensure that people feel comfortable and free from harassment. No space can ever be completely safe, which is why we use the term “safer”. This included doing venue consultations, community meetings, and attending workshops. We attended many workshops that included education on restorative justice with Emma K., a nightlife educator and activist who works at House of Yes, a popular club in New York City. 

The concept of restorative justice may be a relatively new term for some. Restorative justice is the act of rehabilitating an offender to learn from mistakes they have made, and to eventually reconcile with the person they have harmed and the community at large. Restorative justice is meant to serve long-term problems through education and understanding. It’s a conflict resolution practice used a lot in the nightlife scene, but also translates to other areas, including online interactions. In a society where there is so much division among our own fellow people, restorative justice may seem like an improbable goal at times. However, it is not impossible.

Here’s an example of what restorative justice can look like in nightlife: Let’s say someone put their hands on a woman without the woman’s consent at an event you’re running. You may choose to tell that person to leave (and with good reason!). But,you would also explain to them why they are being asked to leave and offer them resources to learn why that behavior is harmful. This gives them an opportunity to learn from the experience and the possibility to once again be welcome at the event at some point in the future. It’s a type of justice that requires a lot of emotional work, like managing one’s own feelings and restoring relationships with the end goal of eliminating repeat offenses and giving the person who has done harm, a chance to grow and do better.

What can restorative justice look like during this pandemic? We aren’t having as many social interactions, yet we still hear many stories of violence. For instance, the security guard who asked a customer to wear a mask and in return was shot in Flint, Michigan. We also see so much misinformation online, and people disagreeing and attacking one another. In nightlife spaces, this means addressing racist misinformation, gendered violence, and harm reduction. How can we translate restorative justice now in a time where it’s even more important? 

Something that comes to mind is the idea of truly listening to one another, and taking a moment to breathe before reacting (especially online). Some things are lost in communication on social media. For starters, we don’t see body language and we don’t hear voice tone. For example, you may disagree with another person who touts the latest conspiracy theory. It’s perfectly fine if we don’t all agree. How are you going to choose to make your point to the person you disagree with? Attacking them or calling them names only further pushes people away from one another and divides us more. If someone is getting more tense in their online interactions, it’s ok to step away from the conversation and choose if you want to come back to it. Sometimes it can be worthwhile to privately message a person, ask if they have the mental space, and have a conversation without other opinions getting involved. To practice restorative justice it’s important to be confident in what you know, but remain flexible to the fact that nobody can know everything, and that we can learn from one other.

Now, I am not suggesting this is an easy fix, and restorative justice doesn’t mean everyone should do or is equipped to do this kind of emotional labor. As a community though, it is important to work to lift each other up through learning and accountability. It’s true as well that some people are so set in their ways that change can seem nearly impossible. But, it’s important to remember that many people are coming from places of fear and a lack of education when they express their harmful opinions. It is possible to create a world where everyone is given the space and chance to grow and do better, if they choose to do so. It’s up to us as a community to do the work as a collective to provide them with that chance. Anger is a valid reaction to hateful actions, but compassion is key to making real changes to a peaceful world.

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