Searching for Justice in Durham
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The piece below was written by a comrade in Durham, North Carolina, and published in the November 1st edition of the Herald Sun. It challenges us to consider how we will deal with internal contradictions, harm and violence—whether in neighborhoods of color that can't trust or depend on the police, or at occupations struggling to confront fights, harrassment, and sexual assault in semi-autonomous encampments.

 

Justice

Last month my home was robbed. My kids — a 12-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter — were home alone when three young men kicked in our back door. They ordered my kids into one of the bedrooms, and then, later, face down onto our kitchen floor. These orders were backed by at least two guns aimed at my kids. The young men threatened to kill them, took a few items, made my kids count to 100 in the bathroom, and fled.

The items had some monetary worth, but the most valuable thing stolen that day was my children’s sense of home and safety. Right now, they would rather be anywhere but home. My son literally jumps at every noise he hears and has spent every night since trying to sleep on the floor in our bedroom.

If what you are expecting now is a father demanding justice, you are correct. But it is probably not the kind of justice you might be imagining.

What happened to us wasn’t particularly special. Robberies are fairly common in Durham, and even armed home invasions are not unheard of. I am sharing my family’s story to fight the limiting idea that we are supposed to deal with this as individuals or family units only. Justice is not just for individuals; it is for communities. The report of last weekend’s drive-by shooting on Driver Street (about a mile from my house) which left two young children and a man injured points to this ever more sharply.

My partner and I knew that any sense of safety we had was always illusory, even if we didn’t always admit it. How can people ever be safe in a society that is built upon exploitation and inequality? The three young men who robbed our home left with nothing, really — at least nothing that might liberate them — but, still, their take might have netted them close to $300 each, if the items were sold, if they split the money equally, and if they weren’t working for someone else. This, in ten minutes of “work” (it was nothing if not bold). That is exponentially more — converted to an hourly rate, 112 times more — than a working stiff like myself has ever made at even my highest-paying job. Now, compare that to what Kobe Bryant makes while taking a ten-minute shower.

And Kobe is a working stiff compared to say, the Lakers owner, or Bill Gates, or Warren Buffett. That’s income distribution in the global economy, and the so-called economic crisis is only making that squeeze worse.

As I see it, two kinds of justice prevail: street justice and the so-called criminal justice system of police, courts, and incarceration. So, what kind of justice do I — an outraged and saddened father — want? I heard this same question in reports I read about the community meeting of residents on Driver Street. Well, street justice is tempting. Don’t think that I haven’t thought about trying to track down these guys and beating them to a pulp for what they did to my kids. What they did was inexcusable. It was anti-social. But I know this form of justice does nothing to make anyone safer or build anything resembling a strong community.

The other option, though, is at least as bad as street justice and in my opinion worse, because it doesn’t build a strong community, either. I have no interest in the Durham Police Department hunting down these three young men, and no desire for them to spend some time in Durham County Jail awaiting trial, then make some kind of plea, and either spend some time in prison or not. Such ”justice” will have nothing to do with me or my kids. It will not make us feel safer, and it certainly won’t do anything to change the economic and social conditions that make armed robbery a tempting choice for some. I heard some of these same sentiments in reports from the community meeting in the Driver St. neighborhood. The police do not make us safe. And in some neighborhoods, they make folks less safe.

I make no excuses for those whose "stray bullets" injured the children and man on Driver Street or for the men who broke into our home — every time my son jumps at the sound of wind blowing, my anger at them is renewed — but generally speaking, the prospects for young African-American men in a city filled with racial injustice are not very good. The fact is, the criminal justice system won’t give us justice, and it won’t give them justice, either. It won’t build a strong community for my kids or these kids.

We need alternatives to this insane system of locking people up. The jails and prisons are teeming with people whose major crime to society is the fact that they are poor and black and have few prospects. Ultimately, it is the social and economic conditions that lead people to commit home invasions that must be transformed.

Until that day arrives, we must come up with creative alternatives to street justice and criminal justice. Perhaps a form of street justice that relies on networks of people to expose the perpertrators and hold them accountable in a people’s court of justice. My daughter says she would like to sit down with the young man — not much older than she is — who stayed with her and her brother while the others combed our crib, and talk with him about things. Alongside such an idea, the present “justice” system just seems hollow. The cops who "investigated" our home invasion have had nothing to offer us, just like they had nothing to offer the residents on Driver Street.

Amidst a rash of break-ins, some people from the neighborhood association for the neighborhood I live in — the self-appointed, pseudo-elected community leaders — are apparently hoping to revive the Citizens on Patrol (or C.O.P.S.) program, with the blessing of the police. This is not the alternative I seek. This program will effectively turn every pedestrian, and especially every young person of color, into a suspicious person, even if they live around here. This is in fact how many in the neighborhood association already use their email list serve. Try as they might to defend it and call it community-based, and neighbors watching out for neighbors, that’s not what C.O.P.S. is. If it were — with all neighbors truly looking out for all neighbors — I might support it, if it didn’t include the police. But it’s folks — and let’s be real, overwhelmingly white folks — with a stake in the system and the basic outline of how things are who are watching each other’s backs, with the cops on speed dial.

My sorrow and my rage for what my kids went through are real. But I recognize that this is no more valid than the sorrow or rage of a parent who cannot find a job or cannot provide adequate food or housing for their children, or cannot prevent his or her child turning to a life of hustling because there are so few other options.

Every day comes more news suggesting that this economic crisis is going to last a long time. In recent months, we have witnessed people from Tunis to Cairo to Madison to Wall Street to Durham very visibly struggling for a better future. I want justice, yes. I want my children to like being at home, and to be able to go to sleep. I want them to be the independent, confident kids they were well on their way to becoming. But I also want that for the three perpetrators. In other words, I want justice for my family, but I want justice for this entire community — racial and economic justice — just as much. So that every child and adult can go to sleep.

 

Steve Lorenz lives in Durham. You can reach him at stevelorenz919 [at] gmail.com.