Friday, September 4, 2009

Restorative Justice

"Restorative Justice is a philosophy that seeks to bring together all of the stakeholders (victim, offender, and community) to work together to address the harms and needs of those affected by a harm. Restorative Justice also seeks to engage the community in the process and to give a voice to the victim."

There is a block club here on this block. I am the president of the club, the 2nd. We are part of a greater network of block clubs called The Block Club Federation. The people in our house moved in five years ago, the following spring our neighbor Maria, the former block president, approached us to organize the block club. It happened, Dave became the 1st president and we began working on creating block clean-ups, consistent meetings, tree plantings, an annual block party, a tutoring center, a mural, speed bumps, new sidewalks and curbs, Halloween and Christmas Parties, backyard movies, Ladies Time Out, barbeque's, football and basketball leagues. We've organized for new streets, against prostitutes and johns leaving their used condoms in our grass, heroin users carelessly leaving their used needles in our childrens' play areas, we've fought for greater police presence, and have built partnerships with the alderman and other organizations to create a better community. It has come rather fluid and organically and without pomp and circumstance. We're just a bunch of neighbors that have coalesced as friends under a greater purpose, of creating a safe place to live for our kids and provide a forum for people to express whatever they want about improving our community and building on the assets we already have here.

It all sounds great but it has at times been tedious, depressing, slow, discouraging, confusing, seemingly worthless. Really we're part of something bigger than us individually, but individualistically speaking, it's taken a toll. But, we take this seriously. We are cognizant that building community, organizing a community, and doing community is hard work. You feel a responsibility to be involved in all the action on the block. Sometimes it can be unhealthy psychologically and emotionally. We've had to persevere through racism, classism, and claims of elitism, that we've used our power to undermine the staus quo of the hood. Some have claimed " passive-aggressive white take over", others have equated the community building as " Hernando Cortez overthrowing the Aztecs." However, nothing has been so trying as negotiating with our new neighbors for peace and quiet. It has been an undertaking of massive proportions and a masterful finesse of street negotiation and formal round table discussions that our block and our next door neighbors have come to an understanding of what our block stands for and what is acceptable and not acceptable here on Keystone. While some here had the power to "make the problem go away", we decided as neighbors to invite the next door neighbors to the block club meetings, so that we could air our concerns and they could speak for themselves.

In the initial meetings people either didn't speak up or they brought up generalities about problems on our block. We all agreed that when we saw people from other blocks, gang bangers, or randoms we weren't familiar with on our next door neighbors porch we'd talk to our neighbors directly. That didnt work. Young people, sometimes upwards of 25, would not listen to the adults, and the problem persisted. The next meeting we were directed to call the police. That didn't work. Soon more kids were coming around. Gangbangers started recruiting some of them, two guys set up shop selling weed down the block, next door was ground zero for customers and the hang out where adults couldn't intervene successfully.

We had another meeting. The voices in the club started getting louder, accustations became more pointed. So we attempted to address the situation by contacting the landlord. That created days of peace, then, like kids who start trouble when they think no one is looking, the problems began in earnest. Which led to more calls to the landlord, calls to the police, etc.

The last draw was this past meeting, last month, it was advertised a week prior, and come the day of the meeting, the victims ( the block) came out en masse, the offenders( our next door neighbors) brought an advocate to speak, to defend their side of the story and air out grievances about people calling the cops, their landlord, and (rumored) alderman about their house. At first, their advocate acted as if we had it out for them. Five people piped up at the same time and defended the actions of the block, and indicated that it was our next door neighbors that gave us the action steps to take if they were screaming at the top of their lungs until 3 am, or if 25 random kids were tearing up the block, smashing car windows or tagging up our community mural. It was the block members that called out the parents of the kids from next door to step up and be parents, if they too, really wanted the problems, that stemmed from their house, to stop, then they needed to step up. Seemed kinda harsh, but for all the negative attention that was put on our next door neighbors, I think they got to finally hear and believe all that the block has been implying for the past couple months. " We've got values and norms on this block, and either your with us or against us. And if your against us, we're organized, and your going to have a lot of heat applied to you, and if you don't like it, well, buy in to what's established here or leave." And I think we heard what they have been implying, "It's hard for us to change things so fast, we ain't use to a block that is organized, we're use to getting buck wild, so it's gunna take some time. So quit calling the police every single move we make". The community spoke, the community heard each other, things have gotten better. As many of the stakeholders as we could get were at the table negotiating how to live together on the block, peacefully. Rich, poor, white, black, Latino, old, young, renters, owners, unemployed, employed, trying to be neighbors. We've grown as a block. This is my example of, though not perfect, actually, ugly and dirrrty, restorative justice.

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