It happened again. George Floyd’s name is now added to the tragic list—already far too long—of other people of color whose lives have been cut short as a direct result of the United States’ long history of racism and white supremacy. We stand in solidarity with his family and the relatives of all other victims of racially motivated violence including most recently, among others, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Steven Taylor, Nicolas Chavez, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Jordan Davis, and Atatiana Jefferson.
We at ICTJ are outraged by the cruel and senseless murder of an unarmed Black man by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As we try to process this horrific act and grieve the tragic loss of another human life, we must also grapple with the hard truth that it is frankly unsurprising that this list of names continues to grow. How can we be shocked at yet another racially motivated killing when there have been no meaningful changes to policing practices in recent years despite the repeated murders? Crowds of protesters chanting “no justice, no peace” have taken to the streets across the United States. They know that if nothing comes of George’s murder, there will be another one. And we will all be complicit.
Around the world, ICTJ works with victims to address the root causes of conflicts, massive human rights violations, and systemic crime and thereby end cycles of violence once and for all. Without recognizing and resolving historical injustices, violence recurs and inevitably begets more violence. Hearing the impassioned calls for justice across the United States and around the world, we know from our experience that these calls are for something far more encompassing than criminal accountability alone, though that is an integral and necessary part of the response. Justice entails listening to the voices and demands of the victims and dismantling the structural inequalities and discrimination that allow violations to occur in the first place. Justice requires carrying out the necessary reforms of state institutions, such as the judiciary, law enforcement agencies, prisons, and education and health care systems, that reinforce and perpetuate such discrimination on a daily basis. Justice calls for a society to reckon with its legacy of past abuses, which in the United States involves acknowledging the ways in which oppression, racism, and discrimination have persisted for centuries. It also includes providing reparations for past harms to communities of color that have been fighting an uphill battle against entrenched and acute inequalities since the country’s founding. Most difficult of all, justice demands nothing short of a cultural transformation, in which the state acknowledges past wrongs, society at large engages in dialogue about them, and both take concrete steps toward a future where the human rights of all citizens are fully and equally upheld. In the United States, only this broadly conceived justice will finally put a period on the long list of victims’ names.
At a time when the United States and other countries are turning increasingly inward, it is crucial for all of us committed to human rights to do precisely the opposite. We should look to other countries that have undertaken earnest efforts to address their own pernicious legacies of conflict, atrocities, injustice, and repression for insight and lessons. Countries as geographically diverse as Germany, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Tunisia, Colombia, The Gambia, and Armenia have all surpassed the United States in the pursuit of justice for past harms. Considering the country’s enormous institutional capacity and social capital, it really has no legitimate excuse or reason not to properly address its legacy of systemic violence when so many others have managed to do so or at least try. In fact, because of its slowness and reluctance to deal with its racist past, it stands to benefit greatly from the many hard-earned lessons learned in these other contexts. Ironically, the U.S. government has supported transitional justice processes in other places while not doing much to advance its own.
After what has transpired over these past two weeks, there is no excuse for the United States not to finally embark on its transitional justice journey. Where political will is lacking in the White House and on Capitol Hill, it is clearly present on the streets and in many public, cultural, and religious institutions. If the American people do not heed the calls for justice, there is little doubt that the country will soon find itself again where it is now, grieving another Black life lost to police brutality or racial violence and overcome by social unrest as deep-seated and unaddressed grievances convulsively resurface and tear at the fabric of society. For Americans and for all of us around the world, it is on our shoulders to advance a comprehensive justice that includes criminal accountability, institutional reforms, redress, and coming to terms with past abuses and historical injustices in order to prevent them from happening again. Will we rise to the occasion?
PHOTO: Protesters gather in front of Cup Foods, outside of which George Floyd was killed, on May 26, 2020, the day after his death. (Lorie Shaull)