About three years ago, a group of my Alaskan friends were talking about abuses suffered by citizens from unconstitutional police acts. One of us said that we need a Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission like the one that Desmond Tutu used to help South Africa recover from apartheid. I thought, “What a great idea!” Rather than wait until after America’s burgeoning police state has harmed millions of people, let’s provide a way for people to tell the truth, clear the air, put the police on notice that citizens are observing their unconstitutional acts, and send them a message that we expect the police to act within the bounds of the constitution.
So we created the Citizens of Alaska Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission. So far, seven aggrieved people have given testimony at our meetings. We listen; we take custody of documents and photos; we produce a written record of testimony; we maintain archives. One of the most helpful members of our commission is a retired state trooper who has become a saintly man.
We discovered that the simple act of respectful listening calms people who were full of anger, and seems to afford some relief to those who have been wronged. We make no promise that we can right their wrongs or obtain justice, but if a citizen wants to initiate litigation in the interest of justice and do self-help, we offer support. One wronged citizen worked with us, and we took his civil rights case to the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco.
We invited the Homer Chief of Police and the Captain of the Alaska State Troopers for Kenai Peninsula Borough to attend a meeting of our Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission. At that meeting, we learned from them that Alaska has an Office of Professional Responsibility and that Alaska State Troopers who violate the law are investigated by that office. Alaska State Trooper Captain Andy Greenstreet said, “It’s not the accusation, but how the trooper handles the accusation, that reveals character.” I thought this was very wise. Also at that meeting, a group of disgruntled citizens gave an earful to the police chief and state trooper captain. But importantly, we established lines of communication between citizens and police.
One of the hardest things I ever did was invite the Chief of Police to that meeting. It took me weeks to make the call. But once I did, I discovered that the police are anxious to present their good side to citizens. Indeed, we wound up touring the police station and reviewing the Police Manual.
I strongly recommend that other Friends’ meetings initiate the formation of Citizens’ Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commissions at the state or county level – working with other local social justice organizations.
I personally know an Arizona family whose nephew was killed by police in their back yard while the kids looked on in horror. No one in the government has ever asked this family to tell their story. Surely there are many people in the western United States who would have testimony to offer, should a citizens’ commission be set up. Should you decide to initiate a Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission, I would be pleased to advise either from Alaska or on a visit to your meeting.
Good first steps would be to research “truth, justice, and reconciliation commissions” online and to read Bishop Desmond Tutu’s book, No Future Without Forgiveness. ~~~
Lindianne Sarno lives in Homer, Alaska, and retains her membership in Pima Friends Meeting (IMYM), where she served as recording clerk. Her historical novel, Greensleeves, explores the response of the Irish and Scots to the British Empire in the 1500’s, as seen from the point of view of a band of freedom-loving troubadours. Lindianne can be reached at email@example.com.