An attack on an elderly man collecting cans on Feb. 22, 2020 was captured on video.

Restorative justice is exactly what’s needed in the case of the attack on a Bayview elder

Assault that went viral on video could lead to healing in the community

By Reza Harris

A needless physical attack on a helpless elder is never acceptable. This is something anyone can agree on. But when the victim is an Asian man and the suspects are African American, such an attack is sure to cause debate in San Francisco.

Since the attack went viral, we’ve watched the elder being struck and stripped of his collected recyclables as another man recording yells, “I hate Asians!” This display shocked many, but it recalls all-too-familiar tensions that have resurfaced in the city. Many representing the Asian community have expressed their outrage, connecting the attack to a long string of anti-Asian violence across multiple neighborhoods. Some in the Black community have shown solidarity with those sentiments, but others have vented their own frustrations about facing bias and discrimination from their Asian neighbors. Growing up on Randolph Street in the heart of San Francisco’s Oceanview District, I have seen these dynamics play out my entire life.

Both African Americans and Asians have historically been subjected to discriminatory housing practices, such as redlining, which often led them to share space in the only areas they could find tenancy. In my experience, Oceanview – or as the locals call it, Lakeview – became one of those areas. Growing up, I would sometimes hear resentment over a perceived influx of Asians moving in and buying property in the neighborhood. Sadly, barriers of citizenships, language, size and numbers have also made many Asian elders easy targets for crime. But I’ve also witnessed business owners discriminate against and talk disparagingly about their own African American customers. This discrimination can also play out in the housing market and some Asians’ daily interactions with their Black neighbors. There are many other reasons behind these conflicts, and just outside my family’s front window I’ve seen both sides resort to hateful and even violent behavior against each other – the incident from the viral video is just the latest example. But rather than repeating the same cycle of conflict between two communities, this can be an opportunity for both sides to be heard and this conflict resolved. That is the very nature of restorative justice.

When District Attorney Boudin announced he would forego hate crime charges against one of the suspects in favor of restorative justice, people voiced their frustrations. Many are under the impression that restorative justice is just an excuse to let criminals off easy. In reality, restorative justice is a blanket term for a concept that has been practiced by indigenous communities for thousands of years. Rather than exercising retribution or punishment against their own, they would seek resolutions to repair the harm done to the victim, correct the behavior of the perpetrator, and heal any ruptures within the community. If facilitated under those same principles, restorative justice can still be effective in today’s society. San Francisco is the right place to start.

Restorative justice is not just a buzzword, it’s a real practice that’s shown real results. Professor Mary Louise Frampton conducted a five-year study of the Fresno County Juvenile Court’s restorative justice program, which operated as an alternative to incarceration for eligible offenders. Over several conferences with mediators, juvenile offenders would meet with their victims and work out agreements about how to best repair the harm done. The court reviewed the agreements and supervised their completion. The outcome has been remarkable, and other counties should take note.

Compared to 26% of offenders in standard prosecutions, only 6% of offenders in Fresno’s juvenile restorative justice program committed another offense within three months. The recidivism rates for youth in the program fell even lower over the course of a year, down to 2%. Juveniles in the program paid 76% of all court-ordered restitution costs to victims, whereas offenders outside of the program only paid 6% of restitution costs. Each standard prosecution cost the community $8,312 more than a restorative justice case, which only cost $1,226 each. In a state where incarceration rates have skyrocketed along with their cost on taxpayers, an effective restorative justice model can be radically transformative for communities.

Last year, Professor Frampton and I co-founded the student-led Aoki Restorative Justice Practicum at the UC Davis School of Law. We created a program to train law students on restorative justice and how to facilitate mediations. From there, we entered local communities to hold community-building circles. Since then, our program has gone into public schools at all grade levels, juvenile halls, community centers, and state prisons. We have successfully helped facilitate the diversion of criminal charges, resolved conflicts between victim and offenders, and helped young people examine the core circumstances of their behaviors. Through these mediations, I have heard of parents reuniting with children, students making peace with teachers, and even rival gang members forgiving each other for harm done in fights and shootouts. Since my graduation from law school last year, Professor Frampton and her students have continued expanding their work in restorative justice with successful results.

An effective alternative to incarceration is desperately needed in San Francisco. If there is any truth in the widespread rhetoric that San Francisco is now lawless and overrun with crime, then clearly the policies of the past have brought us here. Just as we couldn’t cite our way out of homelessness with sit/lie laws, we can’t incarcerate our way out of crime. Moreover, we must consider the context of charging a 20-year-old African American man with a hate crime in a city where Blacks are a dwindling 5% of the city population, but more than 50% of the county jail population. Other data indicates that after being incarcerated, that young man will be at increased risk of homelessness, unemployment, and criminal recidivism. Even if this doesn’t pull at your heartstrings, it ought to pull at your purse strings – the taxpayers will bear the brunt for every failure in our justice system. As the United States presently has more people locked up than every other country combined, we have to figure out real alternatives to solve this epidemic of incarceration.

Sadly, I have seen many calling for the hate crime charges to move forward, including even some of my community organizer allies from the Asian community. I am shocked that, despite the sociocultural context of the incident, even many supporters of pro-Black issues have been calling for punitive measures against the young man filming the video and the other perpetrator. They want accountability, acknowledgement of the victim, and attacks against Asians to end. These are all reasonable goals, but they are less likely to happen if the suspect is convicted of a serious felony and sent to prison. If anything, he will be more likely to come out of prison with increased hatred. Ultimately, that won’t help the community and if anyone seems to understand that, it’s the young man’s alleged victim.

What critics haven’t realized is that restorative justice can only occur with the victim’s consent, and here, this development comes at the victim’s own initiative rather than DA Boudin’s. The victim has refused cash donations and, unlike some of his supporters online, hasn’t rallied for criminal charges or spewed out any anti-Black rhetoric. Perhaps he realizes what we all need to understand: in a city that’s changed so rapidly as San Francisco, Black and Asian people cannot afford to be divided. Social inequality and historic oppression affect both our communities, and we can find solidarity together despite our cultural differences. If these attacks on the Asian community are to stop, the first step is for both sides of the conflict to reach an understanding. It’s not enough to punish the young man for hating Asians, we must get to the roots of what created those feelings and help him confront his own prejudice. This elder’s courage and willingness to face his attackers for the shared benefit of everyone involved is the real lesson to be learned here.

It is also a misconception that restorative justice will be “easy” on the suspect. Quite the contrary, this process will require him to look deep within himself. He will have to come to terms with the hate and violence he showed towards an elderly, defenseless man. Perhaps for the first time in his life, he will have to confront whatever happened in his life to make him capable of causing such harm and committing such a despicable act. He will then be put to the test of making that right. Those of us calling for his incarceration would do well to remember just how difficult it is to acknowledge our own behavior and get to the root causes of our own mistakes and shortcomings. What we face in the mirror can often be more difficult to deal with than what we face in a courtroom. I challenge those criticizing restorative justice to confront their own reflections to understand just how difficult self-change can be. But if the victim and suspects of this case can resolve their differences, the image that reflects back on us just might be the San Francisco we need.

Reza Harris is a San Francisco native and attorney practicing civil litigation.

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