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Jul. 31, 2020 1:29 pm

Philadelphia’s rush to reconcile

The push for truth and reconciliation commissions has increased in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. Philadelphia has two separate iterations — one of them with significant participation from the nonprofit sector.

gilf!'s "And Counting" represents the Americans killed by police in 2016.

(Photo by Conrad Benner via StreetsDept.com)

On June 4, Mayor Jim Kenney announced the creation of a 90-member steering committee for  Pathways to Reform, Transformation and Reconciliation, an initiative he called a “substantial step” to advancing racial justice.

By then, the city was in its sixth day of massive protests, forcing Kenney to admit, “It’s become increasing obvious to me that our administration and all those in public service need to find a better way to listen.”

About a month later, during a Zoom press conference, District Attorney Larry Krasner joined the district attorneys of San Francisco and Boston in announcing the formation of a Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission in each of their respective cities. Krasner tweeted “People desperately need a forum to have their voices heard & their harms redressed.“

The three activist DAs are part of a pilot project spearheaded by the Grassroots Law Project  along with Shaun King, a racial justice activist of national renown, whose credibility has been called into question by Philadelphia journalist Ernest Owens and the Black and Brown Workers Cooperatative, among others.

Both truth commissions have similar purposes but according to a city spokesman, there is no formal relationship between the two. However, both commissions share a lack of a grassroots mandate. And that, according to Penn State professor, Dr. Joshua Inwood, is a serious start-up flaw that may doom both efforts.

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“Generally, commissions emerge out of the work of grassroots organizations. When it is top down, it is bit of a more controlled process,” he said.

Inwood is an associate professor of geography and senior research associate in the Rock Ethics Institute and has developed a research specialty in truth and reconciliation commissions. Inwood is “skeptical” of top-down reconciliation processes because the interest of elected officials may lean more to calming roiling waters than uncovering the truth: “Is this about community changes to affect stuff or are these short-term (to do) things to diffuse tensions?”

A number of leaders of nonprofits — among them Philabundance, Coded by Kids and OIC — as well as leaders from the Lenfest, Philadelphia and Independence Blue Cross foundations are part of the steering committee guiding the City’s commission. But some members of the nonprofit and social impact sector, in an echo of Inwood’s concerns, find their optimism for the commission tempered by its top-down genesis.

“I’m wary of using the word ‘reconciliation’ unless you are sure the mechanisms are in place to achieve just that,” said Sarah Martinez-Helfman, president of the Samuel S. Fels Fund. “A restorative process has the best chance — maybe the only chance — of working when the process is  transparent, inclusive and collaborative from the start, not when one party decides who is at the table and then controls the agenda.”

Truth and reconciliation commissions became popular after the fall of apartheid in South Africa in 1994, as an effort to restore a traumatized community.  The original purpose was to help community members come to terms with past violence, while promoting education and awareness of historic trauma. It is also a way to provide recognition and closure for victims. While the South African TRC was government-mandated, Inwood said that most TRCs in the United States have been grassroots-driven.

The first US truth and reconciliation commission was in Greensboro, North Carolina in 2005 and was created to examine a 1979 racially motivated killing that had torn at the fabric of the community. There was indisputable evidence of the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party firing weapons into a crowd and killing five activists, yet no one was ever held criminally liable. According to Inwood, “in Greensboro they worked for about 18 to 24 months to come up with a report.”

Kenney, on the other hand, is moving at lightening speed.

The steering committee includes a 42 member internal work group of city officials and 48 community members. The committee meets biweekly and according to a spokesperson, its top successes to date are the development of a comprehensive Police Reform Agenda and the declaration of Junteenth as an official city holiday. Kenney said that the steering committee has already “helped me better understand how governments at all levels continue to disenfranchise Black and brown Philadelphia.”

Pedro A. Ramos, president and CEO of  Philadelphia Foundation, who called the confluence of the pandemic and police brutality “excruciating,” is a member of the steering committee. “It’s a very diverse group with a range of ages and voices,” he said. “I also understand and expect that the task force steering committee is not the entirety of the city’s efforts on the … pathways to reform, transformation and reconciliation.”

In fact, Kenney has announced a community engagement subcommittee which will lead public sessions on the steering committee’s priority areas.

However, the steering committee’s priority areas — public safety, the economy, community engagement and health — were determined by that committee’s members, and the meetings are closed to the public. The next meeting, scheduled for today (July 30), will focus on the legislative changes that are linked to the Police Reform Agenda, as well ensuring digital access for Philadelphia school children.

Inwood said that one of the reasons the North Carolina TRC has been considered a gold standard is because it had an independent executive director to function as the commission organizer and several researchers to vet claims — a cost that he estimated could easily top $250,000 annually in Philadelphia.

“To generate a mandate, it takes a lot of work and getting input,” he said, noting that neither Kenney nor Krasner are allocating significant funds for a TRC staff infrastructure.

Instead, two to four employees within Krasner’s office will be tasked to develop the pilot, according to the DA, and the community will help craft the statement of intent. Kenney announced that his committee will have volunteer members from among civic, philanthropic, faith leaders, the LGBTQ community, and youth groups, and will be headed by Cynthia Figueroa,  the deputy mayor for the Office of Children and Families; City Solicitor Marcel Pratt; and Nefertiri Sickout, the acting chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer.

The push for truth and reconciliation commissions has increased in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Congresswoman Barbara Lee introduced legislation in June calling for the establishment of the first United States Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation (TRHT). The Commission’s goal would be to examine the effects of slavery, institutional racism, and discrimination against people of color, and how that history impacts laws and policies today. On Juneteenth this year, New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced that city’s newly developed Racial Justice and Reconciliation Commission which is to provide a public forum to discuss racism and discrimination.

The problem, Inwood reiterated, is that these efforts are not being driven by the community but by elected officials. He compared these to Detroit’s failed attempt, which was also created by city officials. The Metro Detroit Truth and Reconciliation Commission sought to “spotlight the legacy of race based housing policies” and started, with fanfare, in 2011.

Then, it disappeared.

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