‘How Can I Reconcile With You When Your Foot Is on My Neck?’: The Role of Justice in the Pursuit of Truth and Reconciliation

52 Pages Posted: 8 Nov 2019 Last revised: 13 Nov 2019

See all articles by Olwyn Conway

Olwyn Conway

The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law

Date Written: April 12, 2019


The residents of Ferguson, Missouri may someday seek reconciliation. Yet in the wake of the death of Mike Brown, and in the half-year spent waiting for the slow wheels of the criminal system to turn, Ferguson did not ask for reconciliation; it sought justice. Citizens across the country reeling from the shooting of unarmed members of their community have echoed this demand. Cleveland demanded justice for the killings of Malissa Williams, Timothy Russell, and Tamir Rice; Baton Rouge demanded justice for the killing of Alton Sterling; Minnesota demanded justice for the killing of Philando Castile. The list, tragically, goes on. American communities recovering from the wounds of loss of life — particularly when those wounds are tinged with the pain of racial animus — want justice before reconciliation. To ignore these calls by pursuing informal justice practices in lieu of criminal prosecutions would likely undermine the objectives of reconciliation. It would reinforce the double standard citizens perceive when police officers are not charged with misconduct. Officers are rarely subject to sanction for their misconduct — whether that misconduct be falsification of evidence or acts of brutality. In the rare instances when action is taken, police are shielded by protections not typically available to others in the criminal system. This double standard is especially present when comparing the treatment of police to those most disproportionately ensnared in the criminal system: low-income men of color. Moreover, the United States has a long legacy of state-sanctioned violence against people of color that feeds the culture of impunity surrounding police brutality. Asking citizens who are being systematically oppressed to reconcile with their oppressors is unacceptable unless society simultaneously works to end that oppression. Yet prosecutors are consistently unwilling or unable to secure justice for victims of police violence. Until the American criminal justice system addresses this justice imbalance that holds police officers to a lower standard than the communities they police, meaningful reconciliation is impossible.

Keywords: progressive prosecution, police brutality, truth and reconciliation, restorative justice, trial narrative

Suggested Citation

Conway, Olwyn, ‘How Can I Reconcile With You When Your Foot Is on My Neck?’: The Role of Justice in the Pursuit of Truth and Reconciliation (April 12, 2019). Ohio State Public Law Working Paper No. 511, Michigan State Law Review, 2018, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3477511 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3477511

Olwyn Conway (Contact Author)

The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law ( email )

Blankenship Hall-2010
901 Woody Hayes Drive
Columbus, OH OH 43210
United States

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