Published in Georgia Straight
By Evelyn Zellerer, June 24, 2011

I, like so many others, was horrified by the Vancouver riot. I applaud the heroes who bravely stood up against those who were looting and assaulting that night and the volunteers who cleaned up our city the next morning. The central question now is: how do we respond to those who participated in rioting? What is the healthiest way for us as a community to move forward?

I am noticing two forms of justice happening: vigilante and criminal justice. It’s time Vancouver used restorative justice to meet the needs of victims, hold offenders accountable, support healing, and build community.

The community is rightfully outraged and people are speaking up, as they should. Social media has become a powerful tool to express our emotions and to identify the rioters. We should be uncomfortable though with reactions which come perilously close to the behaviour of the rioters they condemn. An online mob mentality seems to have developed. There have been threats and the family of one offender left their home out of fear. We cannot stoop to violence ourselves, in any form. As Martin Luther King said, “Let no man pull you low enough to hate him” and “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”

The other option we’re turning to is the criminal justice system. Clearly there were many criminal acts that night. People have put a lot of energy into identifying those who participated in the riot and the police are busy sorting through evidence and making some arrests. I think the rioters should be identified. We should question though what happens after the police make arrests?

Best case scenario in criminal justice is that there is sufficient, legally usable evidence and those who rioted are charged. Their crimes then become against the state and professionals like lawyers and judges take over. The rioters and their families who can afford it hire lawyers. An already overburdened court gets more cases to hear; there will be delays. There will be an adversarial battle between the lawyer representing the accused and the Crown prosecuting. Plea bargaining will take place.

There are not many sentencing options available to courts: fines, probation, community service, or prison. I’ve heard calls for “throwing the book at them” and “punished to the greatest extent possible”. This would mean imprisonment. So “success” in this case would result in taxpayer’s dollars spent locking people up.

Will this result in justice, healing, and resolution? I don’t think it does. Some would be temporarily satisfied, perhaps feeling a sense of revenge. But have we and the offenders really learned anything? Have we evolved somehow as individuals and as a community? And what of the victims? They are basically excluded in this legal process, except as witnesses if it actually goes to a trial. The community? We don’t have a place within the criminal justice process.

Declaring war on rioters is not effective or healthy.

There is another option, one that is more powerful: restorative justice. This is a different framework than criminal justice or vigilante justice. It starts from a different place and asks different questions. Instead of crime being a violation of the law and state, crime is a violation of people and relationships. Instead of requiring authorities to determine legal guilt and impose punishment, justice is a process whereby all parties involved (victims, offenders, community, professionals) come together to understand what truly happened and to collectively resolve how to deal with the aftermath, how to make things right to the greatest extent possible. The focus is on victim needs, offender responsibility, and community building.

I am haunted by the images of victims, like the man who tried to stop rioters only to be beaten unconscious. There are so many ripples of harm caused to innocent people, like those who were locked inside a downtown building while fires burned outside and those hiding in terror while looters ran rampant in the store. I cannot stand the thought of victims just going home, left to pick up the pieces with little or no support and no opportunity to tell their offenders directly what they need to say. I think they have a right to use their own voice in a justice process and to receive support for their healing.

I also cannot stand the thought of all those who rioted having no consequences, ineffective sentences, or filling up our prisons where they will learn more about crime and violence. I want offenders to directly face their victims and their community, understand the full extent of their actions, make amends, and learn some things of value. And we need to find out what is going on in their world and what they need to be non-violent, healthy, contributing citizens. Like it or not, they are a part of our community too. Even if they go to prison, they will return. There is no enemy. It’s only us.

Let me set the record straight: restorative justice is not soft on crime. Think about if you hurt someone: what would be the hardest thing to do? I’m sure it would be to directly face those you harmed and sit alongside your family/peers/community in determining the consequences.

We have far greater creativity in restorative justice in determining what needs to happen for amends and making things right. Restorative justice has successfully been used with all kinds of conflict, including serious crimes like assault and murder.

We as a community have a lot to learn as well. It is good that we are questioning why the riot happened at all. It is easy to punish some people and think this solves things. It doesn’t. There are deeper questions.

Vancouver has the opportunity to step up and move forward in a world-class way.