Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins is joining a national pilot program to create truth, justice, and reconciliation commissions — inspired in part by post-apartheid work in South Africa — to explore racial inequities and misconduct by police officers and prosecutors.
The end goal: to rethink how the legal system interacts with the community around it, Rollins said.
Similar projects will launch in local district attorneys’ offices in Philadelphia and San Francisco. The Grassroots Law Project, an organization led by activist Shaun King and civil rights attorney Lee Merritt, is leading the effort.
Truth, justice, and reconciliation commissions, often established after a war, are created to investigate past wrongdoing, often by governments, and to resolve deep conflicts from a nation or community’s past.
Details of how such a commission might function in Boston are still being developed. But in other parts of the country and world, they have sought, through interviews, investigations, meetings, and reports, to begin to heal long-festering wounds.
In Boston and other American cities, Rollins said, that means confronting legacies of racism.
“Systemic racism is deeply rooted, not just within the criminal legal system, but threaded through the very fabric of American history,” Rollins said Wednesday. “I feel like history is repeating itself, and it keeps repeating itself. The same stories of pain and injustice and harm and inaction are replaying over and over and over again. And I find it particularly painful because those stories have become so familiar and so predictable, as Black people.”
Rollins cited two incidents that still help define Boston and inform the way people of color interact with the justice system today: reaction to school desegregation through busing in the 1970s; and the 1989 case of Charles Stuart, in which a white man murdered his pregnant wife and blamed a fictitious Black man in Mission Hill.
“Neither one of those incidents should make us proud as people from Boston, or who love Boston. And both illustrate exactly what we are committed to do,” Rollins said.
Rollins is among several progressive prosecutors elected in recent years with a mandate to reform criminal justice systems that disproportionately arrest and incarcerate people of color. Two others — District Attorneys Larry Krasner of Philadelphia and Chesa Boudin of San Francisco — will form commissions of their own.
“Often we fight for deep, meaningful change, and only see piecemeal reforms,” King said. “... What we’ve come to understand is that it was not designed, it was not built, to give African Americans, Latinos, Indigenous Americans, and other marginalized and oppressed communities — It wasn’t built to give those communities justice. It was actually built to oppress those communities.”
Merritt is a cocounsel representing the families of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor — Black people killed by police whose names have echoed through marches against police violence in the last month. He said the legal system is not designed to bring justice to people killed by police officers.
“Far too often, [families] will be denied or have been denied justice from the legal system,” Merritt said. “The reason that we began to develop new platforms to take on these cases, new mechanisms for edging out justice in some of the most difficult circumstances, is because we have discovered that the legal system as it’s set up, the so-called criminal justice system, is something not designed to hold police officers accountable.”
Rollins’s office did not release details about the role, power, and funding the commission will have. She said she has spent this week reaching out to community leaders: activists, church leaders, elected officials, people who have been involved in policing and criminal justice for years.
“It’s not going to work unless they are involved in telling us where the harms are and how they want this to manifest itself,” Rollins said.
To create meaningful change, Rollins’s office will have to create a commission “with teeth, with accountability, with a focus on timelines, deadlines, impact, and results,” said Cornell William Brooks, a professor of the practice of public leadership and social justice at the Harvard Kennedy School.
“A truth and reconciliation commission focused on a sympathetic hearing of the truth without an emphatic focus on justice will result in a public relations effort that will then be a public relations disaster,” Brooks said.
Brooks, along with City Year cofounder Alan Khazei, wrote an op-ed for CNN last month calling for a strong and well-funded federal truth, justice, and reconciliation commission to deal with racism, from police violence and other criminal justice issues to broad disparities in economic, educational, public health, and voting rights inequities.
Both said they were encouraged to hear about the commission, and hoped to see the idea spread.
Brooks compared the response needed to address racism to the response necessary for the coronavirus pandemic: The solutions have to be comprehensive and wide-ranging, and come both on a local level and nationwide.
“Grappling with this at the grass-roots level is entirely necessary, but it is not completely sufficient,” Brooks said. “There is real opportunity to set the pace as a national level locally.”
South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission accomplished what it did in part because it had the support of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who lent the effort moral credibility.
“Ultimately this is about morality and what kind of society we want to live in,” Khazei said. “I hope they bring in, as part of their process, people from faiths, people who are recognized within the Boston area as moral leaders. That gives it a different level of power and engagement.”
The success of truth and reconciliation commissions in the United States depends strongly on grass-roots community support, said Joshua Inwood, a professor of geography and ethics at Penn State University who studies such commissions but is not involved in this effort. Commissions that earn strong community support and trust are more likely to get meaningful results; top-down efforts, in which leaders try to impose their will on distrustful communities, tend to fall apart.
“It then really is up to the community activists to press and push local governments to enact some of those changes,” Inwood said.
Inwood pointed to the commission created two decades after the 1979 Greensboro, N.C., massacre, in which members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party killed five protesters and injured 10 more in a Death to the Klan march. Private citizens created the Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Project to investigate unanswered questions from the march and dig into the local police department’s role.
It also helped bring together people who were fighting for similar causes in silos, he said.
“There were so many stories about what happened there, there was so much mistrust of different groups, that despite the fact that they were working for the same goals, they did not work together,” Inwood said.
Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at email@example.com or at 617-929-2043.