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Peace Talks Radio Host Carol Boss talks with Chris Weathers and Rose Gordon. Weathers was convicted of aggravated DUI in 2001 and referred to a Restorative Justice program. Gordon is a Restorative Justice facilitator in Taos County, New Mexico.

Chris Weathers: In 2001, I was convicted of aggravated DUI and vehicular homicide. I was not a juvenile. I was about 26 years old, 27 at the time. I made a bad decision to get behind the wheel after I had been drinking. I was with my younger brother and there were two young girls in the back seat. We were driving a small Ford Bronco. I attempted to pass a vehicle near Taos Canyon and didn’t realize that the car was turning left and we clipped the left front corner of that vehicle. We rolled several times. Everybody except for me was ejected from the vehicle. I found my younger brother about 50 yards in front of the car. All but one of his ribs were broken. He was in pretty bad shape. One young girl that the accident claimed her life was beaten to death by a floor jack when we rolled.

(The girl who died was 17 year old Shorey Gomez of Taos, Pueblo, then a senior at Taos High School.)

Weathers: The other young girl that was in the vehicle with us suffered a broken collarbone and some broken teeth. Actually the next day, the judges, the DA here issued a warrant for my arrest so I went and turned myself in in Albuquerque and I was in Santa Fe County Jail for a period of time. I didn’t have contact with anybody. I knew that the one female passenger had died. I didn’t know if my brother was alive or dead. I was released on an ankle bracelet about three or four months later and awaited pre-trial release and it was the first criminal case that Restorative Justice Process took place in in Taos.

Carol Boss: Rose, tell us what is Restorative Justice.

Gordon: Restorative Justice is a process that allows victims and those who have harmed them to gather in the same room together in real time. Restorative Justice circles identify the harms that were done and identify ways to repair the harm and ensure the community of its safety and it’s an old model that’s been used by indigenous peoples for a long time and in the last 20 years or so has become more and more widespread globally.

Boss: The basic principles that you talked about Rose, as to what Restorative Justice is, those are, in a sense, really diametrically opposed to what our criminal justice system is right now which is what law was broken, who broke it and what punishment is warranted.

Gordon: Yes.

Boss: So it really represents a shift in how we think about justice.

Gordon: Absolutely. I think it represents a shift and it also represents an enhancement. Restorative Justice was really designed in terms of our Western culture to give victims an opportunity to directly be in dialogue with the person who has committed an offense against them and to have a voice in identifying the harms in a very personal way, and then to actually have the opportunity to name the harm and how they want it repaired as opposed to the criminal justice system where its lawyers and judges and plea bargaining determines what the punishment will be, this is about repair.

Boss: It’s the circle process. Let’s talk about the circle and how it works.

Gordon: Once we get a referral, our first process is called a “pre-conference,” and that’s an essential foundation for having a restorative justice circle. So it’s about an hour and a half where I meet with a youth offender and at least one of his parent’s or guardian’s and get an idea of who they are, get their story about the offense and what happened and start to establish trust with them and I also have a preconference with the victims if they’re willing.

Then we move into the circle which involves the offender and their family and the victim and their family or a co-offender, the probation officers are there, sometimes counselors are there or occasionally a lawyer is present and police officers, either town police or state police if we feel that the particular situation calls for that. In that circle, we go through a process of everyone having an opportunity to identify what harm was done and how it can be repaired.

Boss: When many of us grew up, it was just deemed that fighting is bad. We were told to just shake hands and make up and there was very little about speaking about the hurt. So it sounds like Restorative Justice is really about giving voice and using our voices and really understanding each other’s experience.

Gordon: Absolutely about that. Everybody’s voice in the circle matters and what we used to say about circles was that what happens is you see the arising of group wisdom because it’s not just one person’s perspective of what happened, but it’s a larger picture created through many perspectives and you get a much bigger picture and there’s no telling which one of those perspectives, which one of those voices is going to strike home for somebody and make a difference in their life.

Boss: One thing, before they get to be in the circle, they’re at the point where they’re not disputing what they’ve done?

Gordon: There’s usually a little disputing and that’s the other reason that the pre-conference is so important, Carol, is that we can have a conversation about the pieces of what they did that they don’t really want to take full responsibility for. Part of my job, as I see it, and I will be very blunt with them and say; “I’m going to call you on this,” is to really be accountable, but people don’t always start off being fully accountable. None of us do, but they can’t be in the process of going to court and denying what they’ve done and if they were really denying what they had done, and I’ve only had that happen once, I won’t do a circle because I won’t expose somebody who’s been a victim of an offense to somebody who had no accountability for their actions because that would be harmful to the victim.

You know, one of the challenges of Restorative Justice is that victims aren’t mandated to attend, so they don’t always attend, and if they don’t, I try to get a statement from them about what they’d like.

(In the case of Chris Weathers, convicted of aggravated DUI in 2001 and referred to Taos County’s first Restorative Justice Circle, the family of the victim who died, 17 year old Shorey Gomez, did not participate. Weathers own family and the other injured victims’ family did though and the process went forward.)

Boss: Did the experience change your use of alcohol?

Weathers: I don’t drink at all since that day to this.

Boss: Have you ever imagined or had dreams of facing the family of the young woman who died?

Weathers: Coming out of prison, I had nightmares pretty steady for about two years. I had to just warn my family members not to wake me up by touching me because I would come out of the bed swinging. Nightmares of the wreck, nightmares of facing the mother of this young girl that died.

I was ordered pre-trial and on parole not to have any contact with her and I’ve never tried to contact her. I just pray, in my own right, that she’s found healing. There’s sort of a void there. I know that may sound selfish on my part, but I hope that they found healing and there’s not something more that could have been done there. I caused harm that you can’t repair. There’s really nothing I can do to bring that other than try to live my life as an example and hopefully maybe deter somebody else from going down the same road that I did.

Boss: Tell us what happened in that circle. The leader of that circle did a pre-interview with you and you accepted full accountability for what happened?

Weathers: Yeah, I never tried to shun responsibility for what I had done. We had the preemptive circles amongst my own family and he kind of laid down the ground rules; speak to each other with respect and wanted to make sure that I was in a place where I was going to accept responsibility and be present at the circle, whichever way that might have gone. If the victim’s family is going to be angry and need to vent that anger, an offender, somebody in that position needs to be able to sit there and there’s not really a response that needs to be given, but if that’s what brings healing, then those things need to be able to be said.

I do remember a victim’s family telling me about the tears that were cried and the hurt that was caused and it was a long process of listening to that and not being able to have an answer for that really hurt because there wasn’t really anything I could say at that point in time that was going to make a difference.

Boss: Well how did you feel when you were hearing the victim’s family, the victim who was injured who was also there?

Weathers: I felt horrible. To come into a place as the “bad guy,” to come in to sit in a room as the person that caused harm and to go face-to-face with people that you’ve directly hurt and people that you’ve indirectly hurt. Police officers are at the scenes of DUI crashes and they’re exposed to traumatic injury night after night.

Unfortunately we have, here in New Mexico, a high rate of DUI-related crashes and deaths and it takes a toll on law enforcement. Judges and district attorneys are in constant contact with victims and with people that are hurt by this.

All these things, being faced with this, and this person going – there was another couple that were in a car next to where we crashed and they had a young boy in the car who was traumatized because he saw the whole thing and so just an eye-opener.

This wasn’t just a carload of young people that were too drunk to be on the road. It wasn’t just a two car accident. This crime affected a large number of people and, as a ripple effect, it affected the whole community. Seeing that large-scale effect on people was really heartbreaking to me.

And on the other side of that coin, with the other victim’s family, they were very, very open in their forgiveness of me and in talking to me and saying, “I hope that you can pick up the pieces and live after this.” Here I’m the person that caused this harm and these people are crying and putting their arms around me by the time this thing was over.

Peace Talks Radio Host Carol Boss talks with Deon Young, graduate of Ralph Bunche High School in West Oakland, CA
and Eric Butler, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY) facilitator at Ralph Bunche High School.

Deon Young: So my experience before arriving at Ralph Bunche was very (how can I say?) dangerous, very dangerous. I was very into the streets a little too much. I was getting in a lot of trouble. I went to jail and a whole lot of stuff. The reason why they sent me to Ralph Bunche was because I had got shot at at Oakland Tech. They didn’t want me at their school no more, so they sent me there. I was low on credits.

Carol Boss: Okay, so you got shot at. What were some of the reasons that you were in jail?

Young: I had got caught with a gun.

Boss: Okay. What was your attitude when you first arrived at Ralph Bunche?

Young: My attitude was to do something with my life not to just be like everybody else. It was like a new start.

Boss: Eric?

Eric Butler: Yes.

(The program is managed by Eric Butler who sat next to Dion in the studio.)

Boss: Can you describe the school for us?

Butler: Ralph Bunche is a continuation high school and here in Oakland, it would almost be fair for me to say it’s the place where the contemporary high schools send the kids that they deem as problem kids. It’s a place where they send the throw-aways. It’s about 70% African American and 30% Latino.

Boss: What did you find when you arrived over a year ago?

Butler: Well, the first thing that I realized was we have two security guards on campus and it’s not hard to notice that, when the kids are entering into the school, they’re being wanded down like they’re at the airport. I put myself in their shoes and I thought that I probably would be aggravated if I had to be frisked every day of my school career. They got that unwelcoming introduction every day.

Boss: Eric, how did you start introducing the elements of Restorative Justice into Ralph Bunche?

Butler: Well, the first that I had to do was I realized that it’s a huge disconnect between the kids and the adults, so the first thing that I had to do was figure out a way to build those relationships. I actually went out there and tried to build those relationships. I stood outside; I said, “good morning.” Every day I asked them how they were doing and I was able to guide those conversations with personal experiences of my own; failures, times when I didn’t do the right thing, and consequences that I had to face.

An important piece of that is forgiveness – is one of the elements that we had to talk about and first learning how to forgive yourself and learning how to forgive others, having empathy and just really having some emotional intelligence; being able to call out what emotion that you’re feeling and explain why you’re feeling that way. That’s the beginning to healing from those emotional wounds is being able to identify what those wounds are and talk about ways of healing those wounds.

Boss: Deon, what did you think of this guy, Eric Butler, when you started school there talking about words such as; “forgiveness” and his whole approach and Restorative Justice?

Young: When I first met him, I was a very angry person, but I didn’t know why I was angry until he made me really think about it, you know? I thought that I was angry at myself and I was taking it out on everybody else.

Boss: Why were you angry?

Young: A lot of stuff was making me angry and it’s like to this day, I can’t all the way tell you why.

Butler: If I can, I’m sorry, but their anger has been normalized so it’s kind of almost like they’re not feeling anger because they turn that anger into something else. Most times they turn all their other emotions into anger, but when they’re really feeling anger, they switch it off and they turn it into something or they make it another emotion.

Boss: The core of the Restorative Justice that you’ve introduced into the schools is the circles and if you can talk about what happens in the circle. What is the circle experience?

Butler: Circle is something indigenous cultures have been doing since the beginning of time. The idea is we sit in a circle where we all can see each other and feel each other through this conversation. We set up the space intentionally so we can have these really rich conversations. The reason why circle is so potent is because we don’t get an opportunity to have these conversations. In fact, something as simple as, “How are you doing today?” we usually say, “I’m doing all right,” and it doesn’t matter how we’re doing. Culturally, we’ve been conditioned not to share our true feelings, but when we’re in circle, when you sit down in one of those chairs, you know why you’re there and you don’t have to be afraid because everybody else in circle is there for the exact same reason you’re there. The most important thing is listening more than talking anyway, so you’re being healed by your peers experiences and knowing that somebody else feels your pain and is going through similar situations. That’s really, really healing.

Boss: Deon, what was the circle like for you the first time?

Young: It was very powerful because we had different races in the room and it’s like, the way the bunch was set up, it was set up in groups, like race groups or whatever, so it was just like the circle made unity within the school.

Boss: Eric, let’s talk about results. How do we know it’s working?

Butler: Well, there are some positive results sitting right in your studio. Deon came to Ralph Bunche with a 0.5 and graduated with a 4.0 and Deon is not the exception. There are many 4.0 students that came from – this is just the educational part of it.

Another way to prove that this method works is at Ralph Bunche, we went down in suspensions 85% and we even went down 80% in offendable offenses. So not only did we not suspend kids for frivolous reasons, kids stopped doing things that would cause them to get suspended.

Boss: You told me in a prior conversation, Eric, that there are no, zero fights at Ralph Bunche.

Butler: Right. There’s been situations where there’s almost been fights, nope, no fights. In fact, I have kids really, really angry sometimes coming to be sometimes saying, “Hey, we have to have this conversation before I end up doing something that I don’t want to do.” That’s how they bring it and if they bring it to the table like that, that’s fine as long as they’re bringing it to the table.

Boss: In your classroom, you had a group of high school students talking about imagining peace in Oakland, California.

Butler: For me the premise was, like I said earlier, I realized that they had lost the ability to dream, so I wanted them to dream. I didn’t want to them to think of anything that made sense. I wanted them to not make sense.

So when we talked about that peaceful Oakland, the premise was 2025 and there’s already peace in Oakland. There’s flowers everywhere and everybody’s happy.

My question was; what does that look like and how do we get from here to there? That opened up their dreams. I wanted them to come up with unrealistic possibilities and through coming up with those unrealistic possibilities, they came with some realistic stuff to try and love everybody that you meet and raise your kids to be good citizens and all the stuff that they came up with was possible.

So when they saw that it was possible, they now know that it doesn’t have to be the way everybody stereotypes Oakland to be; one of the worst places to live in America. It can be a place of peace because we hold that within ourselves and I think that’s the lesson that they learned or we learned.

Boss: Deon, were you part of that; trying to imagine peace?

Young: Yeah, I definitely was part of that.

Boss: What was it like for you to imagine peace in contrast to your life growing up in Oakland?

Young: That was a very hard thing to imagine because out of all the things you see day-to-day at Oakland, it’s like this ain’t going to never happen.

Boss: Do you think it can happen now?

Young: No.

Boss: So Eric, with us listening and you tuned to Deon’s response, is the exercise working? Can any of the youth imagine peace?

Butler: Imagining peace and being realistic about it is two completely different things. Now we imagine peace and Deon is one person with his own opinion and Deon’s opinion is that it would be hard. It’s an intelligent response. Personally I think that we will end up a peaceful Oakland. I can guarantee you that Deon is working toward making his portion of Oakland a peaceful Oakland, but he’s not that confident in everybody else. I think that we will eventually have a peaceful Oakland and a peaceful world.

Young: Yeah, it’s possible. Everything’s possible.