March 24th is the international day for ‘The Right to The Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and For The Dignity of Victims,’ a day to remember victims of systemic human rights violations and stress the importance of the right to truth and justice. To mark this day we corresponded with Dave Ragland, Co-founder and Director of The Truth Telling Project in St. Louis, MO. This post is part of our continued work on police accountability in the U.S.
What is the Truth Telling Project and what led you to start this initiative?
I grew up in North St. Louis a few miles from Ferguson. My first memory of police was with my uncle, on leave from military service. We were driving through Jennings, which shares a border with St. Louis city and Ferguson, when the police pulled us over. I remember little of the interchange except for how my joy of being allowed to ride with my uncle was gone, and replaced with the fear that I was taught.
For my family and I, the fear of police was always palpable. My father – who grew up in the deep south, and would tell me how he wasn’t allowed to look white people in their eyes – passed on his trauma. I remember once staying out all night at the age of thirteen. When I came home, my father beat me and told me it was so the police wouldn’t have to.
I was back in St. Louis for my mother’s birthday when I learned that Mike Brown Jr. had been killed. About a week later, Kajieme Powell was killed across the street from my parent’s home.
Prior to August 9, 2014, I had been writing about and studying restorative justice. Instead of our current system of criminal justice which seeks to punish and assign blame, restorative justice focuses on rebuilding trust and maintaining human dignity for all people.
The practice of truth-telling lies at the core of restorative justice, and has been employed by Truth and Reconciliation Commissions prominent in human rights struggles throughout the world (i.e. South Africa and Peru). In these contexts, there is an urgent need among marginalized communities to have their suffering acknowledged by society. By creating a moral inventory and raising up local voices, truth-telling moves power from the institutional discourse that seeks to discredit these stories and dehumanize the oppression felt by poor Black communities.
Born out of conversations I had with community members, colleagues, friends and family in the aftermath of Michael Brown and Kajieme Powell’s death, The Truth-Telling Project (TTP) emerged. The TTP strives to provide forums in which those directly affected by police violence can speak their truth, reach out to the nation, join together, and ultimately work for structural change, healing and justice.
How do the stories and testimonies you collect challenge the mainstream media’s narratives about victims of police violence, their families, and their communities? What challenges do you face in trying to share these stories?
The mainstream media often supports the perspective of the police, and proliferates stereotypes of Black people that characterize police brutality as justifiable. As a result, people, especially from poor Black households, often dread sharing their experience of police violence with mainstream media outlets.
Truth-telling humanizes and provides safe spaces where those who have experienced state violence can share their lived experience in a candid and authentic way. But asking people to relive moments of violence and share their stories is a huge responsibility that we do not take lightly. One of our greatest challenges has been negotiating our goal to create awareness and impact around our truth teller’s stories, while also ensuring a dignified process and creating a safe healing space. We feel the pain of the truth tellers as if it were our own because many of us working with the project have been victimized by police and experienced state violence. I know it could have just as easily been me up there speaking at the podium, and that’s something that very much informs the work we do.
Over the past few years police violence, criminal justice, and mass incarceration have become a significant part of the national conversation, and people are increasingly acknowledging that major reforms are needed to improve/transform the systems that are currently in place. How do you see the TTP playing a role in these processes?
The TTP is aligned with the Movement for Black Lives, and offers spaces to amplify voices that are under-heard and under-respected. The TTP creates spaces to support and stand in solidarity with other organizations fighting state oppression and institutional racism. We are building relationships across the Movement landscape so we can meet local, national and international objectives needed to ensure transformational change.
Truth-telling is an essential step to justice, but it is only a first step. By helping facilitate community-based truth-telling, the TTP will contribute to broader understanding of the lived reality of Black communities, and join efforts at city, state, and national levels to build pressure for structural change.
While oral storytelling is at the heart of your project, what other audio/visual mediums are you using to communicate or strengthen the impact of these stories?
Video and audio are vital tools for supporting our truth tellers on their path to justice. We document for archiving, communication and impact. We are also producing interactive reports, truth telling toolkits, editorials and even involving our youth protestors in the creative process through our work with The Babel Project – a youth media nonprofit that works youth activists around the world to build capacity, and develop skills and strategy, on documenting injustice and sharing our authentic stories. We have a great team of media and education experts working with us to ensure the stories we collect are disseminated broadly, and can be used to educate and empower others.
March 24th is the international day for ‘The Right to The Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and For The Dignity of Victims.’ What are you planning and what do you hope to accomplish during this day of action?
With the Maxine Green Center for Social Imagination and Aesthetic Education, The TTP will present Voices of Freedom in New York City, an evening of performances by Ferguson activist and artist Rev. Sekou and his band, The Holy Ghosts, acclaimed soprano Alyson Cambridge, Ferguson R&B singer Lydia Caesar and many other outstanding art activists from the movement. The goal of Voices of Freedom is to weave together art activism and engage participants in creative reflection related to our current struggles.
On this internationally recognized day, we hope to situate the shared experience of direct and structural violence experienced by Black and people of Color in the U.S., within the broader human rights landscape. We will share the experience of oppressed minority communities here in the U.S. with the world, and position our truth tellers in this global narrative. Oppression is global, and so is the solution.
If people are interested in starting a truth telling initiative in their own community, where can they go to find additional resources to learn more? Do you have any advice you would offer?
We are in the final stages of developing a toolkit that can be used by communities who are interested in implementing their own truth-telling process. Please follow our website, Twitter, and Facebook to stay tuned for its release.
We encourage communities to begin truth telling conversations that amplify their voice and agency. It’s so important that we see, listen and take leadership directions from those who have directly experienced oppression and injustice. Our approach isn’t the only way that restorative justice can happen. In fact, truth-telling occurs in many spaces – from truth-telling processes, to protests outside of courtrooms, to the music/art/poetry we produce. There are many phenomenal organizations and individuals out there who are also pushing the boundaries and shaking shit up – some of whom we are developing strong relationships/partnerships with. The beautiful thing about being a part of a movement is creating community, sharing strategies and working across intersectional and intergenerational lines, with love. Together we believe we can transform society to be one where ALL Black Lives Matter.
For tips on filming testimony with victims and survivors of human rights abuses, see our resources on conducting secure and ethical interviews. Also, check out our WITNESS Media Lab project, Caught on Camera: Police Abuse in the U.S.