“Justice!” bellowed Pastor Chris Battle from the front of Central United Methodist Church on Monday night.
“Knocks!” thundered back the 1,000 or so people in the pews, members of about 16 congregations across the city. They repeated the chant three times, then thundered their feet against the floor like the hand of God knocking.
They were members of Justice Knox, a faith-based organization founded to pursue social justice in Knoxville. Its approach, which demands unusually direct accountability from invited local leaders, may also be generating a new group of social activists.
Formed last year, the coalition has chosen to focus on education and mental illness for its initial foray into activism, asking that teachers and law enforcement officers be provided with different types of training to help prevent jails being filled with the mentally ill and low-income black kids.
Interestingly, this coalition of majority-white and -black churches apparently intimidated school board members enough that most did not attend—including board chairwoman Patti Bounds, who had committed to coming. Board member Jennifer Owen came, as she said she would, but did not step forward when she and Bounds were called multiple times by name to respond to the requests. (All leaders invited had met with Justice Knox representatives and been briefed on the requests beforehand, although Owen says they changed.)
Justice Knox leaders made it clear that board members were being asked to commit their individual votes and support for funding comprehensive “restorative justice” training at five pilot schools (a concept the board has already endorsed in a general way) using a specific vendor, and to attend a restorative justice circle at Fulton High, which is in Owen’s district. Restorative justice is a discipline approach that focuses on rebuilding community rather than punishment like suspension or arrest.
Given that restorative justice pilots are already going and the board has endorsed the concept, the requests didn’t seem that controversial—yet the format generated controversy. Owen says she told Justice Knox leaders in advance that she wouldn’t directly respond to their requests because she had too little information about the vendor and the estimated costs kept changing—plus, the school district must legally conduct an open bid process for training. She adds that with a “pilot” comes an expectation that training will eventually be extended to all other schools for an uncertain price. And she says school district attorneys confirmed that “If all I can do is say yes or no, that could come across as me making a commitment for the entire board.” (She acknowledged she could have responded, “No.”) She says she’d be willing to observe a restorative circle at Fulton if the principal wants her to.
Owen says she found the tone of her interactions with Justice Knox manipulative and intimidating. “I have never been treated so badly by any group of people, anywhere, and I just have no words,” she wrote in an email.
Battle, who is pastor at Tabernacle Baptist Church and co-chair of Justice Knox, told the crowd that the school board had apparently decided Justice Knox members were bullies.
“We have been accused of ‘mob activity,’” he told the sea of people who had quietly packed the pews. “I don’t see a mob tonight. I see faithful, informed citizens who want what’s best for our children.” (At one point a single person in the back booed one of the local leaders, and everyone within the surrounding eight pews practically crawled over each other to hush her.) For many in the majority-white crowd, it may have been the first time they had ever been told that their peaceful civic action was threatening.
The Justice Knox model, and Monday night’s assembly, is something new to public life in Knoxville. It involves an annual nine-month cycle of action, consisting of selecting community problems and conducting time-intensive research into solutions. The process culminates in a high-pressure “Nehemiah Action Assembly” to ask local leaders to commit on the spot to specific actions, in front of God and everybody (read: voters).
Gigantic posters the size of a wall were brought out listing all the requests, followed by names of leaders and boxes that had to be checked “yes” or “no.” (Even a citizen activist who wants to approach the school board or City Council doesn’t get to control the agenda or demand a clear response like this.) The assembly is named after the Biblical story of Nehemiah, who gathered the community to demand justice from leaders who were allowing hungry people to be exploited during a famine.
The Justice Knox approach is not a radical new concept even in the Southeast. The nonprofit, which hired its first staff member last year, is affiliated with the national Direct Action and Research Training Center. DART provides a model and support to similar organizations in more than 20 American cities, where they have successfully pushed for public transportation funding, elder-care reforms, and (in Lexington, Ky.) funding for an affordable housing trust fund. DART affiliates from multiple Florida cities are working on state legislation to shift from charging juvenile offenders with misdemeanors to giving them civil citations, keeping their criminal records clean.
Justice Knox adds new churches all the time and would like to include synagogues, the Muslim community, and other nonprofits, says staff organizer Marjorie Thigpen-Carter.
“I think ministers and people in faith congregations, and people in general, get frustrated with their inability to do something bigger than just helping the person they see in need right now,” she says. “That’s mercy, right? You see someone on the street and you feel badly. You can help them and feel good about that quickly.”
Justice is harder, because it means addressing the complex social problem that put that person on the street—like poverty, education, addiction, or mental illness.
“Sometimes social justice issues seem to be more theoretical or on a national level, and this brings it down to the concrete,” says the Rev. John Gill, who says Justice Knox gives structure to a type of ministry that used to be more sporadic and reactive at his Church of the Savior United Church of Christ.
“One of the things we talk about is 52/1: Fifty-two weeks a year we worship and engage in ministries of mercy,” Gill says. “One week a year we can all gather for social justice.”
The question is whether those people will gather twice, which they were exhorted to do Monday when Battle urged them to attend the Knox County Board of Education meeting next week to oppose a contract for “watered-down” restorative justice training.
Justice Knox had better luck with its second set of requests, focused on training all local law enforcement and jail officers in crisis intervention to better handle confrontations with people who are more mentally ill than criminal. The city, via a representative of Mayor Madeline Rogero, declined to agree to a second request for an outside evaluation of the new safety center, which is set to open this year as a means to divert small-time offenders who are mentally ill from jail to treatment. But Sheriff Jimmy “JJ” Jones agreed, on the condition that the study be done after the center has six to eight months of operations under its belt.
The Justice Knox process began late last summer with “house meetings” across the city. At each, a dozen or so people shared what keeps them awake at night and what community problems worry them.
The Rev. John Mark Wiggers, priest of St. James Episcopal in East Knoxville, says much of the power behind the movement comes from the personal stories that inspire it. For example, Jay McMahan on Monday shared the experience of trying to help his mentally-ill sister when she was having a paranoid episode. Two trained police officers arrived and helped her calm down before an untrained backup officer escalated the crisis.
The final issues chosen were researched by committees of 25 to 50 volunteers who set up in-person interviews with experts such as the district attorney, mental health workers at Helen Ross McNabb, jail employees, and people from communities that have tackled similar problems.
Elizabeth A. Johnson, who attends Tabernacle Baptist, went on two to three of these research visits a week to learn about the criminalization of mental health. At first she felt overwhelmed, but then she began to look forward to them because she was learning so much.
“We were under the impression that the safety center would be the answer, but upon further research we realized it would only accommodate them for three days,” she says. “That’s not what we need… We’re going to push for program that would pay for a pipeline to longer-term treatment and for more qualified mental health workers.”
Johnson says she’ll be more engaged in local government generally now. “I never thought to read a city budget before,” she says. “We have to start going to these public meetings and doing our own research and drawing our own conclusions. Then we can say, hey you got excess (money) here, why don’t you use it for this?”
Johnson and others say that working together with people from other churches has helped them realize that the same problems cross racial, economic, political and geographic lines.
“I think it’s the joy that together we can make a difference, instead of being in individual churches gnashing our teeth over the things we’d like to change,” Gill says. “To seek fairness of systems requires coming together of lots of people.”
S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at email@example.com
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