Philadelphia’s modern racial history is ugly and explosive and somehow ignored in school textbooks. In 1985, to quell a growing Black liberation group called MOVE, the Philadelphia Police Department dropped a bomb on Black citizens it was sworn to protect.
When Lynne Abraham became district attorney during the 1990s homicide spike, her well-advertised policy was to kill accused perpetrators dead, via the death penalty. This “solution” was disproportionately used for Black men, and several of these defendants have been found actually innocent decades later.
Inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission created by South Africa after the racial separation policies of Apartheid, viral activist Shaun King and civil rights attorney Lee Merritt have created their own version for three pilot cities: Philadelphia, Boston, and San Francisco.
The newly elected “progressive” district attorneys of those cities, including Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner, are major partners in the effort. This is excellent news, in theory, but there are pitfalls to be avoided if this is not just a media stunt.
Most obviously, the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission was opened after apartheid ended, the significance of which cannot be understated. Not unlike our old Jim Crow laws, apartheid laws created a system whereby people of different races could not socialize, congregate, or marry. Black people needed a special permission card to work in “white areas.”
America has moved past these sorts of laws, but not they are not the subject matter of the Philadelphia Commission. Instead, as the new Commission’s website states, the planned truth-telling will address how the US criminal justice system “has often been a cruel and oppressive force of injustice for African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, immigrants, members of the LGBTQIA community, and all marginalized communities.”
The problem is, despite the current hype over “progressive prosecutors,” there is a large body of evidence showing that our criminal justice system is still draconian and racist.
During the Trump presidency, undocumented migrants are rooted from their homes and sent packing for petty offenses like marijuana possession and reckless driving. The U.S. incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation, as does Pennsylvania as a state.
Yet, there is no majority feeling in the zeitgeist that the entire criminal justice system, from policing to probation to prosecutors, needs to be indicted.
If this was the case, truly revolutionary bills, such as abolishing the police or authorizing the mass releases of prisoners, would be not only possible but probable. Hence, such a commission comes across as presumptive and premature.
It also cannot be forgotten that the South Africa Commission was created pursuant to a bill passed by the country’s legislature. Much like the state of Pennsylvania or the United States itself, South Africa is a representative democracy.
That means representatives of all corners of South African society voted to approve the commission.
In contrast, the Philadelphia commission was spurred by a viral activist and a famous attorney. The other founder of the commission, Krasner, is a highly contentious figure who became the elected prosecutor of his city thanks largely to low turnout and $33 per vote in Soros Super PAC money. That in of itself starts the new Commission from a place of illegitimacy.
From there, things get dicier when looking at the past of the nongovernmental founders.
When Shaun King incorrectly accused Robert Paul Cantrell of killing 7-year-old Jazmine Barnes, Cantrell died by suicide in the jail. A fully truthful accounting of historic trauma, and accurately holding people accountable, was key to the success of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Merritt has also wrongfully accused people of crimes, including a Texas state trooper for raping a woman at a traffic stop. That police officer was exonerated by dash cam.
Lastly, there is the problem of the “Donate” button on the Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission’s website.
This is a Shaun King project, right off the heels of a new, searing expose accusing King of serious mismanagement of the funds he raises for social justice causes.
When King revived The North Star, Frederick Douglass’s historic abolitionist newspaper, he raised a large amount of money only for the project to quickly implode. People who donated want to know where their money went, and there are no satisfactory answers.
Apparently, some people who work for Shaun King’s Real Justice PAC also may be using donations to give their own consulting companies kickbacks.
Given the promise of truth-telling commissions on American racism and the sanctity of the South Africa transitional justice model, one can only hope that this is not just an attempt to increase approval ratings for the three elected prosecutors involved.
Since Krasner is up for reelection in less than a year, the timing is definitely suspect.
Rory Fleming, of Philadelphia, is the founder of Foglight Strategies, a campaign research services firm for forward-thinking prosecutors nationwide. He previously worked for the Fair Punishment Project, which was founded as a joint project of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute and its Criminal Justice Institute, as well as the National Network for Safe Communities. His work appears occasionally on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.