Courtroom Sketch of Officer Stephen Sullivan, Defendant in Bumpurs Trial, 1985. Museum of the City of New York

No Justice, No Peace: Reflections on the Tragedy of Ferguson

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Three years before, Eleanor Bumpurs had been shot. A sixty-six year old black woman shot by a white police officer. Shot twice. With a shotgun. In her home. A case against the police officer wound through the courts in fits and starts. In 1987 the officer was acquitted. It was then, on the streets in front of the courthouse, that the press recorded for the first time the chant, “no justice, no peace.”

Three years before, Eleanor Bumpurs had been shot. A sixty-six year old black woman shot by a white police officer. Shot twice. With a shotgun. In her home. A case against the police officer wound through the courts in fits and starts. In 1987 the officer was acquitted. It was then, on the streets in front of the courthouse, that the press recorded for the first time the chant, “no justice, no peace.”

It is a chant that has been heard frequently in Ferguson, Missouri over the past several days, and it has been heard frequently across the country over the past quarter century when incidents of racial injustice surface. The chant expresses and justifies anger – perhaps something stronger, perhaps the opposite of peace, violence.

In a nation that likes its minorities peaceful, especially when they protest, in a nation that remembers its greatest racial struggles of the past century as essentially non-violent, this chant is disconcerting. It challenges the anodyne equation of love and justice. More fundamentally, it challenges the illusory consensus that love and justice are the way we, as a nation, will make ourselves better.

Does “love and justice” secularize into “no justice, no peace”? Once the Christian moral message of the civil rights movement has finally faded, are we left with irreligious fury?

These questions presume that “no justice, no peace” has a normative rather than a descriptive meaning. In other words, they presume that violence is commended as a response to injustice. What if we hear the two beats of the chant together, describing our world, or our neighborhood. There is both no justice and there is no peace: we are far from the land of milk and honey.

The language of justice rings today hollow. It once named an ideal beyond the wisdom of the world, beyond worldly laws, an ideal that could set a course for worldly action. Then justice came to mean criminal justice: enforcing worldly laws in the right way. The phrase “criminal justice system” coopts the language of justice – better, secularizes the language of justice – making justice another synonym for law and order. Justice is reduced to order, something to be enforced.

Our world and our neighborhoods consist of complicated individuals struggling to live their lives and make sense of it all, individuals whose lives are marked by violence committed by them and committed to them. It is violence that most often goes unspoken as we are invested in the practices and institutions that promote the veneer of peace. We are invested in order, in a world of order, a world we can understand and control, and this we label peace. The Ferguson police enforce order. They tell people to walk on the sidewalk. They do not enforce peace – peace and force are incompatible. Forcing peace creates injustice.

When we are invested in the world – and I mean this quite literally, financially – peace seems enforceable. We have the deadly luxury of ignoring the violence we commit and the violence committed against us and basking in the apparent stability and comfort of our situation. But there are many not invested in the world. For them, the violence accompanying the enforcement of peace is all too obvious. For them, peace is not order, it is something more. For them, genuine peace, like genuine justice, is divine.

“No justice, no peace” is in this way a prayer. It appeals beyond the wisdom of the world. It reminds the comfortable that their comfort is contingent and more precarious than they imagine. It gathers the victims of injustice together to speak truthfully, to chant truthfully, words that will likely go unheard.

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