On Thursday at the corner of Alexander and Tracy, more than one hundred people witnessed the re-dedication of a new statue of Frederick Douglass replacing the original monument allegedly ruined by two St. John Fisher students. 12 similar statues are placed around Rochester on sites historically linked to Douglass.
Among others, Carvin Eison and Bleu Cease, Co-Directors of the Re-Energizing the Legacy of Frederick Douglass Project, spoke. Eric Daniels and Tian Stephens, alumni of the Frederick Douglass Club at School 12, read a letter Douglass wrote about the rejection of his daughter by the Seward Seminary that once stood on the site.
First revving up the crowd with a call and response — “When I say FREDERICK, you say DOUGLASS” — Carvin set the tone of the afternoon by declaring, “When one [statue] goes down, ten go up.” Carvin wished we actually had the resources for ten new monuments, but the symbolic connection between the statues and a rising up of the community was powerful. Carvin also reminded us that before Rochester was the city of George Eastman it was the city of Frederick Douglass.
It was about that time when I heard someone in a passing car yell something to the effect of “throw ’em all in jail.” Next to me was Shanda who also heard the shout. We weren’t sure exactly what we had heard, but Shanda worried the shout was a negative gesture toward the gathering. Later, I spoke with Xavier from 103.9 WDKX’s The Wake Up Club who interviewed me for his program.
Xavier, along with two city workers who were closer to the scene, were pretty sure the call was for a stiff punishment — jail time — for the vandals.
While many in the audience might like to see the perpetrators face imprisonment, I was reminded of project manager Christine Christopher’s earlier statement that now is the time to set aside anger. Instead, the destruction of the monument can be a teachable moment.
The incident and its aftermath is a moment for restorative justice, as defined by The Centre for Justice & Reconciliation:
Restorative justice repairs the harm caused by crime. When victims, offenders and community members meet to decide how to do that, the results can be transformational.
I asked Olivia Kim, the creator of the statues, what might be suitable punishment. First, Olivia explained that discussions are being held surrounding payment for a new sculpture. She spent approximately 220 hrs over the course of two weeks on making, teaching/directing volunteers to produce one sculpture. Olivia had 4-8 volunteers helping each day during a 6 day work week.
At the same time, along with financial compensation, Olivia is open to restorative interventions. The project itself was not possible without the work of close to 140 volunteers. Olivia would welcome an offer by the men to be trained — as were the volunteers — to help create sculptures. In turn, they could direct others.
The experience might transform the young men. And maybe we could reach Carvin’s imagined goal of ten statues up for the one that went down.See “Olivia Kim: Bringing Frederick Douglass to Life” in the South Wedge Quarterly‘s 2018 Holiday Edition
Gerard Rooney, president of St. John Fisher College also spoke.
It’s my commitment to you today that we as a campus community will earn the respect of the Rochester community…to restore the reputation of St. John Fisher College.
While the actions of a few do not represent the college as a whole, Rooney called for another form of restorative justice.Later, I floated an idea past President Rooney.
SJF’s Library holds an extensive collection of Douglass’ newspapers. As many of the papers are in poor condition, the students could repair or digitize as needed. They could create a power point presentation on their discoveries to be presented in RCSD schools. Rooney thinks the idea — in keeping with the transformational potential of restorative justice — is promising.
UPDATE: Lavery Library Director Melissa Jadlos informed me that the newspapers are now digitalized and can be found at the New York Heritage Digital Collection.