Commentary: Justice in Love
Why we need collective action to fight hate violence in New York City.
“There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance, it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality.” ~Marilynne Robinson, Gilead.
A few years ago, I met DeAndre Matthews, after hearing about him enthusiastically for some time. I was directing a restorative justice project in New York public schools with some of the city’s highest suspension rates; DeAndre’s school was among them. A few days before the pandemic shut everything down, I dropped by just as DeAndre was sharing his coming-out story with a packed office of supportive classmates and staff. In fact, I wrote about it for this publication last year. I will always remember the moment I stopped to listen to DeAndre. How funny he was. How expressive. How beloved.
It’s hard to square that memory with the news of his murder.
After going missing in early February, DeAndre’s body was found in Brooklyn, a bullet to his head, his body burned. DeAndre was gay, Black, 19 years old, and a college student studying criminal justice at SUNY. And although we still don’t know who killed him or why, the overwhelming sense from those who knew him is clear: this feels like an act of hate violence.
At the vigil, which was hosted by the Anti-Violence Project, an organization that fights against violence targeting queer communities, there were scores of activists from Equality for Flatbush, the Brooklyn Community Pride Center, and others, all calling for justice.
Amidst those calls, I wondered what justice could look like for the Matthews family. There is nothing that can undo the sudden, horrific, loss of a loved one: There is no justice in love. But there are steps our city can take to honor him and his family, and to prevent more of this violence from continuing to happen in our communities.
In the darkest moments, there is still a path forward.
The first step requires the truth. His family needs to know what happened. And they need the person or people who caused this unspeakable harm to be held accountable for their actions.
But the inquiry should not stop there, because individual harm doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Within a restorative justice framework, the pursuit of accountability works at the individual and collective levels. While certain persons caused this specific harm, the rest of us need to address the broader question of how hatred and bias against our LGBTQ communities can still go unchecked, or – worse – gather steam. Taking action at the societal level is critical. In its absence, it’s analogous to watching car crash after car crash at a dangerous intersection instead of getting together to construct a crosswalk or a stoplight.
Anti-LGBTQ hate violence is happening with increasing frequency. In 2022, the Bureau of Justice Statistics published a report that outlines how LGBTQ people are at a significantly heightened risk of violent victimization, and it only gets worse for young people and for people of color. Insider recently reported that Black trans homicides doubled between 2019-2021. And in 2019, the Anti-Violence Project published a report about hate violence across the nation during two months of Pride celebrations of that year, finding 14 homicides of LGBTQ people, 7 of whom were Black trans women.
Meanwhile, the last few years have seen an influx of anti-LGBTQ legislation, from banning Drag Story Hour in Tennessee – which was just signed into law in early March – to bans on even discussing sexual orientation or gender identity in schools in Iowa and Florida. Here in New York, we are not as insulated as we pretend to be. While we don’t have anti-LGBTQ legislation on the books, just last month the Proud Boys showed up to intimidate people at a public library in Queens that was hosting its own Drag Story Hour. Indeed, hate crimes against LGBTQ people are on the rise in New York, too.
While researching this piece, I encountered so many queer voices bravely speaking up and asking the rest of us who don’t identify as queer, myself included, to connect the dots between our struggles. Whether it’s bans against abortion or against gender-affirming care, these types of laws are designed to elicit feelings of shame about our bodies, while violating our privacy on what should be deeply personal decisions.
The connection between this current crop of legislation and individual acts of violence is not coincidental. When our politicians, media, or cultural spokespeople telegraph that we should feel ashamed of who we are, many people take the cue: this world isn’t meant for all of us. Some of us are less worthy than others of love and protection. Some of us are disposable. A culture of shame and suppression bubbles out into pain, violence, and abuse.
No one can root out shame alone, which is why collective action is a necessary part of the accountability process. There are countless actions we can take: we can make bold statements at all levels of city government calling out hate; we can invest in a diverse community of upstanders and allies; we can ensure our schools are places of self-discovery and learning for our teenagers; we can support LGBTQ organizations with the resources they need to be safe and secure. What we can’t do is arrest one individual who committed a hateful act and then stop the conversation as if it solves the problem.
The path forward after harm isn’t easy. We need answers for the families who are hurting. We need to build out collective action toward preventing future harm. And we need to say DeAndre Matthews’ name, a light among us, and all the names we haven’t said enough. We need justice in love.
Erika Sasson is an attorney and consultant who designs, implements, and facilitates restorative justice practices. She has worked in community-based settings and large systems, including courts and schools, and on issues ranging from intimate partner violence to homicide. She was previously the director of restorative practices at the Center for Justice Innovation.
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