Embedded in the conversation around sexual violence and the #MeToo movement are questions about what an ethical pathway forward looks like for perpetrators, especially for those in the public eye.
A newly formed coalition of black women is seeking to provide answers to those questions in the aftermath of revelations that Colorado State Rep. Jovan Melton once plead guilty to charges related to domestic violence in 1999 and was again arrested in 2008.
Melton, a Democrat, has been urged to resign by many in his own political party. But some of his allies, including many people of color, have taken a different stance, supporting Melton and pointing to a broken criminal justice system that disproportionately punishes black men.
For example, former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, a Democrat, referred to the party’s calls for Melton to step down a “Jim Crow system of justice” and a “political lynching.”
Despite his guilty plea in the 1999 case, Melton issued a somewhat discordant statement in which he denied any physical violence, but added that in his youth he “lacked the emotional acuity to be able to properly manage emotional and stressful situations” and apologized for causing “pain and anguish” to the two women.
Melton has expressed no intention of resigning.
Black Women Transforming Justice, the new coalition, criticized what they view as an inadequate response from Melton and his allies at a press conference last week.
“We are women who did not see or hear our voices represented as a dozen or so black and brown leaders–our mentors, our elders, our representatives, our friends–came forward to speak in support of Representative Melton,” said Elizabeth Epps, a criminal justice reform advocate. “Their voices are not the final word for the voices of our communities, certainly not when supporting black men comes at the expense of not treasuring our sister.”
Epps added that she doesn’t think Melton’s conviction alone necessarily renders him unfit for public office, but that his response might.
“Melton has passed day after day many opportunities to apologize without exception and ask his constituents and community how to make amends,” Epps said. “And in silence, he has tacitly agreed with the gross mischaracterization of what is occurring as being a modern-day lynching when it is not. ”
Regan Byrd, a community activist and member of the coalition, agreed that using racially loaded terms, like lynching, is inappropriate.
“It does not help our community’s healing to use racially loaded and violent language,” said Byrd. “Doing so just leverages the blood loss of our ancestors for political collateral which is not only offensive and irresponsible, it is also very disrespectful.”
Byrd also emphasized that believing survivors and advocating for a better justice system are not mutually exclusive undertakings.
“By developing alternative models of accountability that do not rely on punitive methods of punishment, then we can both support the healing process of survivors, and support the reconciliation and transformation process for those who caused harm,” said Byrd.
In that spirit, the coalition issued the following recommendations for Melton to take full responsibility for his transgressions in a way that prioritizes the needs of the survivor:
1) Being open and transparent by admitting, with specificity, the harm done and the mistakes that lead to harm being inflicted.
2) Take full responsibility, by not making excuses or minimizing harmful conduct, and disavow statements by those who do the same in your defense.
3) Make transparent amends to those you have harmed and recognize that it is the survivor who determines whether you have sufficiently atoned.
4) Create a plan for behavioral change with rehabilitative experts who will both support and hold you accountable.
5) Share the lessons you have learned and reveal the steps you have taken to not only redeem yourself, but ultimately to repair the harm to the Survivor.
6) Rebuild trust by opening up yourself to public scrutiny and feedback from those you have harmed or who are hurt by your actions.
7) Commit resources to the healing process, protection of survivors, and rehabilitative efforts for abusers that are culturally and gender responsive.
8) Protect survivors from further abuse by condemning actions that promote retaliation against them, or the stigmatization and marginalization of their voices.
9) Prioritize the needs and healing process of the survivor, superseding your own career by dedicating your own personal time to aid in the path to recovery.
10) Consider resigning, if the harm that you have caused has irreparably damaged your ability to effectively serve your constituents, colleagues, and community.
Melton did not immediately respond to a request for comment seeking to know if he plans to heed the group’s suggestions.
Byrd clarified that the list is not meant to be exhaustive, but rather to serve as a roadmap toward transformative justice.
“It’s about the spirit of the effort that we need folks to put in, and it’s about understanding the issues, more so than it’s about checking off a box,” she said.
Other members of the coalition include Lisa Calderon, who recently announced she’s running to be the first female Mayor of Denver, and Dr. Hillary Potter, an ethnic studies professor at the University of Colorado.