Recently, a friend slid me a copy of an op-ed about R. Kelly written by Dream Hampton, the creator of a recent docu-series about the famous singer, entitled Surviving R. Kelly. In her op-ed, Ms. Hampton takes note of what she perceives as a contradiction from the women who recount the instances in which the singer has abused or assaulted them. Not a one of them want to see him go to prison. When asked what should happen to the entertainer, each person said they wanted him to get help. They all expressed compassion for him, even as they detailed the numerous ways he has negatively impacted their lives.
For Ms. Hampton, this is potentially a strong argument for restorative justice. But then R. Kelly does that interview with Gayle King. During the interview, he denies any wrong doing. Then he blames the women’s parents for the harm he says never happened. The whole injustice of being blamed for something that never happened and that was someone else’s fault anyway, eventually became too much for the singer to bear. He lost his temper, went viral, made his future trial redundant, and a whole bunch of other stuff.
In recounting this incident, Ms. Hampton rightfully focuses in on his lack of accountability. But then she uses that lack of accountability to suggest that the restorative justice process would be wasted on the singer. It is at that point I start to have questions for the author.
For starters, if we’re to be honest about R. Kelly, we have to acknowledge that his wrongdoings have never been a secret. We’ve had every clue, and the reason we didn’t act on those clues had nothing to do with the survivors, and everything to do with our obsession with celebrity culture. Our obsession with celebrities is toxic. It grants people privilege based upon fame. It doesn’t matter what the source of that frame is, it could be acting ability, eloquent speech, singing talent, a popular sex tape. Along with that fame comes power. We look at them differently. We’re less inclined to hold them accountable. As an example, a couple of years ago one celebrity boasted that he could murder someone in public and nothing would happen, then he was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault, then we elected him president.
None of this justifies the behavior R. Kelly is accused of. But hopefully, it creates space for us to acknowledge that when we obsess over celebrity, and by extension give them preferential treatment, we participate in a dynamic that seems to bring the worse out in people. Everybody has skeletons in their closets, but your average celebrity seems to have an entire graveyard.
Getting back to restorative justice, it’s important to acknowledge that this is the process that the survivors asked for. This is the path they say would lead to the most healing for them. That fact should not be overlooked or minimized. I have set in circles where survivors of crime have spoken passionately of the ways our current criminal justice system fails to meet their needs. I believe the needs of those harmed should be centered in considering what should be done in any criminal proceedings.
Finally, Ms. Hampton has a point when she asserts that R. Kelly’s lack of accountability would prevent a restorative circle from being successful. In fact, were the singer to sit in a circle with any one of his survivors today, there is little doubt he would actually perpetuate more harm, not healing. This doesn’t disqualify the singer however. Restorative justice is a much more rigorous process than just sitting in a circle with the person you’ve harmed. Before that meeting can take place, the person responsible for the harm has to develop an understanding of why they committed the harm in the first place, cultivate new coping strategies for the harm in their own lives that typically led to the behavior, and get a general sense of the impact their actions had on others. The preparatory work for the eventual meeting with the survivor, or a proxy, is essential for the restorative process to work.
At the end of the day, this isn’t about R. Kelly. It’s about the survivors, R. Kelly, and the culture we have all helped create. The path to healing requires we all enter the circle, look deeply inside ourselves, and work together towards a better future.
James King is a writer. Some of his influences are James Baldwin, Angela Davis, his hometown of Ferguson, Mo, and that all oppression must be eradicated. He writes to introduce marginalized perspectives, and he writes to feel whole. Read more about James.