December 11th, 2023
If you have participated in any of the left-wing movements of the past decade, you’ve probably attempted to imagine what a world without the carceral system would look like. What would it require of us and of our communities to, as the abolitionist theorist Dean Spade has put it, “solve our own problems with each other,” instead of consigning them to cops and courts? What would it feel like, when we do harm or suffer it, to actively take part in a process of repair?
My colleague Mari Cohen is no stranger to these questions. She started her career covering the criminal legal system in Chicago, and her remit at Jewish Currents includes coordinating the work we publish from incarcerated writers and artists. When Mari was seriously injured in a hit-and-run in 2021, she was relieved to learn that the driver would not be charged due to lack of evidence; she didn’t want any part in entangling someone else’s life in legal hell. But she struggled with the idea that the person who hit her wouldn’t be held accountable—and, as she started trying to envision what an alternative response to his actions might look like, she also grappled with her own reservations about the efficacy of the restorative justice approaches available. To clarify her own thinking, Mari decided to report out the story in multiple directions at once, going in search of the man who drove a car into her two years ago, and researching the fledgling efforts to apply restorative justice models to traffic violence in New York City. I highly recommend reading the result, a deeply moving exploration of how our systems for responding to harm can shape—and, often, limit—our chances to heal.
I didn’t particularly want to go for a run on the evening of Saturday, August 28th, 2021. But I’d spent the day lying around, recovering from an exhausting weeklong work retreat and a late night hanging out with colleagues, and I hoped a run might bring me back to life. I remember that I wore a new pair of running shorts, a special flower-printed Nike edition, because I felt a slight pang when an ER resident later had to cut them away from my body.
Throughout the previous week it had been too hot to think, up in the low 90s, but the temperature had mercifully plunged back to the 70s. I allowed myself to take the shorter version of my route to Fort Greene Park, forgoing the idyllic path through Clinton Hill in favor of the arterial Fulton Street. Fulton Street is not pretty, but I like how it crams the maximum amount of life into the minimum number of square feet, with its bodegas, beauty supply shops, yuppie bars, liquor stores, and a mosque where men pray on mats out front.
I made it to the park and headed back the way I’d come on Fulton. Soon enough, I was a few blocks from home. The light changed; I ran off the curb and onto the crosswalk. As I remember it, I heard the shouts before I felt the impact: Someone yelled “hey!” and a bright blue van hit my right side. Then I was trying to get up, and many people were yelling and approaching me. “Come back! You hit someone!” a man screamed at the van, but the van was not listening, the van was no longer there. I kept saying “oh my god.” I made it to my knees and then decided to lie back down. Someone was bringing me my phone and headphones. Strangers had formed a half circle around me, blocking off the street. A woman introduced herself as a trained EMT. “Did anyone see what happened? Was the light red? Was it my fault?” I asked. “You’re a pedestrian, it’s never your fault,” said the woman, who wanted me to keep my neck very still. I wasn’t sure I believed her. I knew my name, I could move my fingers, I could move my toes. The pain was all down my right side, but also it was everything, and when I breathed, the bottom of my breath seemed to land on the edge of a knife.
As the ambulance arrived, I was thinking about whether I could still somehow make this thing, which was not supposed to have happened, un-happen. I had been so close to deciding not to go for a run in the first place; the alternate reality where I was still resting safely on my couch seemed to hover within reach. When the EMTs deposited me into the back of the ambulance, I noticed I was only wearing one of my shoes, the other one washed away forever in the tides of Fulton Street.
When the van hit my right side, it broke seven ribs and my clavicle and collapsed my lung. Had I been hit slightly higher, I could’ve had brain damage; slightly lower, and the crash could’ve permanently impacted my ability to walk. Instead, with time, the lung sprang back to form, and the bones found each other again, without much fanfare or prodding. The entire affair resulted in the greatest show of community care I’ve ever experienced. Complete strangers comforted me and took pictures of the license plate as the van sped away; my mom dropped everything and flew in to stay by my side for two weeks; my best friend packed my things and brought them to the hospital. For weeks, as my right arm hung limp in its sling and I maneuvered in and out of bed sideways to avoid aggravating the pain in my ribs, friends showed up at my door with home-cooked meals and groceries. Experiencing such kindness from people who acted out of an instinctual desire to help rather than any obligation was life-affirming, invigorating.
Yet this was all set in motion by a radically antisocial act: Someone sped through a red light, plowed into me, and then drove away. It was due only to luck, and not to care, that he didn’t kill me. Our fates were bound by the simple fact of occupying the same street at the same time, but from the moment he fled north from the intersection, we were to communicate solely through a bureaucratic game of telephone: The van was owned by a small business whose owner worked with the insurance company representatives, who worked with my lawyer, who worked with me. The driver who had caused the harm was shrouded, unknowable—so absent from what happened next that I sometimes came close to forgetting about him entirely. The bones broke; the bones regrew.