Life is honestly so much more complex than we like to make it sound. For some reason, either/or ideology dominates even the most brilliant minds, and the fact is, we often live in both/and worlds. This is especially true in activism.
Cw: homicide, sexual violence, domestic and intimate partner violence, substance use, policing, prisons, incarceration
In an interview with Democracy Now!, Dr. Angela Davis was speaking about the movement to defund the police. She spoke highly of the defund the police movement, and said it was most definitely an abolitionist demand. But she was quick to caution that we cannot just defund the police, and then do nothing forward. Dr. Davis later went on to remind us that abolition is not necessarily about the dismantling of, or getting rid of, but rather, abolition is actually about building anew. What she spoke of was building a world with accessible health care, access to food, shelter, universal education, job guarantees, basic income, and things of that nature.
Here’s the thing: I have been a believer in restorative justice for years, adamantly, and strongly believe in it. But I never felt comfortable with being an abolitionist.
You know that gotcha question that people like to ask police and prison abolitionists: what are you going to do with murderers?!
That is not a theoretical question for me. In March 2017, my own step-nephew brutally beat his own mother, my sister-in-law, to her death, in their own home, on her 39th birthday. He later confessed to the police, who took nine hours to apprehend him, that his original plan was to take her out, and then when my brother, his step-father, came home, he planned to take him out, and then himself. It’s never anything you expect to go through in your family. His plan to kill more than just his mother was foiled, but not because of the police, but rather because my father had received “odd text messages” from my now deceased sister-in-law’s phone, which we later discovered was my step-nephew. My father decided to run over to the house, and I am so thankful my step-nephew had left for whatever reason, because who is to say what would have happened to my father had he still been in there. My father, however, was naturally psychologically scarred finding a brutally beaten body of his daughter-in-law, and frantically called 911. It became a news story, and a local sensation, with some national exposure. I’m not linking the story here, so don’t ask for it.
In the Little Book of Restorative Justice by Howard Zehr, Zehr says something to the effect of: we all can imagine, and generally can know what we would desire to see happen if our sibling, our best friend, or even ourselves was the victim of a horrific harm. But what Zehr challenges you do is to imagine how you would want your sibling, your best friend, or even yourself to move through accountability if they had caused the harm. It isn’t something we are challenged to think about too often, are we? But the reality is, most every single person sitting in a prison was the loved one of someone, most of who probably never imagined them doing something as egregious as they had done. I’m not talking about the many victims of the war on drugs, or the many who are falsely incarcerated in the United States. I’m talking about the people who are in there because they murdered one or more people, raped one or more people, harmed a child, completed domestic violence, or some other horrific act of violence against a human being. In a fascinating report by the NYU School of Law, they declare that 39% of prisoners do not belong in prison at all, either because they had served long enough, or because they had completed a low-level, non-violent offense. But what does that say about the rest?
Further, according to the FBI, in 2016, there were 95,730 rapes reported to law enforcement, and we can definitely rest assure there was many more than what was reported. I have written about my experiences with sexual violence in my personal blog, and won’t go into detail until later on, and I’ll put up another warning, but I am one of the many with an unreported sexual battery in the mix.
This report by Prison Policy Initiative clears up a popular myth that says releasing “nonviolent drug offenders” would end mass incarceration.
From the article:
“It’s true that police, prosecutors, and judges continue to punish people harshly for nothing more than drug possession. Drug offenses still account for the incarceration of almost half a million people, and nonviolent drug convictions remain a defining feature of the federal prison system. Police still make over 1 million drug possession arrests each year.
In 2018, there were 1,654,282 drug arrests in the U.S., the vast majority of which (86%) were for drug possession or use rather than for sale or manufacturing many of which lead to prison sentences. Drug arrests continue to give residents of over-policed communities criminal records, hurting their employment prospects and increasing the likelihood of longer sentences for any future offenses.
Nevertheless, 4 out of 5 people in prison or jail are locked up for something other than a drug offense — either a more serious offense or an even less serious one. To end mass incarceration, we will have to change how our society and our justice system responds to crimes more serious than drug possession. We must also stop incarcerating people for behaviors that are even more benign.”
Do not get me wrong, I am adamantly opposed to the war on drugs, and it should be completely abolished. I actually believe in full legalization, which sounds radical, but it works!
The most important thing, as well, is to remember that incarceration in our prison systems was created and magnified to oppress Black people in the United States, and it completes this task very well. This isn’t an entry-level article on this, so if you are not versed in this, then look it up, but frankly, all of these facts are true, all at one time.
I have argued that we cannot fix the system, as it is working exactly as intended, we must break the system.
My survivor hood of sexual violence, and losing a family member to homicide, and even that time I had a stalker (I’ve had quite the life) does not negate my white cisgender male privilege. It just doesn’t. Certainly, my white cisgender male privilege also does not negate the trauma, and harms that I have faced, either. It is not a simple either/or. And this is the crux of the point I am making in this ramble. On top of that, my gayness and effeminacy certainly creates layers of challenge, and threats of violence from cisgender hetero men and women alike (and occasionally queer women).
In my activism, with my wonderful colleagues, I have exclusively focused on criminal justice, from police violence, to participatory defense, to mass incarceration, and more.
Yet, I always felt at odds with so-called abolitionist minded organizations. Every abolition organization that I know of in my local sphere seems to interpret restorative/transformative justice as survivor-centric programs. While there certainly are aspects and modalities of restorative justice that do center on only the victim/survivor, the reality is abolition cannot truly happen without a firm program looking to deal with the cause of harm at the root. Restorative justice requires a lenses on all stakeholders, and an obligation to not only repair harms, but meet as many needs as possible. Stakeholders include the victim/survivors, the harm causer, and the community disrupted by the conflict, or violence. While any individual maintains their autonomy to not participate, the fact is, a true, robust, and holistic abolition-minded restorative justice process must include all parties.
But the radical abolitionist organizations I run into seem to have a deficit of this information, and for so long, I felt pretty gaslit. Maybe I was an abuser apologist and did not know it? Now, mind you, many supposed radical activists, and abolitionist orgs operate on campaigns of tearing down prisons, and jail bail outs, which are all wonderful things. But what is interesting, is it only sounds good to most organizations in theory, but application seems to be challenging. Individuals in these organizations would find it, rather pertinent, to tout their transformative justice ideals, and how they believe we should abolish all prisons, and police, tomorrow. Yet, at the same time, the very same organizations operate on a survivor-centric, or even a survivor-only modality of so-called transformative justice.
Let me phrase it another way: The abolitionist minded organizations in my area want to tear down prisons, and process bail for people, of which includes the many who ARE inside those prisons for violent crimes, including my family member’s killer, including the killers, assaulters, rapists, and other harm causers of severe degrees of others, but in their organizing they also operate on a survivor-only modality. How does that work? Will these organizations tear down the prisons, and do nothing else? Will they just release everyone, and then en mass provide support for the survivors, and do nothing else? I sure hope not.
We know prison does not rehabilitate, and in fact, only creates more violence. I won’t even cite a source. Think about it. We have over 2.2 million incarcerated. If prisons resulted in a reduction of violence, then by God, we would be the safer land on the globe!
When my sister-in-law was killed, when I was stalked, and when I faced sexual violence, the police and prison systems we have today were in full force. In other words, they did not protect me. They don’t protect the majority of us, but the fact is, it is not as simple as an either/or notion.
Restorative and transformative justice, when practiced in their full form, acknowledge that cycles of harm can only be ended through community work. Creative Interventions, for example, provides a robust toolkit on dealing with some of the starkest community harms.
But this cannot work if an organizations modality of justice is survivor-only. There is certainly a great need to believe survivors, and hold space exclusively for their healing, by all means. However, justice that is absent accountability is not justice at all. And what accountability looks like varies, but we know it isn’t incarceration. So, why, then, is the default reaction to harms of varying levels, from homophobic tweets from 10 years ago, to assault and battery, and sexual violence automatic exile from the community? It takes a village to heal a survivor, but it also takes a village to help hold a harm causer accountable.
Removing someone from the activist space is not accountability, in fact, it is just the opposite. It is actually removing yourself, and your organization, from its accountability of addressing harm, and ending cycles of harm, while replicating the disposability of the criminal justice system. How can you, on one hand, tell me you wish to tear down the only walls that are keeping a man who killed a family member of mine, and planned to kill another, but on the other hand, you also tell me you will not deal with the sexual boundary violation, the homophobic tweeter, the man with the anger problem, and the domestic abuser? You call for the tearing down of the structures, but yet, have no plan, or acumen, to actually resolve the problems?
The fall of capitalism itself will not end violence, and it is a fallacy to believe that it would, although arguably, it would severely reduce the amount of violence in many levels.
So, yes, you actually do have a responsibility, if you are preaching abolition theory, to engage the harm causer, and work with them to not only hold themselves accountable, but also to heal them in a way to change their behavior. Restorative justice MUST analyze the root of harmful behavior, in order to change it. Reasons are not the same as excuse. The reason for the harm does not excuse it, nor does it minimize the very real impact. I have plenty of knowledge as to why my step nephew did what he did, and as to why my stalker stalked me. I know the reasons, a question the criminal justice system likely would not ask.
But when my stalker vanished, he didn’t do so because he healed. He never faced charges, and I was only 21, so I had no idea about restorative justice. Because I’m his victim (still am, even 10 years later, the trauma haunts me), I wouldn’t be involved in that process, but here’s the thing: because no process of accountability, which includes healing, happened, my stalker most likely found new victims over the years, and the cycle has continued.
I bet you’re thinking prison would stop him, though. Maybe from preying upon us in the community, but then there would be violence in the prisons, which we shouldn’t be advocating for. Likewise, though, he wouldn’t stay in there forever. He would come out, and prison being what it is, likely have learned new tricks of violence, and manipulation.
So, who then will do the work to heal my stalker? And why should I be invested in the healing of someone who has caused me so much trauma?
Because his healing is justice. People do not want to hear that, and rightfully, you shouldn’t have to think about your harm causer when you are in pain. But the fact is, I would feel very satisfied knowing he had the tools he needed, whether that be health care access, or what have you, to behave in a way that is not harmful to others. It won’t undue my trauma, but neither has his disappearance from my life. In fact, I still worry about the day I look over my shoulder, and see him. My stalker escaped accountability, and while the exile I placed on him in my core community kept us safe, the violence only replicated elsewhere.
I’m not blaming myself for it, I’m just saying what the truth of the matter is.
Details about sexual violence below, you may wish to scroll past:
The same with my rapists. I said I wouldn’t touch on it, but I guess I will now to some extent. In all cases, I was heavily intoxicated during the incidents, and frankly, I am not excusing them, nor blaming myself, but I don’t think they knew it was rape. Sure, that sounds bad, but it’s a reality. What reference did gay men have for sexual boundaries? I was lucky to have the eight hours of the cis hetero sexual education I received, and we had no media representation. Gay wasn’t in fashion until, like, 2013. There was no POSE or RuPaul’s Drag Race. What reference did we have? Queer as Folk? Boy, not a good example. Chemsex has always been very popular in queer men sex, and frankly, when you create a sect of society brought up to believe that gay sex is repulsive, you’re a sinner, you are scum, and the only place you can even remotely safely congregate is small gay bars, then it is easy to see why boundaries are so often crossed. It was not abnormal for people to hook up with intoxicated people, and no one thought much about it. I thought it was normal. I did not know I was a victim of sexual battery until years later. The thing is, one of the incidents, I don’t remember at all, because I was so black out drunk. I truly believe that man thought that it was normal, and it was okay. I promise you, I am not excusing his behavior, and I know it sounds like it, and perhaps sound like I am victim blaming, but I promise you, reasons are not excuses, and that applies in this situation as well. Instead of addressing the harm, though, he has gone unaccountable for it, with no intervention, no education, no mechanism for truly changing the behavior, or truly reconciling that the behavior was wrong. As such, he has probably continued to do what he did to me. Now, perhaps with the success of #MeToo, he has since learned, but we weren’t having that conversation then, and it rarely involves gay men anyway. If I had not known what was happening to me was sexual violence, it is not impossible for me to believe these men had not known.
End of Details
Here’s the thing, in both situations, I am not to blame. I absolutely am not! Society is in many ways, and of course my assaulters, and stalker, are to blame for their choices. Not a doubt. Restorative justice does not attempt to divorce responsibility from the individual, but what it does do is it recognizes that just like it takes a village to heal a survivor, it takes a village to help hold someone accountable.
Someone has to be that village, and doesn’t necessarily have to be that individual’s victims, or that individual’s victims close support system.
Otherwise, the harm just repeats, to someone else, and the cycles continue. That is not my vision of justice as a survivor. If anything, it only puts my trauma in more vain. I have to live with it either way, so it might as well go to preventing others’ trauma.
None of them being in prison will undue the harms to me, nor will they work to resolve my trauma, and the system isn’t going to provide much victim support anyway.
So, what am I saying? Should you have to keep the harm causer in your organization if you want to be an abolitionist? What about the immediate safety of vulnerable populations in your organization, or within the community the organization serves?
I guess it gets more complicated then, doesn’t it?
Whoever told you restorative justice, or abolition was easy work, lied through their teeth.
Creative Interventions can offer us some insight in their toolkit, with the accountability staircase:
We do have a duty to stop the immediate violence, and recognize it. If we must remove someone from the immediate organizing space, for example, we can do so, as long as there is a plan in place for the individuals accountability, and support system. I can see it now, though, you are begrudge at the very thought of the person who harmed you having a support system.
It’s a reasonable feeling, truly.
Someone supporting someone through accountability does not mean they condone the harms they caused, in fact, just the opposite. But remember I spoke of Zehr’s challenge, to imagine the harm causer was your sibling, your best friend, or even yourself.
We all have the capability and capacity to harm, and be harmed. And sometimes, even in a specific situation, we are the harmed and the harm causer. Mutual harms exist, and power dynamics can make that murky. It’s a truth we don’t want to accept though, because perfect victimhood is easier to grasp.
The questions I have, then, stem from what we do beyond just ending the immediate violence and harm? How do we actually transform society?
It isn’t through replication.
Let’s say Paul commits a harm in your community, and the harm has caused your members to feel unsafe. You need to make you community safe, so you expel Paul from your community, and do nothing else. Good news, now your community is safe! And even though you’ve made the flyer to warn communities about him, he eventually manages to slip in to another community over time.
Paul’s never been truly accountable for his harms, and hasn’t learned the tools he needs to change his behavior. Therefore, Paul goes onward to complete the harms in another community, and the cycle repeats.
How is this justice? The individual survivor may feel at peace, perhaps, but there has been no accountability, truthfully.
I want to be clear about something: individual victims/survivors never have to, ever ever, forgive someone who harmed them, and even if they do forgive them, they never ever have to reconcile with them: no matter what accountability they’ve done, or no matter how sorry they truly are.
Further, even if the reason someone was harmed was due to a systemic issue, such as poverty, or due to an unchecked mental illness, although society has an obligation to heal the individual so they have the tools, and ability, to never commit the harm again, the individuals victims, even with full knowledge of the reason, still retain their autonomy, and never have to forgive anyone.
But society cannot permanently banish our problems away.
And we certainly cannot replicate the system’s belief in banishment, and call it transformative justice.
The answers to these questions are not easy, and it’s not as simple as an either/or.
But the fact is: what we are doing is not making us safer, and this is true in the criminal justice, and the community version of supposed justice
If someone told you that abolition was easy, they were wrong. I realized this year, I have been an abolitionist this entire way. I have believed, for many years, the solutions to the majority of the problems we call harm is not within what we will use to replace the police and prisons with (crisis intervention), but the heart of the matter is within what we need to build to ensure harm doesn’t happen in the first place (crisis prevention).
I have been problematic. I’ve spoken from privilege, I’ve harmed someone because I was angry, or depressed, or anxious, I’ve been rude, I’ve been inconsiderate. And I need to own the harms I have caused just as loudly as I name the harms caused against me, as long as I’m not telling my victims story over them.
Yes, I have victims. Maybe not of homicide, or sexual violence, but I have victims. Because I have the same capacity to harm as did my harm causers.
And just as I have victims, I also have people that love me, even though I’m a harm causer to others. The people I’ve hurt never have to look at me again, and I don’t have to ever forgive those who hurt me, but society can make space for both of those truths to exist at once, if we allow it.
My harm causers hopefully have people that love them, and would want their loved ones to have a mechanism of doing, and being better, if they knew the nature of the harms.
Zehr’s challenge, what if it was your loved one who caused the harm? Well, I got the distinct pleasure of experiencing that first hand, losing one family member, to another, it placed both the victim and the harm causer into a category of people I know and love.
We don’t just stop loving people overnight because they cause harm, even an egregious harm.
It isn’t that simple.
Accountability is not the absence of love, nor is it in opposition of support. In fact, absent love and support, you can almost be sure that no one’s behavior or actions will truly change.
We cannot be abolitionists when it’s easy, or just when it’s time to support survivors, we must find a way to hold space, even if not through us directly, to allow for more than what the system has to offer.
We must learn the underlying root that leads people to commit harm.
I use this example: If John steals $1,000 from Alice, Alice is now at risk of not being able to pay her bills.
It’s no doubt Alice has been harmed, and she needs to pay her bills, so damned if she cares why John did it. Her livelihood is at stake.
But here’s the thing, John going to jail isn’t going to bring her $1,000 any sooner. Instead, the community can crowdfund for $1,000, while working with John to find out why he took from her. Is it a substance issue? Is he unemployed and in poverty? That is the reason, not the excuse. He still MUST be accountable for harming someone.
But what is accountability if we take his community away, or take more resources away from him? Say it is due to unemployment and poverty. The easy way out is to discard John, say he is trash, and warn everyone in your community to stay far away from him.
But the real work to truly solve it would be to make John whole again. To help John find the resources he needs to eat, maintain shelter, and function in life, without ever dreaming of stealing again.
Alice can still tell him to “fuck off forever!” if she needs to, but if John is now in a position to thrive, everybody at the end of the day wins.
But the state isn’t going to give us these tools on its own, and we simply can no longer wait.
But if we cannot have serious conversations on how to handle harm in a restorative, abolitionist way within our organizations, then I frankly don’t know if I can bear to hear about tearing the walls that separate me, and a man that killed someone I love. Please. It is nothing but virtue signaling, and competing for the most radical of the year award at that point.
If my harm causer should go free, why shouldn’t yours?
Imagine if my harm causer was your sibling, your best friend, or you, or even more difficult to imagine, but a reality, your child.
Discard them? Okay…
You say it’s easy now, and maybe for you it is, but for most people it will not be, and let’s face that reality.
A dear activist I have come to know, ErrDaisha, told me she heard a quote once:
“Violence is the language of needs unmet.”
If we want to TRULY stop violence, we must work to meet those needs, even when it is complex, and it’s hard, and it hurts, and it triggers us. Otherwise, it’ll never end.
This isn’t easy, and none of us have this down to a science, but replication is not revolutionary.
ErrDaisha also told me that if we do not think as abolitionists in our daily life, for the micro-harms, we will never succeed with it for the macro-harms, and there could not be a more true statement.
We must defund the police and refund the community. We must meet the basic needs for all humans. Health care, food, clean water, energy, transit, and employment are human rights, not privileges. Poverty must be eradicated. Racism, ableism, cissexism, heterosexism, and all other isms must go. We must do this within ourselves, and our communities, as we cannot wait for the state to do it. And we must be willing to be honest with ourselves.
Bayard Rustin once said, “The proof one truly believes in is within action.”
So, when the harms happen, and the conflicts occur, micro or macro in our communities however we define them, what are we proving we truly believe within our actions?
Note: The majority of my family, especially my brother whose life was threatened and whose wife was killed, do not hold the same sentiments that I do. I only speak for my views, and not for my family, and how they navigate this victimhood. It’s a work in progress. This article only speaks *my* perspective of my stalking, and experience with sexual violence. It does not speak for other victims, nor any organization.