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In the early days of the Black Lives Matter uprisings, the sight of Minneapolis’ Third Precinct police station in flames was something many had never before imagined. It kindled with it a vision also previously unimaginable for most: the abolition of policing itself.
In the months since, many of the newly abolition-curious have wondered who to turn to instead of the police. Abolition inserts a question between the moment of crisis and the choice to dial 911. In that gap, whole new worlds leap into view — lives without police violence — but they often feel hard to reach or resource.
The answer can be found in the wisdom of communities of color, who for generations have had to create safety for themselves without police or other state institutions. The whirlwind moment of this past summer — the largest movement for social and racial justice in US history — has propelled the twinned futures of abolition and transformative justice into the mainstream.
When abolitionists expose that police and prisons create the very problems they purport to solve and make us less safe rather than more so, they also point towards an alternative: transformative justice. More than 20 years of transformative justice experimentation by queers and women of color show that there are many different solutions that do not require the involvement of police or other arms of the state — but none of them are easy.
Transformative justice and community accountability (TJ-CA) describe a movement traditionally led by queer folks and women of color for community-based alternatives to prison and police, as well as their underlying logics of punishment, in response to interpersonal harm. These responses can range from harm-reduction approaches that minimize reliance on carceral systems to alternative, non-punitive processes for perpetrators to take accountability, repair harm and change their behavior.
Particularly in this moment, when abolition is going viral, the movement has to navigate new opportunities on the one hand and the danger of reform watering down radical change on the other. Abolitionist responses exist outside the state and its institutions, in contrast to restorative justice, which holds the promise for change within institutions like schools and universities, but has also often been co-opted as a supplemental arm of the criminal justice system. Wariness on the part of transformative justice practitioners makes sense, seeing as the movement itself was born in response to state co-optation of anti-violence efforts.
TJ-CA activists and practitioners see their work as rooted in a long history of improvised, kitchen-table responses to violence, led by women and queer folks in Black, brown and Indigenous communities. That could mean opening your home to someone whose partner is acting violently, sending over respected elders to talk with abusers, or starting honest, painful conversations about violence in mosques and churches, at school or at home. TJ organizer, strategist and author Ejeris Dixon has described such conversations with her mother about the strategies she used in the Jim Crow South, when the state is not a source of safety but a force of genocidal occupation and racial terror.
In the late 90s and early 2000s, women, queers and trans folks of color at the intersections of both anti-racist and feminist organizing made interventions into both of those fields. Anti-racist organizing against police brutality and mass incarceration in the 90s sometimes focused on state violence without paying as much attention to interpersonal violence, implying that an end to policing would in and of itself solve our problems. Race was in the foreground, with gender and sexuality often overlooked.
The feminist anti-violence world, on the other hand, had been increasingly professionalized, whitewashed and co-opted into a law enforcement agenda that is now critiqued as carceral feminism. Their analysis often focused exclusively on interpersonal — in this case, gendered — violence, at the expense of understanding state and racial violence.
Standing in the crosshairs of these two forms of violence, women and queer people of color spoke up. When two newly formed US-based networks, the abolitionist group Critical Resistance (CR) and the feminist of color organization INCITE!, collaborated on a joint statement in 2001, they brought together these two sorely needed perspectives. In doing so, they created a political agenda that charted the course for a more profoundly intersectional and radical approach to collective safety, now realized by a new generation of Movement for Black Lives organizations like Black Youth Project 100.
The prominent queer and women leadership of these organizations has met CR and INCITE’s challenge to “put poor/working class women of color in the center of their analysis, organizing practices, and leadership development.” Initiatives like African American Policy Forum’s #SayHerName campaign have centered women of color in the narrative about police violence. M4BL’s policy platform, with its analyses of the unique impacts of anti-Black racism on women and trans, queer, gender non-conforming and intersex people, as well as its statement of solidarity with Palestinians, rises to meet CR and INCITE’s call for an interlinked analysis of interpersonal violence, domestic state violence and international violence.
CR and INCITE!’s vision of “community-based responses to violence that do not rely on the criminal justice system AND which have mechanisms that ensure safety and accountability for survivors of sexual and domestic violence” has birthed a wave of experiments that has cohered under the banner of transformative justice and community accountability.
These experiments were cross-pollinated with every other field of struggle in which Black and brown queers and women were leading or distilling wisdom: Indigenous sovereignty struggles, healing and disability justice and visionary reimaginings of sex, family and care in queer and trans communities.
Key Ingredients for Transformative Justice Processes
Groundbreaking organizations INCITE! and Communities Against Rape and Abuse (CARA) both celebrated their 20th anniversaries last year, and the frameworks they have given the movement continue to resonate. INCITE!’s model outlines four main areas where TJ-CA work takes place in order to make violence one day unthinkable: community prevention, survivor self-determination, accountability for persons causing harm and, finally, social transformation from the micro to macro levels. TJ-CA interventions may involve all of these areas of work, but mostly focus on one or the other.
Some, for example, focus on survivor support, like sex workers developing their own community reporting, evidence collection and surveillance systems to prevent assault by their johns or police. Another example is the Indigenous investigations, documentation and ceremonies in response to missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people. Others engage more with those causing harm, including groups like Philly Stands Up, Support New York and the Challenging Male Supremacy Project, who have facilitated accountability, rather than denial and shame, for persons who have committed sexual assault.
Still others explore how communities have stepped up to support both safety and accountability among members, de-escalating violence at parties and demonstrations, using story-telling to open conversations about harm and healing, and building networks of alternative resources for people to activate when facing violence. Some facilitators have also undertaken processes to coordinate work in these areas — to bring survivors, persons causing harm and community members into a shared process. This is the granular work of change, not a universal one-size-fits-all model.
TJ practitioners are imagining and practicing new forms of justice, accountability and safety, shifting from existing concepts of justice towards transformative justice in each of the four areas of INCITE!’s model. In the realm of structural conditions, there is a shift from understanding violence as individual wrongdoing to intersectional harm at multiple levels (interpersonal, community, institutional, structural). In the sphere of perpetrators, there is a shift from punishment and blame to accountability and change. In the realm of survivors, there is a shift from security as paternalist protection to safety as survivor self-determination. And, lastly, in the sphere of the community, there is a shift from the state to the community as the relevant body for creating justice.
These shifts are connected to a more general turn away from a carceral logic which seeks to individualize and isolate social problems and towards a politics of social connection as a potential solution. The crisis of sexual violence — and the violation of boundaries and injury to the self that it involves — becomes an impetus for the counterintuitive: for opening towards interdependency at the precise moment when social relations have wounded and for seeing social connection as a resource at the moment when it appears most hazardous or precarious.
Taking Stock of the Present Moment
As a transformative justice practitioner who organized in Germany for a decade, I often witnessed people’s elation about TJ-CA plummet when they bumped up against the reality that there is not a simple replacement for the police. Instead, it requires an entire reimagining of our institutions, what Angela Davis, drawing on W.E.B. DuBois, calls “abolition democracy.”
Okay, but if not a phone number, then maybe a delivery service, a taskforce, at least a guidebook? The closest thing we have is the wisdom gathered in several recent books and the flurry of webinars propelled by last summer’s uprising (for an overview, see the Transform Harm resource hub and Barnard Center for Research on Women’s “Building Accountable Communities” series for a good start).
One of the most useful is Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement, a collection of personal stories, toolkits and interviews that takes stock of the transformative justice movement, 20 years after its emergence. In 2015, Ejeris Dixon, the book’s co-editor, explained to me that the movement had come far enough to no longer need to prove or justify the “why” of transformative justice. The anthology is a testament to this new era: it gives us the “how” instead. But if you are looking for a quick fix, co-editor Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is here to disappoint you: “The People’s Court of INCITE: Women of Color Against Violence is not gonna roll up in a bloodmobile and fix things and have a guillotine, it’s not gonna happen.”
In some ways, the Beyond Survival anthology is a follow-up to The Revolution Starts at Home, the TJ “bible,” co-edited by Piepzna-Samarasinha, Ching-In Chen and Jai Dulani. Much of the early work that today goes by the name TJ or CA emerged in responses to sexualized and gendered violence, particularly against people of color, which was also the focus of The Revolution Starts at Home, as well as early innovator groups like CARA, INCITE! and generationFIVE. Piepzna-Samarasinha and Dixon have curated a collection that revisits these same fields and documents how TJ-CA has expanded to address other forms of interpersonal violence.
Safe OUTside the System Collective at the Audre Lorde Project writes about throwing parties that can address conflict without exposing guests to law enforcement. Trans Lifeline and the Fireweed Collective each discuss non-911 responses to people in crisis who could potentially hurt themselves and others. The “Community Defense Zone Starter Guide” imagines community-driven sanctuary for undocumented immigrants, while Lara Brooks and Mariame Kaba describe their policies for reducing the harm of law enforcement as well as private security in centers for unhoused youth.
Beyond Survival’s genre is eclectic — it revisits the searing personal testimony that formed the beating heart of The Revolution Starts at Home but hybridizes it with the strategic thinking of the organizational toolkit and the historical consciousness of interviews with key figures in the movement. You get the sense the movement is coming to understand itself as such in the pages of this book, which both tries to wrangle everyone together under a too-big, sometimes overstretched tent, while also trying to “keep TJ wild,” in the words of CARA’s Alisa Bierria.
Up for Debate: TJ’s Future
Some of this tension at the family reunion is because transformative justice as a term has become “a popular kid,” to quote the anthology’s co-editors. While this moment of wider reach has also provoked anxieties about mainstream co-optation, Beyond Survival does not respond with purity tests or boundary policing. The editors intentionally “let TJ be free,” continuing to value creative experimentation in alignment with TJ values. In line with Dixon’s sense that TJ no longer needs to justify its existence, that freedom means being open to self-critique and disagreement. As the movement matures, the book does not need to try and hide TJ’s shortcomings or claim that it is always the most suitable appropriate approach, when sometimes it is not.
Looking ahead, one live current of debate in the movement is about scaling up and institutionalization — even more urgent as Minneapolis and other cities move to defund their police departments. TJ has always been local, contextual and experimental. Yet the DIY, self-organized nature of the work often leaves it inaccessible to many who need it and unsustainable for those who practice it. The book’s mixture of styles, in fact, exemplifies this tension — concrete personal stories mixed together with toolkits documenting how organizations have institutionalized TJ. Creative Interventions’ toolkit (the mother of all toolkits) comes in at over 500 pages, demonstrating the near impossibility of making a single guidebook to TJ. That work was brilliantly built to be porous, able to be entered at any point. But it shows the difficulty of charting the infinite possibilities of an intervention into violence.
Yet if we are going to make TJ accessible to an entire neighborhood or city, as groups like Harm Free Zones have envisioned, we need sustainable, community-based infrastructures that avoid both the soft policing functions of much government social work and the domestication of the non-profit industrial complex, which keeps organizations risk-averse and deradicalized so as not to offend their funders. TJ grew up in part in the ashes of the anti-violence movement’s co-optation and holds onto the memory of how apparent success can actually spell long-term failure.
Mimi Kim, founder of Creative Interventions, has suggested a form of scaling up that does not imitate the “neoliberal corporate context [of] copyrights, trademarks and standardizations.” Instead, she talks about “regeneration” to refer to decentralized growth of a community’s capacity to practice TJ.
One promising model in this vein comes from API Chaya, an organization that addresses gender-based violence within South Asian, Asian, Pacific Islander and broader immigrant communities in Seattle. Their “Community Solutions” program offers a 45-hour training session to a paid cohort of 15 community members, who then facilitate community accountability processes referred to them by API Chaya, with the support of monthly meetings and coaching from an experienced mentor.
The spirit here is one of honoring and sharpening existing community expertise and rhizomatically spreading skills, rather than consolidating them into a professionalized bureaucracy: “scaling out” rather than scaling up. Kiyomi Fujikawa, a visionary of TJ who previously shaped some of API Chaya’s organizing around community accountability, has shared the need for temporary “transition organizations” that allow us to explore a number of “possibility models” that center those from which TJ originated — queer and trans, Black, Indigenous and people of color communities.
As we continue to do TJ amidst a pandemic, Alexis Pauline Gumbs asks in her interview in Beyond Survival: “What does it really take to move at the speed of trust in the midst of compounding disasters?” As TJ gets reborn in the streets during these uprisings and the movement grows rapidly, another invitation is to also get comfortable with the mess, to build the emotional capacities to hold the dissonance, incompletion and contradictions that TJ practitioners often talk about in their work.
Abolition opens the political door for the alternative futures of the transformative justice movement. To walk through that door, we have to hold in our sight both the long-term vision illuminated yet again by the BLM uprisings and the short-term pragmatism of getting us over the threshold in the first place. If we carefully navigate one foot in front of the other by improvising what we need for community responses to violence now, we can lay the groundwork for a future with an abundance of resources for preventing and addressing harm through community care. In doing so, we can make policing and punishment obsolete.
Melanie Brazzell is the founder of the What Really Makes Us Safe? Project, a transformative justice researcher and practitioner, and a PhD student at University of California Santa Barbara.