A Better World: Transformative Justice and the Apocalypse

We are living in the dying ruins of a world built by colonization and capitalism: Never has this been more apparent than now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is forcing us to re-evaluate every aspect of our personal and political lives, and revealing the vast inequities built into capitalist society: Who gets to work from home? Who has access to paid sick leave and healthcare? Who has to work outside, to pay rent without any prospect of income; who among the vulnerable will be scapegoated, exploited, deemed expendable and left to die?

Even more dangerous than the virus itself is the danger of human cravenness, human greed, the impact of “everyone for himself” thinking that dehumanizes the other and corrodes the bonds of collective thinking and community care. More than ever, as world governments fail those of us who are queer and trans, poor and disabled, Black and Indigenous and racialized, we will be forced to rely on each other in order to survive and give pleasure and meaning to our increasingly dangerous, chaotic lives. In order to do so, we will need to find our individual and collective integrity. We will need to create strong webs of care that are resilient and accountable that leave out no one, that dispose of no one.

We will need transformative justice: The principle that we must transform the social conditions that allow the harm, exploitation, and disposal of human beings (some would say all beings), into better ones.

Last fall, I released a book titled I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes From the End of the World, a title that seems weirdly prescient now – as does the title of my biweekly advice column, Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse. In truth, I’ve been waiting for the end of the world for a long a time. Both the book and the column centre around two fundamental themes: How do we love each other, and ourselves, even through enormous violence and pain? And how can we change ourselves, and the world, based on an ethics and politics of love?

These questions are, for me, firmly rooted in the philosophy of transformative justice; and I believe that they are massively important questions in the face of a collapsing world order. The massive crisis of COVID-19 has made these questions all the more urgent, because in times of crisis, both the best and worst extremes of humanity emerge and make themselves known.

We are seeing the worst already in the racist backlash towards East Asians here in North America, and in the hoarding of vital resources such as food and sanitation products. In declaring states of emergency, various governments are empowering themselves to enforce life-saving social distance and quarantine measures, but I fear they are also likely to abuse those powers to the detriment of marginalized groups. Migrants, sex workers, and the poor in particular are already seeing their incomes lost, their labour exploited, and their movements restricted where the wealthy and powerful are no

Yet COVID-19 is also forcing many parts of the global regime to embrace measures that the political left recently only dreamed of: Eviction and mortgage freezes, various forms of increased social welfare, the release of tens of thousands of prison inmates. The virus is making manifest what those of us in transformative justice, prison abolition, and progressive movement building have always known:

The survival of the most vulnerable is crucial to the survival of us all. Even before the virus, the fact that some people are homeless while others have mansions, that some struggle to pay for food while others hoard billions, and that racialized people go to prison for minor infractions or nothing while wealthy whites get away with literal rape and murder with impunity, was unspeakably wrong.

All of these issues, and their solution, hinge around the way we see and organize our world: Are some people worth more than others? Are some people simply disposable, ie deserving of being thrown away? Capitalism says yes to both of those questions. Capitalism says, this is the way it has to be for us to survive as a species – and is currently being proven wrong by COVID-19. Transformative justice says no. Transformative justice says the survival of one is the survival of all.

All of the above is, of course, pretty abstract. How do we actually do transformative justice on a day to day basis, as marginalized people who are already struggling for basic resources? The answer to that is becoming increasingly complex in pandemic-stricken context, but I believe the beginning is rooted in how we treat ourselves and those closest to us. I believe it starts with rejecting the notion of punishment as our primary strategy for achieving justice.

This idea is not new: Social justice writers such as adrienne maree brown, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Mariame Kaba and Mia Mingus have been organizing and writing for years now about non-punitive ways of seeing the world and approaching social change-making. Yet it remains extremely challenging for most of us in social justice and queer communities (myself included), because the capitalist, colonial world we live in is centered around punishment as its greatest organizing principle.

Punishment – the fear of public shaming, violence, deprivation, incarceration, and death – is how European colonizers controlled Indigenous and enslaved populations. Punishment is how capitalist and authoritarian governments force individuals to submit to a worldview in which the only way to be seen as worthy of resources is to work for others, often for meagre wages in terrible conditions. Queer and trans people have been viciously, violently punished by straight, cisgender people for much of colonial history. Children are raised and educated through punishment in most schools. There is not a single aspect of our society that is not touched and shaped by punishment.

So it begins with a question: Can you imagine a world without punishment?

On my book tour for I Hope We Choose Love, which began in the Fall of 2019 ended shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic hit North America, I went to queer and social justice communities in cities all over Canada. Of all my books, this was the one I most hoped would have a real impact on people’s day to day lives, so I decided to turn each book launch event into a workshop, rather than a straight up reading. I always began the question: Can you imagine a world without punishment? What would it look like? Sound like? Smell like? How would your relationships be different or the same? How does your body feel in this world? Do you like it? Dislike it? Both at once?

This question tended to release a wide range of reactions in the people I asked: Numbness. Excitement. Fear. Anxiety. Hope. Frustration. Each of these responses is a valid one – after all, it’s a question about fundamentally reshaping the world we live in. Yet what I also found was that in every group, people were hungry for possibility, for a way out of the seemingly endless loop of transgression and punishment.

People wanted to know how to respond to abuse and harm in their communities without either sacrificing the needs of the survivors or completely cutting out perpetrators of harm. People wanted to who to believe when two people accused each other of being an abuser. People wanted to know how to respond, how to make amends, after being abusive. People wanted to know what to do when someone they loved had done something awful.

So many people who came to my readings and workshops had seen so much suffering, so much violence, so much bitterness. Punitive approaches – either calling the police and going through the criminal justice system or using “community accountability” approaches like shunning and ostracizing people had failed them. Punishment tends to fail. Trans video game maker Porpentine Charity Heartscape writes that this is because punishment is not really a balancing of the scales of justice, but rather a tool of the powerful. The vulnerable will always be punished, even when they have done nothing wrong. The powerful rarely will, even when they have done great evil.

Ever since I started to write about abuse and transformative justice a few years ago, I’ve received dozens of emails from people I don’t know. Some of the emails are thousands of words long, they are impassioned and often desperate. They are from people who have realized that they have done harm in their lives – sometimes awful harms, like sexual assault and psychological abuse. They want to know if it’s possible to be a good person again, after that. They want to know what transformative justice might look like for them.

Abuse is like a disease, a pandemic: It spreads and spreads. It is all over the globe. We receive violence, punishment, trauma; it enters our bodies and then we pass it on to others, at a rate so intense and insidious, it seems impossible to stop. The measures we take don’t seem to be working. The most marginalized are disproportionately impacted, but all of us are profoundly affected.

COVID-19 is changing our world forever: Even if capitalist society does, somehow, recover, it cannot and will not look the same as it did before. Certainly millions, if not billions, of individual lives will be completely changed. The trauma of abuse and other serious interpersonal harms is often similar. There might – might – be recovery. There is no going back. No amount of retribution can undo trauma, though it can certainly cause more.

Yet people cling to punishment, perhaps because it feels like there is nothing else to do in the wake of harm. We are conditioned to believe that we cannot ever be safe again without punishment. We confuse setting boundaries and defending ourselves with revenge.

Here, I think the pandemic in its evocation of extreme human behavior can provide us with some clarity. In the early days of North America’s plunge into social lockdown, we saw not only intense hoarding behavior, but also exploitative, predatory actions. Some individuals bought up enormous amounts of necessary supplies and resold them at a huge mark-up.

The immediate response of many people – myself included – was that individuals were despicable (indeed, perhaps they are). When I spoke to my friends about it, several said quite seriously they thought those people should be hung or beaten. I understand that impulse on a visceral level. But another response is that the community could (and in some cases, did) simply take back all of the resources that had been stolen and redistribute them equally. No extra harm necessary to fix the problem.

Transformative justice thinking can take us even further toward lasting, non-violent solutions. What leads to pandemic profiteering? Vulnerability and a capitalist dynamic in which money determines our access to essential resources. Yet if we lived – or created – a society in which having a lot of money did not give people the right to buy up huge amounts of things that everyone needs, then profiteering would be much less likely to happen in the first place.

If we created a culture in which sharing and ensuring each other’s collective survival resulted in greater social status and security than seizing goods and extorting people for them, then people would likely be less motivated to become robber barons.

The complex dynamics of abuse and intimate violence make them more difficult issues to imagine solutions for. Yet the basic philosophy of transformative justice still holds: We must ask, what leads to abuse and violence within marginalized communities? There are many answers, but a common one is that traumatized individuals often do not know how to get their physical and emotional needs met without resorting to manipulation or coercion. Such individuals then find more vulnerable people whom they are able to manipulate or coerce without consequence.

Transformative Justice in this area begins by changing the conditions that allow harm to continue – by taking away people’s power to harm and by giving survivors what they need to be safe. For example, so much abuse could be immediately stopped by ensuring everyone had a basic income and secure housing – because so many survivors are unable to leave abusers due to economic dependence.

The work does not stop here, though. We can continue it by addressing the factors that lead to it in the first place. We must create communities in which everyone can get their physical and emotional needs met, and we must create a culture in which everyone is nurtured and taught how to do so in a healthy way.

This philosophy of transformative justice can feel vague or “fluffy” because it takes so much time and emotional investment. It often seems much easier to revert to determining guilt and innocence and then assigning punishment – this, at least, is a concrete result. Then again, if as much money and brainpower were put into transformative justice as is put into the prison industrial complex, we’d likely have a lot more well-developed strategies and tools for it.

That said, it became clear to me as I went from city to city that the people I was meeting had already often thought deeply about the issues I was talking and writing about. What they were asking for was concrete strategies, specific ways to put Transformative Justice into action.

I believe that transformative justice is not like – cannot be like – colonial law, in which a rigid set of rules must be forcibly applied to every single situation. Transformative Justice as I know it comes out of communitarian organizing, anarchist and anti-authoritarian visioning, with connections to many different Indigenous lineages. It is a set of principles that must be applied fluidly and critically on a case-by-case basis, a way of feeling and connecting to others as well as a way of acting. In this way, it is more challenging than colonial law, because it requires greater integrity from all involved.

To guide my own thinking and practice of transformative justice as an individual, I made a map of the values and principles that guide me:

When I share this map, it is meant as inspiration, a map for the independent thinking of others, and not as a hard-and-fast set of rules. The compass in the corner of the map represents four values that I hold sacred – broad ideas that I return to when I am perplexed and overwhelmed by the situations before me. The three interlocking circles represent goals that may overlap but can also be pursued independently:

De-escalation: We can de-escalate harmful or violent situations without needing to assign guilt or retribution. De-escalation usually involves acting quickly and decisively in order to get people out of harm’s way – for example, getting people food and medical supplies if they are sick and alone, or separating two intimate partners who are being violent to each other in a shared home.

Accountability: Accountability involves the naming of harm and individual actions that are harmful. Ideally, people who have committed harm take responsibility for their own actions. For example, someone who has committed an assault may be confronted by the community and asked to undergo a process of self-reflection and restitution. The person who has done harm may be removed from positions of power that give them the ability to harm.

Healing & Repair: Healing and relationship repair involve addressing trauma and other psychological wounds of the survivors and the perpetrators of harm. This could involve therapy, ceremony or ritual, a process of amend-making, or other strategies.

These three goals may support one another, but they do not all have to be achieved at once, and they are not reliant on one another. As Mariame Kaba points out, it is a fundamental error to believe that accountability will result automatically in healing and repair – because sometimes healing is not possible. Sometimes accountability, too, is not possible. When one of the goals of transformative justice is not possible, we can still pursue the others. Where criminal justice relies on punishment in order to be deemed successful, transformative justice is measured by the increased safety and capacity of the community.

The larger circle that holds the three smaller ones represents the broader strategies that Transformative Justice can take, and that inform Transformative Justice actions: collective responsibility-taking, harm reduction and boundary-setting, analysis of power, and social transformation. These strategies look beyond the individual “perpetrator” and “survivor” framework to focus on the ways that the broader conditions of the community led to harm in the first place, and how each community member can shift their behavior in order to help prevent harm from happening again. For example, a community might raise funds to start an education campaign on healthy relationships and develop strategies for noticing and intervening in abuse.

Transformative Justice does not need to fixate on finding a perpetrator in order to be effective, and it seeks to reveal the ways that the dynamics of the collective impact individuals. We can see this too brought into stark relief by the pandemic: Some will search for people to blame, calling COVID-19 the “Chinese Virus,” and targeting Asians. But assigning guilt will not solve the problem. Only collective action – the work of individuals in social distancing, giving each other mutual aid, and engaging in sustained political organizing to ensure that vulnerable populations are protected, can help us all.

Transformative justice operates on the fundamental belief that we can do better, be better. It relies upon the capacity of human beings to find our better natures in the midst of extreme circumstances. This is part of the great challenge of transformative justice, because it is in fact very difficult to believe in the better nature of human beings in times of trouble. This is especially true of moments like the one we find ourselves in now, when great uncertainty has suddenly become the new normal and enormous tragedy seems all but inescapable.

When I wrote I Hope We Choose Love, I had just experienced three long years of devastating personal loss, and the world was in the throes of a climate crisis and the rise of a wave of right-wing, regressive political leaders. I had experienced extreme psychological abuse, chronic illness, and the loss of people who were very dear to me. I was witnessing my community fall apart (or so it seemed) in the face of what seemed like an interminable chain of call-outs, bullying, and “accountability processes” that never seemed to cause anything except more pain. My world had ended, but I refused to die. I often said, in that time, that I had hope but not faith, which is why I began to study transformative justice.

Now, here we are, at the end of world as we know it. Our politics, our organizing, our action, our relationships, are already transforming, changing in an infinite number of ways as a deadly virus descends upon us. There are no silver linings in tragedy, but there is potential in crisis. In the darkness, there is discovery.

I believe we can build a better world out of the one that is dying now. It will take great strength, courage, integrity, creativity. There will be loss. However, we have the tools and the capacity – the capacity to choose each other, to prioritize collective care-taking and courageous world-building over individual gratification and “getting back to normal.” Do I believe we will do this? I don’t know. I have hope, but not faith.

Yet I hold on to the knowledge that, in the weeks before our world ended, I had the privilege of traveling to many communities, of sharing my visions and my hopes. I remember the feeling in those rooms, in those circles of people as we closed our eyes and imagined what a better world might look like. I remember that intense, embodied desire – that yearning, born of pain, and carried by hope – for a different way of being.

Another world is possible. It might be almost here.🔮

Edited by Kamala

Kai Cheng Thom is a writer, performer, therapist, wicked witch and lasagna lover based in Toronto, unceded Indigenous territory. The author of a novel, a poetry collection, and a children's book, she is a two-time Lambda Literary Finalist, as well as the 2017 winner of the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for Emerging LBGT Writers. Her work has been published widely in print and online, and she has performed as a feature spoken word artist at festivals and venues across the country. Find her online at www.kaichengthom.wordpress.com or on Twitter @razorfemme

Kai has written 12 articles for us.

9 Comments

  1. I love the idea of the “success” of transformative justice not being an all-or-nothing metric, but being measured by “the increased safety and capacity of the community.”

    Thank you for writing this <3

  2. Thank you for this! Really put into words how I feel about justice. I’ve seen what the prison system can do to people I know & I think transformative justice would have been the better choice.

  3. This was an incredible read. I spend a lot of my time in paralyzing, corrosive despair of any gay community ever managing to create safety and justice for its members, given how pervasive the fixation on punishment and control seems to be among us. In the wake of reading this article, I feel a rare, quiet faith that better things are possible, if we put in the work. Thank you.

  4. Thank you, Kai, for your valuable and eloquent insights. I feel like you are one of the only people who acknowledges the way in which punitive dynamics are destroying social justice communities from the inside out without also shaming us for it.

  5. Wow! Incredible read! (I’m also immediately putting your book on my to-read list—I’m so eager to read more of your words on this)

    I was really struck by the phrase “hope, but not faith.” I love that distinction, it really hits home.

  6. Late to the party as always, but this, like all of your work, is excellent. I really appreciate the way you’ve been pushing our own community to root out its own internal oppressive structures so that we might lead others. Thank you.

  7. I have not stopped thinking about this article since it was published, and obviously it has taken on a new meaning in light of the (fingers crossed) early stages of revolution we’re seeing now. Just wanted to bring it back up as, in my opinion, one of the best pieces of the year so far across any publication

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