Beyond Survival: Rethinking The Humanity Of Those Who Harm

About 10 years ago, I was in a community space — I think it was a church multi-purpose room—somewhere in Seattle, dreaming wild dreams with a couple dozen other naive young idealists. We had a basic critique of the criminal justice system, borne out of anti-racism workshops, lived experience, and books (The Revolution Starts At Home, for example, had just been published and was shaking up the local activist scene), and we were asking each other: what do we do about harm and abuse if the criminal justice system is racist, sexist, transantagonistic, whorephobic, xenophobic, ableist? If it perpetuates and exacerbates harm rather than resolving, solving, or healing it? We debated, and built community, and put countless post-it notes up on countless pieces of chart paper, and it felt like we were on the verge of something powerful. There had to be a better way to address violence and abuse in our communities.

“Transformative justice” — the idea that communities can resolve and repair harm and abuse, as well as transform the conditions that led to them, on their own without the necessity of State intervention or by replicating the State’s carceral form of justice — looks good on paper, but there are still so many big questions:

  • What does “justice” mean, if not retribution, revenge, punishment, ostracization?
  • Don’t people who harm others deserve to be punished in some way?
  • If we aren’t calling the cops, what happens when we’re robbed or assaulted? What about the unrepentant rapists and murderers and sociopaths?
  • Can our society really address the root causes of “crime” instead of just locking human beings in cages to disappear the problem… without a complete overthrow of capitalism?
  • Doesn’t every self-respecting community expel members who don’t respect its norms?
  • How do the often already marginalized people doing TJ work stay alive while doing the heavy emotional lifting that TJ process requires?
  • What do we do in the meantime, before our truly just and equitable, transformative, restorative, community-based justice system is in place?

10 years ago, we weren’t sure where to look for answers to those questions, but the work was happening. The transformative justice movement is much bigger and more difficult than the naive young activists in that church multi-purpose room imagined — but is also more accessible that you might think, and has become especially more so over the last decade. “Restorative Justice,” a cousin of TJ, is making its way through countless public schools. Black Lives Matter and other movements have brought criticism of police brutality into mainstream discourse. The New Jim Crow and 13th brought the clear racism of prisons into sharper focus for millions. And quietly, dozens of local organizations around the country (and world!), like Project NIA, The Audre Lorde Project, GenerationFIVE, INCITE!, the BATJC, and countless others have continued doing anti-violence, prison abolition, community accountability, and transformative justice work. And they’ve learned some things! Not all of the aforementioned questions have answers, or they have answers that feel incomplete or inadequate. But the work has been and is being done. And now we have this book!

Beyond Survival, edited by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, is a compilation of what many TJ movement leaders have learned. It is not a handbook, or a training tool, at least not necessarily. It’s also not an introduction to TJ. There are plenty of other resources for that. What is is a bunch of stories, experiences, reflections, excerpts, and critiques by people who have been doing the work for decades.

But as Mariame Kaba makes clear in Chapter 26: “We are not the experts here.” Transformative justice and community accountability work is so contextual, Kaba says, that there are no one-size-fits-all responses to harm outside of our carceral justice system. And while there’s a basic framework, it’s purposely vague and flexible because every situation is different. There are so many lessons to be learned from this incredibly powerful book, but one of the most important, in my opinion, is that we have to rethink how we talk, and think, about the human beings who harm and abuse.

One of the things I was so impressed by is how much of Beyond Survival is focused on perpetrators of harm, because that is, in my opinion, the most difficult question TJ seeks to answer. A lot of people get on board with talking circles, and healing, and supporting survivors of harm. But what about supporting perpetrators of harm?

It’s pretty easy to demonize abusers, to classify them as evil, to “cancel” them. One of the biggest barriers to transformative justice is the idea that abusers don’t want to be accountable, don’t want to transform, and/or don’t accept that what they’ve done is abusive. But why? “Being accountable takes a lot of courage,” writes Kai Cheng Thom in Chapter 6. “We live in a culture that demonizes and oversimplifies abuse.”

Often people don’t want to own up and be accountable because our culture makes it extremely difficult to do so. Admitting to abuse or harm can lead to the destruction of one’s life, career, and/or relationships — who would do that willingly? And true accountability — really digging into why and how we harm each other — is challenging, introspective work, especially for those without access to things like psychotherapy. And especially when you’re doing it alone without support, because you’re an abuser.

Furthermore, we often don’t want them to be accountable, because then we’d have to remember that they are human beings who, despite having harmed us or our loved ones, are worthy of dignity and respect and love, and might be able to heal and do better with the right support. Then we couldn’t dehumanize them anymore. We might have to stop hating them.

We want our abuser to face consequences for what they’ve done. But does “consequences” always mean “punishment?” Does it mean revenge? If someone harms us, is it just for them to get called out, fired, ostracized, even physically injured or killed? Is it just to “cancel” people when they fuck up? Our current criminal justice system believes it is. Do we? Does it work? Maybe…

Advocates for criminal justice reform and prison abolition talk a lot about changing the systems and conditions that created the harm, instead of just punishing the transgressor. Isn’t this foundational? Because if we believe that a lot of the “cultural” and “social” ills that we see — like, say, crime — are largely a result of large-scale systems and structures like poverty and racism, and people need things like counseling and rehabilitation, and skills training and avenues to be productive members of communities, rather than just being locked in cages… if we believe that people with criminal records shouldn’t be punished for the rest of their lives because of a mistake they once made, should be given a chance to “rehabilitate” themselves and re-enter society… then why don’t we have that same energy when harm happens to someone we know? Or to us?

Transformative justice attempts to answer these questions. The vision of TJ is not a community of all the “good” people happy together, with all of the “bad” abusers far away, suffering. It’s a complete transformation for us all. In Chapter 15, Lara Brooks and Mariame Kaba share excerpts from a toolkit for supporting youth and navigating conflict without relying on punitive measures, and one of the crucial aspects of TJ is articulating what “re-entry” means. As a former teacher, it’s an absolutely essential question — sometimes you just have to send a kid out into the hall. It’s appropriate in some communities, for reasons of safety, for people who transgress that community’s norms to have a “time out” outside of the community, too cool off or process or whatever. But if the community is worth being a member of, they’ll want to come back, and having a plan for “re-entry” is crucial. Do they need to apologize? Write an essay explaining what they did and why it was a problem? Do they have to make financial restitution? A public atonement? Commit to anger management and/or therapy? Give up a leadership position?

Crucial to this approach: it acknowledges, too, that someday the person on the outside could be us! The truth is that many of us, and our loved ones, have been or have the capability to be abusive. TJ forces us to ask difficult questions about making space for nuance and humanity. “What can [canceling/calling out] lead to in an imperfect world full of sloppy, complex humans?” asks adrienne maree brown in Chapter 23, and then crucially: “in the back of our minds is the shared, unspoken question: when will y’all come for me?” If the ostracization was instead permanent, or, like in many classrooms, it’s just a punishment that has the effect of severing rather than building relationships, it can only exacerbate issues rather than resolve them.

It’s one thing to critique a criminal justice system, but another to apply theories of justice to our own lives. Transformative justice is one way we can do that. It’s hard. It can even be re-traumatizing. Sometimes it completely fails. But other times it succeeds beyond our wildest dreams. If we truly believe in the power of love and empathy and justice, though, if we have a vision of liberation for all human beings, it’s absolutely essential.

The most important lesson from this book, in my opinion, is this: transformative justice isn’t a naive pipe dream that we have to wait until after the revolution to practice. There are no experts and there’s no “right” way to do it. It takes imagination, vision, community building, patience, empathy, and definitely love. We can practice it every day in how we treat our community members, how we think about forgiveness and empathy, how we hold ourselves and others accountable. And we can learn from the couple dozen stories, interviews, toolkits, and frameworks in Beyond Survival, which I believe will someday be seen as a foundational text for naive activist dreamers everywhere.

We won’t always get it right, but it’s still worth it. As Ejeris Dixon articulates in Chapter 19: “We are doing the work of centuries. You don’t have to get it right in one process.”

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Abeni Jones is a trans woman of color artist, educator, writer, and designer living in the Bay Area, CA. Follow her art on Instagram @abeni.jones or check out her website at abenijones.net. Got a music recommendation, a positive trans woman story/news item, or wanna book me for something? e-mail me by clicking here!

Abeni has written 59 articles for us.

8 Comments

  1. thank you so much for reviewing this book and bringing it to my attention! this is something i’ve been thinking about heaps and looking for resources on: I’ve added it to my list of books to buy soon. thanks!!

  2. I feel like ‘transformative justice’ seems like a lovely idea to people who a)haven’t had any serious crimes perpetrated against them b) haven’t seen it in action. In practice, people who police themselves using ‘transformative justice’ are prey to the same biases as the regular police.

    The classic example was the man who committed multiple sexual assaults as a teacher in an international drumming circle. The ‘transformative justice’ approach had him chastised, sent on a course, then allowed to rejoin the circles. The women he assaulted never came back. As usual, the feelings and inclusion of a white male perpetrator was prioritised over the female victims he hurt.

    • That sounds like a totally valid example of TJ failing, of which there are many. I’d say there are just as many if not far more examples of our current system failing too, which I acknowledge maybe isn’t a great point. There are chapters in this book that discuss the failures and challenges of TJ, though, that are important reading in my opinion.

      Your points a) and b) on the other hand aren’t borne out at all by the experiences of folks in the movement, the stories in this book, or the many other available resources on TJ in practice. I’d encourage you to even take a cursory look into some of the folks involved and the stories they’ve shared about harm they’ve experienced and the ways TJ has shaped their healing around that harm, rather than being immediately dismissive.

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