Jul 02 2012

Community Accountability As “Art Not Science”

This post is going to be disjointed and disorganized. Feel free to skip reading it…

I am back from several days in Detroit where I attended the Allied Media Conference while also visiting friends. It was good to meet so many energetic, smart, and young people who are committed to social justice and transformation.

Today I want to write about the last workshop that I attended on Sunday which focused on how to address sexual violence through community accountability (without relying on police and prisons). The workshop was very ably facilitated by Philly Stands Up! If you don’t know about the organization and its work, you should take some time to familiarize yourself. The collective does wonderful transformative justice work.

As I sat in the hot room and looked around, I could see the anxiety level of many workshop participants rising. Shoulders were tense and jaws were clenched. Feet were tapping and hands were searching for ways to keep busy. This has become the norm in workshops that I have attended about the issue of how to use restorative or transformative justice to address sexual violence.

Most people who are attending these workshops are coming because they want “an answer.” They say things like they want to “wrap their brains around” the concepts and they want to know how these interventions are “safe” or “work.” I often want to begin by asking everyone in the room whether they believe that our current interventions “work” and are “safe.” It seems to me that we ought to know from the get-go where we are starting from philosophically. Perhaps it would help people if one were to begin by stipulating that there may be some instances of severe harm that would necessitate the segregation of perpetrators. Maybe having the mental crutch of a prison-like place would free people to be able to consider the alternatives. I don’t know…

My friend Lara has made the point that she has spent the past 10 years unlearning all of the information that she was taught in the anti-violence movement. I can relate to her. I have spent the past 15 years doing the same. Kristin Bumiller (2008) writes that “it has become nearly impossible to understand the causes and consequences of being a victim of violence in terms which do not fit squarely within the purview of medicine or criminal justice (p.13).” This reality means that it has become almost impossible for people to conceive of non-crime control models of intervening in interpersonal violence incidents.

It is also now true that many well-intentioned people are paralyzed by fear that whatever they do will further “harm” survivors. The treatment of violence has become so medicalized and professionalized that people have ceded almost complete control to “experts” and have forgotten that they have all of the tools themselves to support survivors of violence. Most importantly, people have forgotten that they already support friends and family who are survivors of violence in their own lives, every day. We are all already acting as advisers, cheerleaders, counselors, buffers, etc… for people who are survivors of violence. It’s important to remember this.

At the end of the workshop, I made the following points to the participants by way of my comments. I told everyone that I noticed the tension in the room and that folks should take a deep breath. I said that it was OK not to have the “answers.” Most of us never do when we launch new initiatives or interventions. I suggested that everyone should just start establishing some informal groups in their communities of choice to help support survivors of violence. It’s OK to start small. Gather up your posse of 3 or 4 friends/family/community members and just start… I mentioned that a huge number of people are already trying to “heal” from violence without relying on police and prisons. This is not new. There is a natural constituency that would welcome an alternative to the crime-control model of anti-violence work. I urged people to just start doing the work and to stop trying to think of everything that could go wrong. This is a surefire way to get stuck. Instead, they should embrace what could go right. In other words, my advice was basically “JUST DO IT” (sorry Nike).

As Kristin Bumiller (2008) suggests: “[C]oncerns about rape and domestic violence need to be primarily addressed in the context of communities and in terms of their links to social disadvantage and impoverishment (p. 14).” She makes the additional point that sexual and domestic violence must be re-embedded within social movements and community-based activism rather than universalized as they have become. You will not be surprised to learn that I agree 100% with her on these points. I would add that it’s not our job as tranformative justice practitioners to come up with the blueprint for how to supplant to current oppressive criminal legal system. Our job as I have often mentioned on this blog is to create and implement our interventions that do not rely on policing and/or prisons to address harm in our communities. Let’s just do that work and not worry about getting caught up in the big theoretical arguments about whether TJ or community accountability are “safe” or “realistic” or “sustainable.” Our job for now is to “JUST DO IT.”

For those who are interested in community accountability and want to learn more, some of my friends have pulled together an invaluable new online resource. I am particularly excited about my friend Mimi Kim and Creative Interventions’ new Community Accountability toolkit which is also available at the site. I was a reviewer of the toolkit and while it is still in draft form, it provides invaluable and step by step directions for those who have questions about community accountability and want to implement their own interventions. The final version of the toolkit will be available this Fall.