Category: Transformative Justice

Dec 21 2013

Community Safety Looks Like…Imagining Justice

A few months ago, I saw Morris Justice’s community safety wall project. I loved the idea and decided that it would be great to replicate it in Chicago. Then time got away from me; I got busy doing other things. A month ago, I posted a link to the project on Facebook and asked if any of my friends wanted to create our own community safety wall in Chicago. I got a terrific response and my friend, movement photographer Sarah Jane Rhee offered to help.

So over the past couple of weeks, we collaborated to run a photobooth at the Hull House Museum’s Practicing Peace event and then Sarah continued to ask people to share their thoughts about what community safety would look like at some other events. I’ve uploaded the photos that Sarah has taken to date on Tumblr.

I love this project because it opens space for us to consider the world that we’d like to see and build. It gives us an opportunity to imagine what justice might look like in our communities.

Below are a few photographs. If you live in Chicago, you can participate by sending your own photo to

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (12/19/13)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (12/19/13)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (12/14/13)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (12/14/13)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhe (12/10/13)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhe (12/10/13)

See the other photographs HERE.

Nov 18 2013

On ‘Justice’ & Renisha McBride

It turns out that Renisha McBride was actually shot in the face.

renisha When I read the words, they didn’t compute. I read them again. They still didn’t penetrate. Early reports suggested that she’d been shot in the back of the head. I had taken a perverse solace in believing that she was walking away from the stranger’s house when he shot her. I imagined that she didn’t know what hit her when the bullet tore through her skull. I convinced myself that she didn’t know what was coming. I’m sure that fear and perhaps disorientation led her to knock on several strangers’ doors that night. But I wanted to believe that in her final moments, she was taken by surprise & maybe even died instantly. No pain; just darkness. But this likely didn’t happen. Instead she was shot in the face through a closed screen door. Her parents had to have a closed casket funeral. She was probably terrified in those final moments before her assailant pulled the trigger. I am haunted by this image.

After Renisha’s death, we performed our well-rehearsed ritual of how to respond to the cold-blooded killing of black youth. Second degree murder and manslaughter charges were brought against her assailant on Friday, nearly two weeks after her tragic death. The charges came after calls by her family and community members for the Dearborn Heights police to arrest, for the prosecutor to file charges and bring the case to trial, and for a jury to convict. Amidst this organizing, the family repeatedly called for ‘justice’ and according to their attorney: “Only a conviction will result in justice for Renisha McBride, not just charges.”

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Sep 16 2013

Guest Post: Strategies for Cultivating Community Accountability by Ann Russo

I am thrilled today to publish this essay by my friend, Dr. Ann Russo. Ann is a professor in the gender and women’s studies program at Depaul University. She was formerly the director of that program and has now founded a new project called “Building Communities, Ending Violence” at Depaul. “Building Communities” uses peacemaking circles and safety labs to address violence. I’ve been lucky to publish another essay by Ann titled “Violence, Healing and Justice here. Ann is currently writing a book about community accountability and transformative justice. I am so excited about it that I can barely hold it in. Stay tuned for that book when it is done!

10 Strategies for Cultivating Community Accountability
by Ann Russo

My commitment to prison abolition grows daily in part because I see the possibilities for responding to abuse and violence without relying on punishment, shame, and more violence.  The possibilities lie in building communities where community members – be they friends, family members, coworkers, or neighbors – rely on one another  to heal, intervene, to take accountability, and to transform abuse and violence.  That’s the essence of community accountability as envisioned by Incite! Women of Color Against Violence and Creative Interventions.

Community accountability can be creating communal support for those impacted, and/or collectively interrupting, challenging, stopping, and shifting abusive behavior and the underlying systems that support it.  The key is working collectively in community rather than relying on external authorities and systems of oppression.  It is not a formulaic set of responses, but grows organically in relation to the specific people and relationships involved.  And like transformative justice, it seeks to address the underlying power systems that ultimately form the root causes of violence.

I work with the Building Communities, Ending Violence project based at DePaul University.  We create spaces to build skills and expand our imaginations for community accountability and transformative justice.  We engage in peace circles to build community, share stories of resilience and resistance, and create support and accountability.  We create strategy sessions to brainstorm, imagine, and practice communal responses to everyday violations.  And we use creative arts for communal healing and transformation.  Here are 10 strategies we use to build skills and capacity for community accountability: 

1. Shift from “what can I do” to  “what can we do?” When faced with abuse and/or violence, people often are not sure what to do.  Instead of feeling the burden of responding solely on our own, gather with others connected to the situation – family members, friends, neighbors, coworkers, peers, etc.  Recognize that each of us is impacted by the abuse/violence whether we are directly involved or not and that collectively our experience, knowledge, and skills could shift the situation.  Together we can commiserate, analyze, strategize, and take action.

With a “we”, energy shifts and possibilities multiply – more support, ideas, and capacity.  Each person has a unique role to play to shift any situation – some might be in a good position to support the person harmed, whereas others might be in a better position to cultivate accountability with the person causing the harm.  Some might have material resources to offer, others might organize community support, and still others might offer perspectives on the underlying roots of the violence.  With more people, any situation can shift toward healing, accountability, and transformation.

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Aug 30 2013

When ‘Chiraq’ Comes Home to Roost…

Regular readers know that I’ve begun to explore the meanings of the term “Chiraq” on this blog. I promised to return to this topic but have been sidetracked. In the meantime, Dr. Nancy Heitzeg wrote an excellent post considering how the term “Chiraq” is linked to militarization and war on terror tactics in our cities.

Last night, I read an extraordinary report by journalist Natalie Moore about Senator Mark Kirk and Congressman Bobby Rush’s visit to Englewood. Back in May, Kirk made headlines for proposing to seek millions of dollars in federal funds to arrest 18,000 members of the Gangster Disciples. Bobby Rush immediately criticized Kirk suggesting that the mass gang arrest plan was an “upper-middle-class, elitist white boy solution to a problem he knows nothing about.”

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Aug 27 2013

Guest Post: The Future of Mass Incarceration: Punishment in the Proposed Era of Decarceration

The Future of Mass Incarceration: Punishment in the Proposed Era of Decarceration

by Chez Rumpf, PhD Candidate in Sociology, Loyola University Chicago

Two weeks ago in a speech to the American Bar Association, Attorney General Eric Holder openly critiqued the United States’ “War on Drugs,” admitting it has been a failure and that its unintended consequences have severely harmed individuals, families, and entire communities. Specifically, Holder took issue with mandatory minimum sentencing policies that have contributed greatly to the build-up of the United States’ prison nation. He went so far as to instruct federal prosecutors throughout the United States to no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent federal drug charges.

An End to the “War on Drugs” and Mass Incarceration?

Holder’s comments carry a great deal of symbolic importance. It is undeniably noteworthy for the country’s Attorney General to openly challenge and call for a reversal of U.S. crime policies and to acknowledge publicly that mass incarceration is a grave social injustice, in part because of the severe racial disparities that permeate the criminal legal system. It remains to be seen, however, whether the symbolic importance of Holder’s speech will translate to changes in policy and practice. As Kara Dansky recently noted on the ACLU’s blog, federal prosecutors may resist Holder’s instructions based on their own racist beliefs and adherence to “tough on crime” ideology.

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Aug 11 2013

Some Things End: Reflections on Love, Struggle, and YWEP

For over a decade, I have been privileged to be in community with youth and adult members of a unique and transformative organization called The Young Women’s Empowerment Project (YWEP). I served as a board member, adviser (when called upon), supporter, cheerleader, booster, funder, and just an unabashed fan.

Yesterday evening, I gathered with dozens of YWEP members and supporters to celebrate the organization’s accomplishments and contributions. We were also together to mark an end to YWEP as an organization. The work of YWEP will obviously live on in new and different ways but the organization will soon officially close its doors. There are myriad reasons for YWEP’s decision to end its operations. Someday in the future, I’ll have some comments about these.

I was interviewed yesterday and asked to reflect on the organization’s history and work. It gave me a chance to discuss the ways that I’ve been influenced by YWEP as a youth worker and person. Quite simply, YWEP taught me about love, humanity, and struggle.

The young people who joined YWEP over the years are among the most marginalized youth in Chicago. There are black & brown girls (for the most part), trans* youth, poor kids, youth who trade sex for money and survival needs, people in the street economy, and substance using & sometimes abusing teenagers. And here’s the thing: at YWEP none of these identities or behaviors are defining. YWEP youth are treated simply as HUMAN and they are offered unconditional love and support.

They are considered leaders and experts in their own lives. I saw first hand how previously insecure young people slowly gained confidence and voice. I marveled at the metamorphosis of youth (who were previously seen as talentless) into brilliant artists (poets, visual artists, musicians). No one is disposable at YWEP. Every single one of us is “priceless.”

It is primarily through YWEP’s work that I learned the importance of centering healing in youth organizing. I learned from watching them how to put Audre Lorde’s words (not just the pithily cited ones) into PRACTICE.


YWEP is the embodiment of radical love and self-determination. Those two things made the organization a threat and a constant target of those who cannot abide people of color and the marginalized loving ourselves and each other, especially in public. I remember the consistent death threats and the persistent danger in doing the work. Yet those who moved the work forward have kept their integrity, compassion, and most importantly humor throughout.

Years ago, I read an essay by June Jordan titled “Where is the love?” It was transformative for me.

And it is here — in the extreme coincidence of my status as someone twice stigmatized, my status as someone twice kin to the despised majority — it is here, in this extremity, that I stand in a struggle against demoralization and suicide and toward self-love and self-determination. And it is here, in this extremity, that as a Black feminist I ask myself and anyone who would call me sister, Where is the love?

And it seems to me that the strength that should come from Black feminism means that I can, without fear, love and respect all men who are willing and able, without fear, to love and respect me… this means that as a Black feminist I cannot be expected to respect what somebody else calls self-love if that concept of self-love requires my self-destruction.

I can say that the love for YWEP was manifest at last night’s celebration and so too was YWEP’s love for all of us. It IS truly radical as oppressed people to love ourselves in spite of all of the ways that this is precluded. YWEP is a space where our humanity was consistently affirmed and where we were reminded of where love resides (in ourselves and between each other). It made it possible for so many of us to stay in the struggle. I am forever grateful.

Today is the last day to make a donation to support YWEP as it moves to close its doors. I hope that you’ll consider making a contribution as a way to say thank you to the amazing people who have been involved in YWEP’s work over all of these years.

Aug 03 2013

Cities of Refuge: An Art Project about Transformative Justice and Scapegoating…

I am beyond excited to share that I am working on a project I am calling “Transformative Justice Fall (TJ Fall).” TJ Fall is kicking off early with a sold out discussion on August 15 about Transformative Justice and the Trayvon Martin case.

Next, I am happily collaborating (again) with my friend, brilliant artist Billy Dee to create an arts-informed transformative justice curriculum that we will make available to educators and organizers this fall. The reason for creating this curriculum is to foster discussions with young people about the concepts of transformative justice.

All of this leads up to an amazing exhibition featuring the art of my friend, talented & visionary artist Micah Bazant. Here are Micah’s own words about the Cities of Refuge project:

For the past few years I’ve been working on an art project about transformative justice and scapegoating. It is rooted in my personal experiences of healing from ostracization, but also a longing to understand these experiences historically, spiritually and politically.

The art re-imagines two ancient models of dealing with social transgression: the ritual goat sacrifice (or azazel in Hebrew) that was the root of the scapegoat concept, and the mythic Cities of Refuge (or Ir Miklat) where people accused of a crime could take refuge from violent retribution. As the project develops, the scapegoat is slowly entering the city and the city is entering the scapegoat.

As part of the project, Lewis Wallace and I created a zine of powerful stories about transformative justice.

In collaboration with Project Nia, it will be showing at HumanThread Center/Gallery for Peace, Arts & Education in the Bridgeport Art Center in Chicago 11/11 – 12/9. The project is open for future collaborations with other artists, educators, spiritual communities and organizers!

Below are some amazing photographs of some of the art from Cities of Refuge.

Azazel (Scapegoat) with Ir Miklat (City of Refuge), 2013, clay, goat fur, sequins, trash.

Azazel (Scapegoat) with Ir Miklat (City of Refuge), 2013, clay, goat fur, sequins, trash.

Azazel (Scapegoat) with digestive tract, 2011.  People are asked to write down a serious transgression they have committed and insert it into the goat. Then they pull a question about transformative justice from the mouth of the goat.

Azazel (Scapegoat) with digestive tract, 2011.
People are asked to write down a serious transgression they have committed and insert it into the goat. Then they pull a question about transformative justice from the mouth of the goat.

Cities of Refuge (Arei Miklat), 2012-2013

Cities of Refuge (Arei Miklat), 2012-2013

City of Refuge (Ir Miklat) #2, 2013, cardboard, electric lights

City of Refuge (Ir Miklat) #2, 2013, cardboard, electric lights

City of Refuge (Ir Miklat) #3, 2013, cardboard, electric lights

City of Refuge (Ir Miklat) #3, 2013, cardboard, electric lights

Jul 17 2013

Zimmerman, Martin, & Transformative Justice: Some Readings

by Molly Crabapple

by Molly Crabapple

I’ve been thinking about what actual justice might look like for Trayvon Martin through an abolitionist and transformative lens. A number of people have been focused on the same question. I’ve decided to archive some of those interventions below:

Justice for Trayvon… but how? Low End Theory

Prison for George Zimmerman is Not Justice for Trayvon Martin By Paul Blasenheim

Remember: a criminal conviction is not justice November 30 Blog

Restorative Justice for Trayvon Martin by Mikhail Lyubansky

Restorative Justice for Trayvon Martin by Jiva Shanti Manske

Trayvon Martin and Black People For the Carceral State by Prison Culture

Trayvon Martin and Prison Abolition by Chanel (Crunk Feminist Collective)

The Zimmerman Trial Through An Abolitionist Lens by Victoria C

We’re NOT All Trayvon Martin by Victoria Law

What Does #Justice4Trayvon Look Like? by Mychal Denzel Smith

What Would Real Justice For Trayvon Martin Look Like? by Kay Whitlock

Why America Needs Another Kind of Justice? by Phillipe Copeland

May 27 2013

Guest Post: Redemption, Transformation and Justice, Part 2 by Kay Whitlock

CI: Redemption, Transformation & Justice, Part 2
Kay Whitlock

“I’m against the death penalty on principle,” a colleague said recently. “But when I think of what Ariel Castro did to those women and that kid in Cleveland, I wonder what punishment other than death could possibly suffice.” A friend of mine, normally a gentle soul, was livid: “He ought to be drawn and quartered.”

Not only had Castro kidnapped, held in captivity, raped, and tortured three adult women – Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight, and Gina DeJesus – for periods of 9 to 11 years; Berry bore a child and Castro forcibly impregnated and caused Knight to suffer miscarriages. Prosecutors have said they will add murder (“feticide”) charges.


It’s always like that in the aftermath of both real and purported horrific acts of violence or transgression, the race to retribution and vengeance, incited by cases so chilling, so abhorrent that they evoke in us waves of rage and dread.

And in the midst of those powerful emotions, many of us find ourselves awash in our own violent feelings. It’s the kind of electric current feeling that can too easily turn a crowd of ordinary folks into a group of vigilantes; a paramilitary border patrol; a lynch mob; people who torch synagogues and mosques.

That’s the feeling: “Kill the evil. Destroy it. Erase it.” As if the capacity for terrible violence existed – well, somewhere else. Not in us. Not in mainstream society and its systems. It exists in the archetypally dangerous Them. The Menacing “Other.” And the only thing we can think of to help soothe our fear, our dread is the violent erasure of that which frightens and enrages us.

But most of us couldn’t possibly imagine engaging in mob violence. We stand for justice, not against it, right? Right. And still, many of us will permit our most potent feelings of rage, dread, and fear – often fed by media’s “if it bleeds, it leads” dictum and sensational coverage – to be transmuted into structural forms of violence.

This is also the electric current of emotion that powers crime policy in the United States and that limits mainstream awareness and discussion of its violent impacts. It is what too often permits the criminal legal system to function as mob by proxy.

The horrific violent offender – real or imaginary – is the image that is deployed to stop serious discussion about justice that seeks to redeem and transform rather than to administer brutal punishment.

  • It’s the image that not only tells us that we need a death penalty, but that prisons are inevitable and that the people in them deserve every form of brutality they receive.
  • It is that image that that tells us that prisons create “safety.”
  • It is the image that shores up the spiritually corrupting notion that the lives of “criminals,” especially those who have done terrible violence to others, cannot and should not be redeemed.
  • It is the image that distorts the justice visions of both the Right and the Left.

So let’s start with the current embodiment of that image.

The harm Ariel Castro has done is incalculable, and he must be held accountable for his actions. The three women and the child he held in abusive captivity deserve every possible form of assistance to mend their shattered, interrupted lives. But could he redeem his own life, even if he never goes free another day in his life? Is redemption even possible?

What might be possible (though never guaranteed) if we learn to transform our own desires for vengeance and retribution? If we confront our own fears more directly, with the intention of not having them control our policies? If we commit to forms of justice that value reclaiming and redeeming the lives of all who have been touched by violence – and that seek to change the social and economic conditions that produce so much violence?

The answer, of course, is in the hands of those who have done harm. Surely it was possible for Charles Ramsey, convicted of three felony domestic violence offenses, who completed his sentences, and also worked to transform himself. Unlike the police, he rightly named and came to the aid of a woman who he suspected was suffering from exactly that kind of violence. Surely it was for Stanley Tookie Williams, whose story of redemption and transformation can be found here. (See Of Charles Ramsey and Stanley Tookie Williams ~Redemption and Transformation, Part 1).

Another glimpse can be found in the terrible violence in South Africa that continued to unfold, even in the dying days of formal apartheid.

Read more »

May 13 2013

When Prison Abolition Was A Feminist Concern…

by Ariel Springfield (2013)

by Ariel Springfield (2013)

Once upon a time, not so long ago, people who identified as feminists cared profoundly about prisoners and prisons. They were at the forefront of advocating prison abolition. Things changed…

I decided to share this great reminder from 1971 in the radical feminist publication “Off Our Backs (PDF)” when it was still a newsletter. Below are some excerpts from the publication that includes an essay about prison abolition.

Women Prisoners Revolt

In support of their brothers at Attica and the 28 demands they made, the women incarcerated at Alderson demonstrated peacefully on Tuesday, September 14. The demonstration developed into a total strike with the women refusing to return to their cottages. Later they met with representatives of the federal prison parole board and presented additional demands including fair wages for work performed in the jail (they presently receive 7 cents an hour); mail privileges; and treatment facilities for addicts. Frustrated by the out-of-hand rejection of their demands and the harsh and adamant attitude of the prison officials, the women rioted. Tear gas was used. They were all then locked into the cottages. Three sisters “escaped” from the rooms to tell the press what had happened.

Unprecedented actions have been taken against the women who presented the demands. Sixty-six of them have been transferred to to a male youth reformatory in Ashland, Ky. Additional male guards (there are usually * 60) now patrol Alderson to enforce “order.” Authorities will not release the names of women who have been transferred or say where they will be sent now.

How Many Lives?

How many years of people’s lives must be lost, hidden, and brutalized, before we see that prisons must be abolished?

How many Atticas, San Quentins and Aldersons will it take till we realize that our society has created these monstrous institutions out of fear — fear of human freedom, cultural differences, loss of capitalist property. The ethics of our society have been distorted by this fear, and are then imposed on non-white people, poor people, young people and women to make survival and experimentation crimes. Why should people in Amerika spend years in jail for such “immoral” acts as smoking grass, getting drunk and singing in the streets, making love or printing “obscenity”, much less for standing by moral decisions not to kill or work for an immoral government? If prisons were really to protect us from psychopaths, murderers and thieves, they would contain Nixon, Rockefeller, Mitchell, Reagan, Agnew, owners of motor industries and oil dynasties, slum land lords, church leaders, and Pentagon officials. Prisons are the extreme domestic example of the racism, sexism, militarism and imperialism that we have been watching for years in Vietnam.

Who needs “rehabilitation” in our society? Not the slaves of ghetto deprivation and drugs pushed by those who wish to dull possible insurgency. Not the men and women who have learned to hustle and survive despite all efforts to destroy them. Not revolutionaries like Angela Davis and George Jackson. The people who need to be “rehabilitated” (if that’s even a correct attitude to have toward any human beings) are those whose minds and bodies have been warped by false value systems that convince them that some people must die so they can live, many must starve so they can eat, all must slave so they can enjoy rest.

“Rehabilitation” is the pacification program of liberalism. Even if we did want to “rehabilitate” sick or deviant minds or bodies, prison would be the last place to achieve it. We need to rid our selves of prisons. They are a danger to society not only because they are schools for “crime” (70% of all “crimes” are committed by ex-convicts) but because they try to erase from our consciousness people who could possibly bring about exciting changes in our social order. We need women like Angela Davis, Erica Huggins and Madame Ngo Ba Thanh among us. We need the Puerto Rican revolutionaries locked inside Alderson.

To abolish prisons we may have to develop “reforms” that carry within them contradictions that will make it hard to achieve them without drastically changing prisons — black prisoners’ unions with collective bargaining power, ending detention before conviction, a national prisoner monitoring system, open door policies, viable alternatives to incarceration. But whatever approaches are used, the goal should be prison abolition. To have no alternative at all would be better than to continue the present reality. And we can’t wait for the ending of racism, sexism and poverty in this country before we begin tearing down the walls. It may be in our own self-interest.

The question on the table: which current feminist publication can you imagine would publish such words?