Featuring essays and interviews from grassroots activists and practitioners of transformative justice, this collection offers clear, practical, and brave advice about how to respond to violence and crises in your community. There’s theory here, but it’s rooted in practice—and in the often messy ways that theory and ideology get put to real use. The writing addresses what transformative justice can and cannot do, how to hold oneself and others accountable to those processes, and how to weave self-care into the practice of transformative justice. Maybe more importantly, it’s clear-eyed about the difficulties and complexities of building community responses to violence. This is terrifically difficult work. It is also essential.
Ejeris Dixon captures one of the the many challenges with transformative justice practices:
I was helping a friend think through a really challenging transformative justice (TJ) process, and we were talking about how best to support the survivor. The survivor felt betrayed by their support team because they had desired a goal for the process that involved permanently excluding the person who caused harm from a space without giving this person a pathway for reentering the space. The support team was trying to name their own boundaries, name their politics around the goals that they wouldn’t pursue, and negotiate an alternative. This process angered the survivor, and they were directing their fury at my friend. Their anger was personal and cruel. There is a way that survivors navigating recent trauma can process boundaries as rejection. And when this happens, I’ve witnessed and experienced survivors raising their voices, yelling, seemingly directing the entirety of their pain at the support team. When this has happened to me, I’ve felt it was impossible to know what piece of this pain I was supposed to hold. And the guilt and self-loathing that this experience can trigger or unearth can feel unbearable.
Through talking with my friend I began to think about the intensity of the rage TJ practitioners hold when the process doesn’t go exactly how a survivor expects. And the anger and hatred is not just directed at TJ practitioners, but at TJ as a practice itself. There’s a piece of capitalism in it. It feels like a terrible purchase. “I purchased a process, and you were supposed to give me salvation. This is not salvation. I hate you and I curse you and all your generations.” I’m not blaming survivors or support teams at all. It’s just that we can’t return people to their lives before trauma, or before violence, and that realization can feel devastating.Dixon & Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Beyond Survival, page 205
Dixon is addressing how to handle the stress and challenges of doing TJ work, but I will note something else here. Many of the criticisms I’ve seen lobbed at TJ practices function similarly: either TJ needs to prove that it is a perfect alternative to the prison industrial complex, or else it must be discarded as unworkable. It’s as if someone were saying, “This process cannot guarantee justice, therefore it is illegitimate to consider it as an alternative to the present system in which lynching is commonplace.” It smacks of bad faith.
Everything I’ve read about transformative justice demonstrates that it is a messy, complicated process. But it is a process that reaches for recovery and safety and love, while the prison industrial complex reaches only for death. I’ll take a messy, complicated process that strives for life over the opposite any day.
In the penultimate essay in Beyond Survival, Mimi Kim writes about Creative Interventions, an organization that formed to work on transformative justice projects in Oakland in 2004. Kim shares lucid and nuanced reports of how the projects succeeded, and where she saw opportunities for future efforts. In particular, she notes the challenges with sharing these kinds of analyses:
Beyond the threat of incorporation and co-optation was that of the rapid devaluation and disappearance of our concepts, technologies, and institutions. Community accountability and transformative justice may serve the interests of grassroots, marginalized communities, so long as states do not gain the power to control and determine their content. The subtler violence of competition in the marketplace of innovation is equally threatening to our social movement’s sustainability.
The act of publishing can hone analysis and disseminate knowledge across social movements and among important allies. It can also contribute to obsolescence. The market’s thirst for quickly consumable information can move from public knowledge to stories of accomplishments, or even to postmortems on the failures of utopian visions. Efforts to identify limitations can unwittingly fuel skepticism and demoralization in a social movement project that is facing considerable odds. Given the ambitiousness of our collective projects and the infinitesimal resources fueling them, the pervasiveness of our efforts and doggedness in their pursuit cannot be underestimated. Lest these stories become lost archaeological remnants rather than the foundation for new and lasting structures, our radical work is to embody these lessons in daily practice and to push for greater collective impact.Dixon & Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Beyond Survival, page 319
I think this is a really smart point and one I don’t often see articulated: the way efforts like transformative justice (or police abolition, or any number of other social movements) get reported and rinsed out of the news cycle can cause a lot of harm. The realities of online publishing can drive overly simplistic stories where nuance is needed, and worse, they create appetites for unreasonable success stories or dramatic failures where the realities are usually more complicated. I think nearly everyone working in media knows this, and many are making an effort to avert the harm that comes from it. I’m uncertain if anyone is succeeding in that effort.