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How Transformative Justice Responds To Violence Without The Carceral System

In the wake of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, protesters have taken to the streets against the violence of policing and to make demands, including defunding policing.

That demand is gaining traction as organizers have ignited a new wave of interest in the abolition of prisons and policing—a concept theorized mostly by Black women and femmes.

But this newfound hunger for abolition is accompanied by questions and concerns about how to implement abolition in practice. People wonder how society would hold people who commit violence accountable for their actions, and in particular, use sexual violence as an example.

One way abolitionists have confronted these questions is through the development of Transformative Justice (TJ) processes. These processes, which have roots in Indigenous practices, model a different set of skills and principles for approaching harmful and dangerous situations.

Abolitionists argue we should eliminate all forms of policing and incarceration, and instead fund life-giving, community-based social services. They understand that properly executing such services requires shifting values and resourcing the development of valuable relationship skills to give communities the tools they need to disrupt and intervene in patterns of harm. That’s where TJ comes in.

What Is Transformative Justice?

Abolition is not a new idea; it’s been theorized, practiced, and advocated for by Black feminists like Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Rachel Herzing for decades. They argue the carceral state emphasizes individual acts of harm, labeling those who commit harm as criminals to justify dehumanization, isolation, and punishment.

As demonstrated by the violence of policing, as well as the demographics of incarcerated populations, this is a mechanism of control over the most marginalized in American society: Black and brown people, Indigenous people, and often those who are poor, trans, sex-working, and/or disabled.

Those same people are proposing ways to exist and solve problems outside of this violent system.

In other words, abolitionists identify the punishment bureaucracy as a source of harm itself. Leila Raven is a queer mama, prison abolitionist, and organizer with Decrim NY and Hacking//Hustling, who points out that “a thousand people are killed by police every year, Black people are three times as likely to be killed as white people, and half of those killed are people with disabilities. Sexual assault is also the second most common form of police brutality, primarily used against Black women and women of color who are also frequently criminalized for the strategies that we use to survive.”

While the state is actively harming folks at the margins, transformative justice seeks to do the opposite.

According to Mia Mingus, a writer, educator, and community organizer for disability justice and transformative justice, the process is “a political framework and approach for responding to violence, harm and abuse. At its most basic, it seeks to respond to violence without creating more violence and/or engaging in harm reduction to lessen the violence.”

Je’Kendria—a fat, Black, disabled, non-binary femme who is the Executive Director of Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS)—argues TJ  necessitates an understanding that the carceral system does not actually protect or heal survivors, but rather “thrusts [them] into cycles of harm and trauma.”

Like other abolitionists, she points out that sexual harm is still so prevalent despite having carceral systems in place. Not only is sexual violence prevalent within the carceral system, but she says that most rapists are not actually incarcerated. Instead, many have “prominent positions of power.”

Erin Gar-Yun Andriamahefa is a queer, genderfluid, Malagasy, Chinese person, who volunteers with CASS. She describes TJ as a framework through which people can begin to understand and address why harm is happening, while emphasizing collective responsibility to seek accountability when it happens.

It is a humanizing process, she told Shadowproof, that “equips us to move beyond shame and punishment to normalize navigating conflict, seeing it as a portal for accountability, transformation, and healing.”

CASS facilitates the creation of such a portal to accountability, transformation, and healing. Je’Kendria describes the organization as a small grassroots group that “trains and supports communities, workplaces, bars/restaurants, and collectives in building safer environments that address harassment and assault through an intersectional, anti-carceral lens.”

By prioritizing the survivors’ consent, safety, and healing, TJ ensures that carceral culture and systems aren’t recreated within communities.

Modeling Different Approaches To Harm

Transformative justice is not one type of response, explains Ejeris Dixon, Executive Director of Vision Change Win.

“We use transformative justice depending on what has happened,” Dixon told Shadowproof. “This can mean accountability processes, ways that we protect and interrupt violence in the moment through de-escalation or bystander intervention, ways that we can support survivors to heal, and structures that we create for communities to address violence, harm, and emergencies outside of the carceral state.”

On an individual level, Je’Kendria explains that survivors lead the process, explaining what they need to feel safe. On a larger community scale, they say it can look like “creating consistent containers for people to engage in co-learning, co-processing, and co-conspiring around upholding principles of collective safety and wellness. Communities have to be ready to pause, to assess and be accountable, to [create] shared agreements, principles, and methods that facilitate safety for everyone.”

To Je’Kendria, this internal processing and work is paramount in collectives that organize externally as well.

A common refrain about transformative justice and other alternatives to carcerality is that they would only work in a utopia, or that they have never been used effectively. Though TJ generally requires community buy-in and consent of all of those involved, it’s untrue that alternatives to state solutions are not being practiced.

Raven points out that “trans and queer people of color, especially those who are sex working, disabled, and housing insecure, have always known that we could not rely on policing for safety, and so we experiment frequently with many other strategies to keep each other safe.”

“Many of these folks may not have known or used the terms ‘transformative justice,’” Dixon adds. “But if we ask folks what they worked on, we will hear these practices in their answers.”

Apart from engaging in community accountability and TJ processes, other non-carceral responses to harm can look like shared housing models that provide safety and stability to people by helping them rapidly exit houselessness.

It can also look like public calls for consequences. In these instances, people use the strength and reach of their combined platforms in an attempt to impose consequences on powerful individuals, who will not take accountability for engaging in harm.

Abolitionists are keenly aware that some people who engage in abuse will continue their harmful behaviors. That’s why TJ practitioners still believe in boundaries and consequences.

Je’Kendria emphasizes that consequences should be “a series of steps grounded in minimizing future harm, taking power away from the harm-doer, and increasing the survivor’s agency and ability to thrive. This is different from  punishment because to punish someone is to dehumanize, villainize, and inflict more harm on someone.”

She offered examples of consequences, including “the harm doer moving out of a housing situation, stepping down from a job, making a statement to every group they’re a part of disclosing the harm they caused, taking a break from social spaces where the survivor is present, dispersing funds to the survivor or to survivor-centered work, moving to another city,” and “gathering a dedicated group of accountability partners.”

These steps require acknowledgment of the harm, as well as intentional and explicit actions to rectify it. According to Je’Kendria, this is something that punishment does not and cannot accomplish.

“Consequences for gendered violence don’t naturally occur in a cis heteropatriarchal society,” Raven told Shadowproof. ”We have to actively disrupt oppressive behaviors and create consequences to keep people safe.”

To her, such consequences can include the removal of someone engaging in abuse from spaces where they have power or access.

Since many people who engage in abuse are able to continue harming others and avoid taking accountability by expanding their access to important positions on multiple platforms, it can be important to deplatform them on social media, magazines, podcasts, and other media.

But experimentation is still necessary, as are adequate resources, to attempt to refine and increase the capacity of these approaches.

Je’Kendria sees this as “rigorous study and training to continuously evolve in collective understanding of community safety and accountability…healing spaces that are proactive and address ancestral trauma…radical consent and Black queer feminist trainings as a requirement for entering a movement space (shoutout to BYP100!).”

The Challenging & Personal Work Of Confronting Harm

Abolitionists apply these frameworks to their own lives and organizing spaces. To make those spaces safer, abolitionists continually analyze the environments they create and the harm that is perpetuated within them.

“By questioning the conditions, environments, and systems that have allowed the harm to happen,” Andriamahefa says, “we reveal the spectrum and connection between our individual behavior and experiences and larger oppressive systems, including and upheld by the carceral state.”

Understanding everyone is capable of committing harm, abolitionists have had to reckon with harms committed by other self-described abolitionists.

Je’Kendria argues that this should be a wake-up call “for us to investigate how often we’re perpetuating harm in our movement spaces, how often we’re ignoring the signs of survivors, how easy it is for us to evade accountability, and how some of us weaponize and manipulate each other with TJ language.”

It’s not easy work, as it requires us to focus on ‘killing the cop in our heads’ and owning when we commit harm or enable others to do so. As we begin to actualize a world without police and prisons, we have to do the work to build communities of trust, with infrastructures of care to prevent the resurgence of carcerality as a solution.

Right now, organizers in New York City are confronting harm in their movement spaces. Lily Mishra, a Brooklyn-based organizer, is part of several organizing collectives in NYC. In response to abuse within one of her collectives, she and others entered a TJ process. (Shadowproof is using a pseudonym for Lily to protect the identity of those involved in the TJ process).

“One of the difficult things,” she says, “is that we’re all at different points of personal reflection regarding everything that occurred.” This makes an already difficult problem even harder, because people are going through their individual processes while realizing “there were deeper structural issues that led to..how we collectively enabled abuse.”

As Mishra notes, entering a transformative justice process is the beginning of a long journey—a journey that takes commitments and consensus. Though these commitments are not always the most comfortable because of differences of opinion, they’re necessary when a group is prioritizing “deep collective reflection.” She says that this is particularly important in abolitionist collectives, where it’s important to “organize at the scale of interpersonal relationships as well as institutional ones.”

As such, it’s important to center survivors where they hadn’t been centered before, such as within this particular collective. If not, the TJ process will not be “a vehicle through which we learn how to transform that harm into vigilance and care,” says Mishra.

Raven shared that after a recent experience of abuse and assault, she engaged in a process of community accountability with her abuser and their community.

“I found myself revictimized and abused all over again by the community of the person who harmed me, and so I turned instead to the broader community to call on this group to be accountable by dissolving their collective and shifting resources toward Black-led abolitionist anti-violence work,” Raven shared.

“Something that I learned through this process, that now seems obvious, is that people who rape and abuse others are often surrounded by people who enable them.”

Raven reiterates that despite the traumatic experience, she is hopeful that we can implement community accountability and TJ processes where we all acknowledge our role in causing harm, echoing Je’Kendria comments.

Dixon shared that one of the most important things to note is that TJ builds into the framework mechanisms through which we can support people who are “navigating intense forms of violence.” They note that TJ is as much about creating cultures of consent as it is about encouraging people to hold their friends and loved ones accountable, even when it is them who have committed sexual violence.

“I’m in a process right now holding a dear friend accountable,” says Dixon, and “it is both heartwrenching, challenging, and hope-creating.”

Harm exists and will continue to exist. But the frameworks communities can use to address that harm are not static and can be improved. Transformative justice provides space to explore and react to individual situations as they arise.

“We can use [transformative justice] to interrogate which systems need to be abolished and replaced in order for everyone to have their basic needs fully met,” Je’Kendria said, “and to grow communities that are communal, interdependent, and boldly accountable to each other.”

Reina Sultan

Reina Sultan

Reina Sultan is a Lebanese-American Muslim freelance journalist and one of the co-creators of 8 to Abolition. She is a PIC abolitionist and anarchafeminist, working to dismantle systems of white supremacist cisheteronormative patriarchy. Her work can also be found in VICE, Wear Your Voice, Bitch, ZORA, Greatist, Teen Vogue, and more. Follow @SultanReina on Twitter for hot takes and cat photos.