Everyday Abolition: Working Towards Non-Punitive Accountability

This is part two of train of thought that includes more questions than answers, but I hope it starts conversations on how we can find alternatives in our daily lives to abolish our Prison Industrial Complex. Read the first part, "Everyday Abolition: We Are Responsible for the Prison Industrial Complex."

This year there has been a loud call for justice in the killings of black men and trans women of color in the US. Justice for Mike Brown. Justice for Penny Proud. Justice for Eric Garner. But what does that justice look like? Is justice incarcerating the people who killed Michael, Penny, Eric, and so many others? Sasha Alexander, from the Sylvia Rivera Law Project says, "To work towards our liberation, we must not mirror the systems used to oppress us. Justice will not come from policing, jailing, or incarcerating more people--these systems only contribute to the violence trans and gender nonconforming folks and all folks face."

Toni Morrison asked in The Nation, "In this contemporary world of violent protests, internecine war, cries for food and peace, in which whole desert cities are thrown up to shelter the dispossessed, abandoned, terrified populations running for their lives and the breath of their children, what are we (the so-called civilized) to do?" She correctly observed, "The solutions gravitate toward military intervention and/or internment-killing or jailing."

I have been at protest marches where the chant is "jail killer cops!" As an abolitionist I don't want anyone jailed. Yes, I know that this is a radical thought--no cages for living beings. The thing that has surprised me is how many of my friends, who say they are against the PIC, have joined, and at times led, these chants. We have better options. Most of us jump to punishment models before models of community healing.

What does justice look like from an abolitionist perspective? Prisonjustice.ca suggests, "The abolitionist response seeks to restore both the criminal and the victim to full humanity, to lives of integrity and dignity in the community."

Angela Davis describes an option of restorative justice. "Reconciliatory or restorative justice, for example, is presented by some abolitionists as an approach that has proved successful in non-Western societies--Native American societies, for example--and that can be tailored for use in urban contexts in cases that involve property and other offenses. The underlying idea is that in many cases, the reconciliation of offender and victim (including monetary compensation to the victim) is a much more progressive vision of justice than the social exile of the offender. The point is that we will not be free to imagine other ways of addressing crime as long as we see the prison as a permanent fixture for dealing with all or most violations of the law."

Practicing restorative justice begins in our everyday lives. In an everyday setting jumping to punitive measures raises questions like the following. What do you do when your neighbor/friend is verbally having a loud disagreement with her teenager? If you are on a college campus, what do you do when the student in the room next to you is playing their music too loud? What do you do when you see someone staggering down the sidewalk? What do you do when a kid steals a candy bar at the corner store? Is your impulse to call the police?

Where do we go when harm has been done to the community? Sasha Alexander says, "No one is disposable or expendable, and that the logic of using policing, punishment, and prison has not proven to address the systemic causes of violence. In dismantling structures of oppression, the process is just as critical as the end goal. From immigration and detention, to the prison industrial complex, jails, and psychiatric institutions, the intersections of oppression are deeply embedded in our structures. Abolition means preventing harm, intervening, and working towards non-punitive accountability." We need to increase our education about community and difference starting from birth. We need to educate each other about identity and communication.

Skidmore College describes restorative justice as a "collaborative decision-making process that includes victims, offenders, and others seeking to hold offenders accountable by having them (a) accept and acknowledge responsibility for their offenses, (b) to the best of their ability repair the harm they caused to victims and communities, and (c) work to reduce the risk of reoffense by building positive social ties to the community."

Schools are using such practices, as justice circles in small communities, like a team or dorm, and justice boards that encourage active participation by both offenders and harmed parties. Teaching these types of practices, in addition to mediation and collectively agreed upon community standards of mutual respect, can build spaces to bring people into these conversations.

Public shaming and calling out culture

I see what is referred to as the "calling out culture" often in opposition to restorative justice. In Magical Ersatz's piece entitled "'Call Out Culture': The Case Of Ableist Language", they comment: "I have witnessed, more times than I care to remember, a person who seems to be of general goodwill and good intentions enter into a conversation about disability on social media or a blog, only to get 'called out'--often quite harshly--for using ableist language. Sometimes it's disabled people doing the calling out, but more often than not (for the conversations I've witnessed, I should emphasize) it's non-disabled people. The called out person will sometimes attempt to explain why they said what they did, or why they don't think what they said was problematic. This usually results in even harsher criticism. The almost invariable result is that the called out person then quickly exits the conversation - no doubt leaving with a less than stellar impression of what it's like to talk about disability with progressives." Many of us have seen this on Facebook and Yik Yak, in faith communities, and on college campuses. We have ways of hiding our "calling out" to justify our rage and actions. We often use language about accountability and community protection. But is the end goal to push this person to the margins of our community?

Everyday abolition includes drawing people into discussion and accountability, often in small, personal settings. We may not have the "public joys" of shaming the wrong doer but in the end I believe that we will have a more just society.

In 2013 Ngọc Loan Trần posted a piece on Black Girl Dangerous entitled, "Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable". They suggest, "The first part of calling each other in is allowing mistakes to happen. Mistakes in communities seeking justice and freedom may not hurt any less but they also have possibility for transforming the ways we build with each other for a new, better world. We have got to believe that we can transform. I start "call in" conversations by identifying the behavior and defining why I am choosing to engage with them. I prioritize my values and invite them to think about theirs and where we share them. And then we talk about it. We talk about it together, like people who genuinely care about each other. We offer patience and compassion to each other and also keep it real, ending the conversation when we need to and knowing that it wasn't a loss to give it a try."

Who is my community?

Are people who spout racist, misogynist, and transphobic words and actions part of my community? Are incarcerated people part of my community? The short answer, I believe, is yes! Our world is like a permaculture garden where even the weeds are important. I might not always like it, but our global system is interconnected. Black Girl Dangerous clarified that Trần's article does not absolve white people of the racist shit we often do. And that "calling in" is not a way to dissipate the anger that people of color have when white folks are racist. I agree. But, in promoting everyday abolition, how do we leave room for anger, hurt, healing, and learning and how do we do it within a community of weeds? I am not saying that POC are responsible for educating white folks, I just want to question what is community? Who is my community?

At the Incite! Color of Violence 4 conference Angela Davis remarked, "Our work against violence must be done with joy and song and art to prefigure a world we want."

I have a radical dream, a world where people don't live in cages, where my community includes people with different beliefs and ideologies. Where some in my community may have caused great harm, but have been brought back into community. Where people living with mental health issues are getting the assistance they need, from the community. Where equity is the norm and inequality is rare. Until this day comes I will continue to practice everyday abolition, and fight to make this dream a reality. I will fight for my community living behind bars, for the freedom of all living beings. I know I won't do everything perfectly but I hope that others will join me because we can only do this together.