Review of Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement co-edited by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshi Piepzna-Samarasinha
by Lesley Becker
Mainstream America had a glimpse into a day-to-day reality for marginalized communities for a brief, baffling and stunning moment during the attack at the U.S. Capitol on January 6.th Only this time, the victims were members of Congress who personally discovered – likely for the first time — that the police are not there for you when you need them.
Frightened legislators called 911 and the National Guard, but ultimately, they were on their own, at least for the moment. Their terrifying experience led them to call for accountability.
Meanwhile, people living in marginalized communities in the U.S. have been “on their own” for generations, because calling for help from the police or dialing 911 has repeatedly resulted in more violence or even death. Recent examples where Black and Brown families have called the authorities for help and saw their loved ones shot by police include the families of Jacob Blake, Angelo Quinto and Walter Wallace, Jr.
Beyond Survival, Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement, is a collection of essays and interviews exploring alternatives to calling the police that developed in communities who were “on their own.” Transformative Justice (TJ) processes have been developed in feminist communities, in trans communities, in BIPOC and indigenous and disabled communities. TJ work has served people living in economically disadvantaged and marginalized communities, including undocumented people, women in the workplace, youth, and sex workers.
Is building community safety without police possible?
This book was the brainchild of Leah Lakshi Piepzna-Samarasinha, who co-edited the collection with Ejeris Dixon. Their vision of Transformative Justice is that if implemented widely and over time, it will build community safety systems that can function independently of the criminal justice system. The essays are first-hand accounts describing approaches for responding to and preventing violence and abuse without police and prisons.
The title of the book describes its mission, which is to move beyond surviving abuse or assault, and to organize for the purpose of addressing violence and the root causes of violence.
This book follows a previous collection of writings that Piepzna-Samarasinha co-edited titled The Revolution Starts at Home. Her writing comes from a place of intense personal experience. She is a survivor of intimate partner abuse. In general, being a survivor might mean that after being abused or assaulted. a person has made it through the experience and survived. After she survived abuse, she found that she and her abuser were still working in the same activist network. Piepzna-Samarainha began talking about her experience in order to find some resolution for herself. She defined what she wanted. She did not want the abuser to go to prison. She wanted her abuser to be held accountable by people in their community for the harm done to her. Other activists acknowledged there were numerous instances of abuse happening in their network. The tolerance of abuse and assault in social justice networks was incongruous with the values and principles of the movement. The ensuing process was an autonomous approach demonstrating the possibility that community-based accountability processes can create resolution and safety for survivors of crime without relying on the criminal justice system.
This, the most recent collection of writings on TJ, is a unique contribution to an ongoing discussion about emerging Transformative Justice processes for building safe and equitable communities, especially in the context of the “defund the police” movement. While municipalities across America struggle to respond to incidents of police brutality, Beyond Survival offers writings from three dozen TJ practitioners as well as a plethora of principles and examples of community practices for responding to violence without relying on police. These essays, interviews and documents describe TJ strategies and shed light on the current state of the TJ movement. Personal stories are placed in a political context, making the case that societal transformation is linked to meaningful community relationships. The reflections of the writers provide practical strategies for building community safety. The final chapters of Beyond Survival are reflections on the beginnings of the TJ movement, provide an assessment of the present moment of this work mid-movement, and offer insights into how the movement will move forward.
Origins of the TJ Process
In the first essay, “Building Community Safety: Practical Steps Toward Liberatory Transformation,” Ejeris Dixon describes the 1940’s New Orleans community in which her mother grew up, where people used their own initiative and street smarts to respond to crises such as domestic abuse, when calling the police was not an option for them. For example, a group of well-respected people in the community would go to the home where domestic abuse was occurring and tell the abuser that he had to stop. Models and practices like this of multi-faceted community-based approaches laid the groundwork for transformative justice.
The essays in Beyond Survival illustrate how resources and the involvement of the community can be brought to bear on situations where someone has been hurt, with neighbors and family members invited to participate in community accountability processes addressing abuse, assault or violence. The process can involve individual meetings with the victim to identify what is needed to be safe and to recover; and meetings with the perpetrator to ascertain his or her willingness to engage in the process. When rape occurs and the victim knows the attacker’s family, she may choose to speak with the family instead of going to the police.
Another TJ approach is a Circle Process, which is a group of people meeting in a circle, usually with the perpetrator, to hold him or her accountable. The goal is to support the perpetrator to change attitudes and behaviors so that the wrongful act would not be repeated with the victim or any other person. The writings emphasize that while TJ also grew out of the work of the prison abolition movement (see Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons and Torture by Angela Davis) the TJ movement itself does not advocate that community-based TJ processes should replace the criminal justice system or the so-called Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) — at least not for now. Instead, the TJ work builds communities where police and prisons are not relevant to safety or justice and community-based networks and systems of accountability are in place.
In another essay, Mariame Kaba, founder of Project Nia, was interviewed by Ejeris Dixon. Project Nia is an organization focused on ending youth incarceration, and employs transformative justice strategies in their work. Kaba, a long-time educator and organizer, describes why TJ is not an alternative to the criminal justice system. She describes TJ as “an ideology, a framework, a political vision, a practice. All those things are true, and it’s simply a way to shift and transform our relationships to allow us to build the conditions under which we will no longer need prisons and surveillance and policing and all these other things that are part of the Prison Industrial Complex…” Instead, the TJ movement seeks to uncover the root causes of crime, and allows a community the opportunity to address the root causes. The relationships formed in TJ processes promote the development of safe communities in which the strong bonds and levels of trust between people provides a reliable network for responding to emergencies and crises.
TJ processes can involve practical planning for safety, such as providing security at demonstrations. Or it can involve more long-term goals, such as Community Accountability (CA) processes that support survivors and hold the offenders to account for their harmful actions. People who have been abusive may need support to move through phases of denial as they initially minimize the impact of their behavior and blame their victims.
There may be questioning about whether abuse is an act of free will, or whether it happened as a result of societal messaging, or if it’s related to abuse that the perpetrator has experienced in the past. The process may uncover family and/or societal conditions that gave rise to the harmful behavior. In an excerpt titled “What To Do When You Have Been Abusive”, Kai Cheng Thom writes that, “ the truth is that abusers and survivors of abuse do not exist, and have never existed, in a dichotomy: sometimes, hurt people hurt people.” When the community acknowledges the harm done to a victim, and the perpetrator absorbs the information about how his or her wrongful action has affected the survivor and the community, the result is sometimes a transformation that makes the community a safer place. The CA process is a stark contrast to the procedures of the criminal justice system, which are punitive and serve to isolate the offender from the community, as well as the victim. TJ processes prioritize the needs of survivors, even while devising a strategy to change perpetrator’s behaviors and prevent them from harming more people.
In her essay, “Isolation Cannot Heal Isolation,” Blyth Barnow writes that she did not speak about having been raped by a friend for five years. She describes how her own TJ strategy of telling the perpetrator’s family members about the rape focused on stopping her friend from raping any other women. This also allowed her as a survivor to emerge from the isolation of silence and trauma. When offenders are released from prison, the lack of connection to the community increases the likelihood that they will repeat the criminal behavior. But when a survivor’s TJ process is to inform friends and family members of a rapist, as Barnow did, the process may be messy, but potentially more effective at preventing the man from raping another woman.
Dealing with abuse within the family
In families where abuse happens, as described in Amita Swadhin’s essay “Transforming Family: A Story of Accountability,” it is no secret that the abuser, who is in a position of authority as the primary financial provider or for other reasons, will intimidate a spouse and children without having to suffer consequences. This behavior may be continued beyond the immediate family and possibly into next generations. Swadhin survived being abused by her father, who left her family and remarried. Years later, Swadhin worried about a younger stepsister who she had never met. She reached out to her through social media. Swadhin’s concerns were well-founded, and she acted to stop her father from abusing his new family member, as well as possibly others in his new community. She developed a theater piece in collaboration with a New York theater company, titled Secret Survivors, which was performed by survivors of childhood sexual abuse. These performances brought the issues out into the public and had the effect of supporting survivors of childhood abuse.
Personal stories like Swadhan’s support the book’s theme that the way to make change and stop abuse is not based on any one TJ formula or guideline. Throughout the collection of essays, writers emphasize that they are not experts, that TJ approaches are shaped by the needs of each specific situation. Beyond Survival documents real experiences in order to describe transformative justice, and encourages readers to literally “try this at home.”
This book is very different from a theoretical or academic approach, such as Howard Zehr and Barb Toews’ collection of essays Critical Issues in Restorative Justice, providing analysis and expertise on the parallel process of Restorative Justice (RJ) as opposed to Transformative Justice. Zehr and Toew are experts, and their work is essential to the multifaceted development of RJ, which is applied in many settings, including schools and prisons. But in the realm of TJ, the crux of the matter is to rely on resources in the community rather than academia to provide what is needed to respond to each specific situation and the issues of the individuals involved. Again, the TJ process is not a matter of expertise. Moreover, the implementation of TJ is not accomplished in coordination with the criminal justice system, nor do TJ practitioners and processes pursue the goal of replacing an existing system. Beyond Survival challenges traditional assumptions that the real work for creating accountability and safe communities must be aligned with reshaping the criminal justice system. Transformative Justice is unapologetically autonomous.
Flaws in the Criminal Justice System
By any measure, the criminal justice system is not working; it’s not working in a humane way, or in a “keeping society safe” way, or in a good use of money kind of way. Over 80 billion dollars of taxpayer money is spent every year on the prison system, and prisons don’t make society safer, because people who spend time in prison are likely to commit another crime. Maureen McGough, a policy expert and chief of staff of the Policing Project at NYU Law School, spoke online in February 2021 in the Howard Center Series on the topics of policing, community relationships, and public health and safety. One of the focus areas of her organization is called “reimaging public safety.” During the question-and-answer section, McGough was asked if she saw a role for Transformative Justice in the redesigning of public safety. She responded in the affirmative, saying “Yes. But we’re not there yet” and mentioned a need for data about TJ.
The response in Beyond Survival to the stance “We’re not there yet” is “we are there now.” Mimi Kim, in her essay “Moving Beyond Critique” argues that now is the time to stop thinking of police and prisons as the solution for violence and abuse and to begin to invest in “new institutional spaces for creating and promoting community-based responses.” Kim warns that there is no need to wait for TJ practitioners to collect statistics to convince skeptics, or worse, to “commodify concepts and practices…to incorporate their efforts into the state institutions they have been resisting.” Kim goes on to write that Community Accountability processes and TJ practice can serve communities “only so long as states do not gain the power to control and determine their content,” which would dilute TJ concepts and strategies.
The greatest peril of our time is the deep divide between political, social and economic groups, between the privileged and the unprivileged, between the right and the left. It will take imagination to reunite –or unite—a highly polarized country as never before. Transformative Justice processes might open channels for healing instead of fracturing further along these divides.
The value of TJ , as viewed by people doing this work, is that it builds the kind of community where eventually the people will know how to take care of problems, like violence and theft and abuse, without having to call authorities from the outside. This is already happening in BIPOC communities where calling the police can make bad situations much worse. So if a TJ process compared to a police intervention — one that results in having a Black or Brown person shot and paralyzed because of a domestic situation, like that of Jacob Blake — then a TJ intervention is a “success, “ in that it resolves the crisis by de-escalating a violent situation.
How could TJ practice apply to the issue of white supremacy? With a great leap of imagination, Transformative Justice could be applied to the January attack on the Capitol. And why not, because using the punitive approach and incarcerating every white supremacist that rioted will be more likely to deepen the divide in America than heal it. This is not a suggestion that the attack was acceptable. But white individuals who see white supremacy as a white issue that they need to solve, instead of as a Black issue they need to empathize with, might bring together a Community Accountability process for an insurrectionist. The group invited to the process would include the insurrectionist and family, friends or co-workers; people affected by the riot, perhaps family members of security guards or legislators, legislative staff, or building custodians. They would meet in a circle where everyone has a chance to be heard, and the harms done by the insurrectionist’s actions would be named by people who were actually affected by those actions. The group would meet for as many times as it took to reach agreement on what actions the insurrectionist would take to rebuild broken trust with their community and make restitution for harm done; and the group would consider how the community could address root causes for the insurrectionist’s actions.
The resolution of how to hold the insurrectionist accountable would be reached using only the resources of the group, their intelligence and lived experiences. The transformative justice approach may have potential to be more effective than incarceration for de-escalating the virulent strain of nationalism that rose in popularity during Trump’s time as president.
The underlying societal shift required to implement transformative justice is to place trust and responsibility in communities to support survivors and hold perpetrators accountable. And there lies the great value of Beyond Survival, because the lived experiences of the writers illustrate that the power of healing lies within each community.
Lesley Becker is a playwright and director living in Vermont, and a Reparative Board member at the Burlington Community Justice Center. Her plays are available to read on New Play Exchange; she is a member of the Dramatist Guild.