This is an excerpt from the book Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, whose third edition came out from AK Press this July.
In the early seventies, while the Black Panthers were making kids breakfast and training with guns, the women’s movement began organizing its own kind of survival programs. Recognizing the limits of the criminal legal system in response to domestic violence, sexual assault, and rape—the indifference of police, the indignity of cross-examination, near-impossible burdens of proof, meager penalties for assault, a general atmosphere of victim-blaming, and the wholly reactive nature of the entire system—women started organizing to defend themselves and keep each other safe.
In Detroit, Women Against Rape (WAR) organized street patrols, escorting women to their destinations and intervening in violence when they saw it. They also organized street theater performances exposing misconceptions about sexual assault. In Santa Cruz, WAR published a monthly newsletter listing men who had recently been reported as rapists; similar lists appeared in Majority Report in New York and Sister in Los Angeles. Also in New York, the Campaign Against Street Harassment organized boycotts of businesses whose employees engaged in street harassment.
The first rape crisis centers and battered women’s shelters, back in 1972 and 1974, respectively, were volunteer-run grassroots political projects. They offered support, advice, counseling, safe places to stay, and, if survivors so chose, assistance engaging with police, hospitals, or other institutions. Some offered self-defense classes and ran campaigns to educate the public about the realities of rape and other violence against women. Within a few years there were hundreds of similar centers, all around the country.
As the feminist movement grew and gained legitimacy, it became increasingly institutionalized and professionalized and the grassroots political action model gave way to a non-profit social service model. Rape crisis centers and women’s shelters started receiving government funding and partnering with police departments, and in a textbook case of co-optation, the agenda shifted as well. The critique of capitalism and the state were soon gone, and the mainstream feminist movement began advocating more police, mandatory arrest laws in domestic violence cases, and stiffer penalties for crimes against women.
In 2001, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence and the prison abolitionist group Critical Resistance issued a challenge to both the anti-prison and the feminist movements. Their joint statement opens, “We call on social justice movements to develop strategies and analyses that address both state and interpersonal violence, particularly violence against women.” The two groups argue that the reliance on the criminal legal system has not reduced violence against women, but has further endangered communities of color, alienated the women’s movement from its historical roots and isolated it from the left, and invested power in the state rather than in collective action. Conversely, they also argue that advocates for reforming (or abolishing) police and prisons have marginalized women of color, and failed to address the safety needs of women and LGBTQ people.
Their challenge has yet to be met, but the first years of the twenty-first century saw the emergence of a variety of attempts to address patriarchal violence in its various forms. Most of these were short-term projects, extremely localized, and many were situated in the overlap between the anarchist, queer, and counter-cultural social scenes. A few, however, became stable collectives with articulated principles and deep roots in the community.
Starting in 2004, a non-hierarchical organization of African-American, Afro-Caribbean, and Latina young women in Brooklyn called Sista II Sista initiated what they described as “Sista Circles, collectives of support and intervention for cases of gender violence with groups of sistas that are friends, neighbors, and coworkers.” For example, as Paula Ximena Rojas-Urrutia explained in an interview with Chris Dixon, “When somebody is getting stalked, the whole group would go to the [stalker’s] workplace and embarrass him in front of the boss … and make some direct demands of what he needed to do. And it would work actually—more than calling the cops.”
Nearby, in Central Brooklyn, The Audre Lorde Project‘s program, Safe Outside the System, was creating a network of Safe Spaces—“visibly identified public spaces that are willing to open their doors to our community members who are fleeing from violence”—and training the employees of participating institutions to counter homophobia and transphobia and to interrupt violence without calling the police. Further south, in Durham, North Carolina, a collective called UBUNTU (meaning, “I am because we are”) was finding ways to support community members facing violence at the hands of their partners. As one member, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, explained in an interview published in the 2011 book The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Violence within Activist Communities, their tactics include “offering our homes as safer places to stay; staying at the community member’s home; providing childcare; researching legal options and community-based alternatives; … and listening and listening and being ready to support.” They also, in partnership with the Ella Baker Project, were working with residents in public housing to create a community mediation council and declare a “Harm Free Zone.” Across the country, in Portland, Oregon, the Hysteria collective was supporting survivors in whatever way they needed—going grocery shopping with them, taking them to see the doctor, staying with them at night—while also organizing support groups and consent workshops, helping other groups design “safer space” policies, and occasionally confronting perpetrators directly.
Since 2002, the Seattle-based Northwest Network of Bisexual, Trans, Lesbian, and Gay Survivors of Abuse has offered a six-week course on relationship skills. Covering all kinds of relationships (including family, friends, and romantic partners), the curriculum emphasizes “personal agency” and “making choices and being responsible for our choices.” The Northwest Network also organizes support groups for queer survivors of domestic violence and, with its Friends Are Reaching Out (FAR Out) program, trains friends and family to support each other in order to prevent and respond to abuse.
Meanwhile, in the Bay Area, Creative Interventions spent three years studying existing models, designing their own program, and assembling an Interventions Team. Their pilot project, which ran from November 2006 to May 2009, led them to intervene in eighteen situations of violence, meeting with more than one hundred people. Based on the lessons of that experience, they then assembled a toolkit to help others doing similar work.
The Accountability Crisis
In short order, within a certain subset of the left, the “accountability process” became the default approach to addressing domestic violence, sexual assault, and other types of abuse. As INCITE outlines in their Community Accountability Fact Sheet, these processes involve:
“A community—a group of friends, a family, a church, a workplace, an apartment complex, a neighborhood, etc.—work[ing] together to … Create and affirm values & practices that resist abuse and oppression and encourage safety, support, and accountability”; “address community members’ abusive behavior, creating a process for them to account for their actions and transform their behavior”; “transform the political conditions that reinforce oppression and violence”; and, “Provide safety & supportto community members who are violently targeted that respects their self-determination.”
Most accountability processes are oriented, at least in principle, toward a conception of “transformative justice”—in which the individual perpetrator, the abusive relationship, and the culture and power dynamics of the community are transformed—as opposed to enacting revenge, retribution, or punishment.
Among the most well-known and well-documented efforts were those of Philly Stands Up and Philly’s Pissed, two groups formed in 2004 after three women were raped in the course of a weekend-long punk rock festival. They took a two-track approach, working independently, but in relation to each other: Philly’s Pissed supported survivors, while Philly Stands Up worked with perpetrators to recognize, understand, and change behavior, not to simply punish them or run them out of town. Dealing with an assaulter includes the long term goal of ensuring that they are not a threat to others, recognize what they have done, and work to permanently change their behavior.
Sometimes a survivor would make specific demands of a perpetrator, or those around them. When they did, Philly’s Pissed “encourage[d] them to envision what would make them feel safe and more in control of their lives again, and what would make them feel like the person who assaulted then is being help accountable for their actions.” As detailed in A Stand-Up Start-Up, sometimes the survivor would want the aggressor to write a letter taking responsibility, or do some reading on issues of consent and sexual violence, or quit drinking, or leave whenever they happened to be in the same space. Sometimes she would want other community members to make sure the aggressor follows through on those agreements. “Other actions that survivors have taken include passing out flyers with details about the perpetrator and their pattern, distributing a public call-out asking individuals to spit on a perpetrator, and asking people to stop supporting a perpetrator’s work financially.”
Around the same time, in Seattle, Communities Against Rape and Abuse were developing principles and practices to address sexual violence in a variety of contexts (though, admittedly, with varying degrees of success). For example, when a male leader in a police accountability organization was making inappropriate advances toward young, female volunteers, CARA met with the perpetrator, had conversations with the women in the group, supported one of the young women in writing a letter and reading it aloud during the organization’s meeting, and facilitated a program on understanding sexism. In the end the man resigned from the group. In another case, to address sexual assault in the punk scene, CARA released a public statement from survivors, distributed fliers denouncing a perpetrator, and organized a boycott of the bar where he worked. In a third, following a sexual assault at a conference, they helped the survivor contact other young women from the host organization, and learned that it was a pattern. The survivors met and demanded that the perpetrator remove himself from leadership and pursue counseling, and that the organization incorporate rape prevention education in its programming. All three demands were met. In a fourth case, after several women were assaulted by the same man, they all wrote down their stories and presented the document to some male community leaders. CARA facilitated a meeting about rape culture, and the men asked the perpetrator to step down from his position. After a suitable amount of time, he was allowed to resume his responsibilities.
Similar projects were initiated around the country, coordinated by groups like Support New York, the Challenging Male Supremacy Project (also in New York), Praxiss and the Pink Tape Collective (both in Portland), the Burning River Collective (Cleveland), Dealing With Our Shit (Twin Cities)—as well as those already mentioned and dozens of unnamed ad hoc efforts.
But by the mid-teens, fatigue, disappointment, and disillusionment—even hostility to the notion of “accountability”—had become widespread in exactly the same circles that were most vocally pushing it a few years earlier. (For very different feminist critiques of accountability processes, see the anonymous zines The Broken Teapot and Betrayal.) It was not unusual to hear that “accountability processes never work” or that “they always go wrong.” That was not entirely true, but the sentiment reflected several important realities. First, the processes that go wrong tend to go wrong in spectacular, divisive, disastrous ways, while those that go well are slower, quieter, and less controversial—therefore also, less known and less remembered. Second, the idealism that leads people to pursue transformative justice may also produce unrealistic expectations, and thus, inevitable disappointment. Furthermore, specific goals or standards are often lacking, and so it is not always clear what counts as success, or even what could count as success. And finally, there is the fact that developing such a process is inherently challenging. There are far more ways for it to go wrong than to go right. And, collectively, we are very new at it, still developing skills, theories, practices, and models.
Most of the projects cited here were short-lived; it is unusual for a group involved in accountability and support efforts to last even as long as a couple of years. Part of that is the very nature of the work. It is stressful, time-consuming, emotionally taxing, and generally thankless. It is also usually a volunteer effort, which avoids the problems of co-optation and professionalization, but limits the resources available and often overburdens the few people trying to keep it going. As Praxiss’ Tabatha Millican observes, taking foundation or government money changes the work, “but not taking the money also changes the work.”
The Pink Tape Collective’s Genevieve Goffman outlines numerous difficulties in accountability processes. Some are practical, such as a scarcity of resources, the absence of meaningful sanctions, and both a lack of clarity about what can be expected from the process and a tendency to promise unrealistic results. Others are structural: relying on the immediate friend group when a dispassionate outsider might see things more clearly, or adopting models intended for close-knit communities and applying them to loose social scenes. There are, of course, strategic mistakes—the failure to intervene before a crisis occurs, the erroneous assumption that consequences for the perpetrator will necessarily facilitate the survivor’s healing, and processes that keep the survivor engaging with the perpetrator when what they really need is distance. And there are the political problems of reproducing punitive logic, falling into unrecognized power dynamics, and the like. Her greatest frustration, however, is with our “failure to learn”—from history, from our mistakes, and from each other.
Writing in The Revolution Starts at Home, the Northwest Network’s Shannon Perez-Darby cautions:
Where I think our community accountability models have missed the mark is in our desire to rush into action. In our visioning, we have confused our desire to have communities with the skills and knowledge to respond to violence with the reality that most of us are walking around with a dearth of accountability skills. In other words, I think we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves.
Writing in the same volume, and looking critically at her own experience with the Northwest Network, Connie Burk concludes, “our activist communities do not presently have the skills, shared values, and cultural touchstones in place to sustain Community Accountability efforts.” She recommends, as preliminary step, a shift in focus, “from a collective process for holding individuals accountable for their behavior to individual and collective responsibility for building a community where robust accountability is possible, expected and likely.” She calls this the “Accountable Communities” approach. The emphasis here is on creating a collective, cultural shift as a predecessor to personal transformation, rather than emphasizing personal work as the means for social change.
Burk lists several characteristics of this approach, including: skills-building; a consideration of “context, intent, and effect” as well as “behaviors”; “the expectation of loving-kindness” and a refusal to ostracize others; supporting and encouraging healthy relationships; “recovering and advancing culturally relevant practices” such as rituals of atonement and forgiveness; and the principle of “engagement before opposition.”
The efforts I’ve described here—and others, documented elsewhere—were bold, inventive, and radical. They sought new means of achieving justice, ones that did not rely on the state and actively avoided replicating state systems on a smaller scale. Many of them also sought new types of justice, understood not as vengeance or retribution, but as personal and social transformation, addressing both the immediate causes and the deeper roots of crime. Understood as initial attempts rather than final outcomes, such efforts are heartening, even inspiring. Despite their decisive, and sometimes tragic, limitations, their ultimate significance may lie in the potential they embodied and the possibilities they embraced. Viewed as experiments, at least part of their success or failure will depend on our willingness to learn from their examples and improve on them. It is in this vein that Incite’s Andrea Smith, speaking at Critical Resistance’s tenth-anniversary conference, advocated “revolution by trial and error”—which is, of course, the only kind there is.
This is an excerpt from the third edition of Kristian Williams’ book Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America. The book recounts the history of the modern police, as they developed from antebellum slave patrols into the ubiquitous militarized forces we see in American cities today. The revised edition addresses new approaches to surveillance and crowd control, changes in immigration enforcement, new data on racial profiling and police violence, and recent feminist experiments in alternative forms of justice.