By Victoria Law, TruthOut
Photography: Love & Struggle
What does working toward a world without prisons look like? How would we address harm without calling police or relying on imprisonment?
Those are the questions that longtime anti-violence organizers Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha are exploring in their new anthology, Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement, which was released yesterday.
Beyond Survival is not a “how-to” manual. As both Dixon and Piepzna-Samarasinha repeatedly note, there’s no one road map to address harm and violence. Instead, Beyond Survival is an anthology in which approximately four dozen organizers and activists explore strategies and tactics for building individual and community safety through transformative justice.
Some of these strategies are seemingly straightforward: “You could start simply by having a dinner with your friends, family and chosen family to discuss how you all can better support each other,” Dixon writes in the book’s opening essay. “Or you could raise the issue of police violence and harassment at your next tenants’ association meeting and see if there’s a way that your neighbors want to engage with each other rather than with the police. Next, you could research ways people can get emergency medical assistance outside of 911. The possibilities are endless.”
Other essays describe specific situations in which a group, family or community attempted to address sexual violence. They show the ways in which organizers put community accountability and transformative justice into practice — chronicling not only what worked, but also the ways such practices sometimes fell short.
Finally, contributors also suggest concrete ways to support each other to address (or prevent) harm. For instance, members of the Fireweed Collective (formerly the Icarus Project) provide a list of ways in which a person can support a loved one through mental health crisis and suicidality instead of panicking and calling 911. Another chapter, on ending child sexual abuse, offers a basic list for adults who believe that a child is being sexually abused. The list includes prioritizing the child’s safety and well-being, communicating to the child that the abuse was not their fault, seeking additional resources and help, and supporting the child’s resilience. These suggestions may seem basic, but they also echo the recommendations of Aishah Shahidah Simmons, whose anthology, Love WITH Accountability, examines ways to end child sexual abuse in Black families and communities. Recognizing that there is often no clear line between those who harm and those who have been harmed, some of the essays discuss ways to take accountability. (My favorite is Kai Cheng Thom’s “What to Do When You’ve Been Abusive,” which provides a nine-step guide “to confronting the abuser in you, in me, in us all.”)Transformative justice is not one thing. It’s a million different strategies, interventions and practices.
In this interview, Dixon and Piepzna-Samarasinha discuss why they came together to edit Beyond Survival and what transformative justice is (and isn’t).
Victoria Law: What do you mean by transformative justice?
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha: Transformative justice (or TJ) is a broad conglomerate of collectives, individuals and groups doing work from a Black and Brown feminist perspective that address abuse and harm without relying on the state (the cops, courts, legal system, children’s aid, etc.). Within that realm, there’s a huge number of strategies, political agreements and disagreements, different things people are trying. It’s about putting into practice what we say when we say, “We want a world without police.”
Ejeris Dixon: Transformative justice asks, “How do we prevent, intervene, hold people accountable and help people transform harmful behaviors without relying on police, courts and prisons?”
Piepzna-Samarasinha: Transformative justice as a phrase has been around for 15 to 20 years. I think of the modern TJ accountability movement as starting in the 1990s, early 2000s, with the work of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. But these are not new ideas. The opening essay is Ejeris talking to her mother about being in Black communities in Louisiana and having to deal with violence without calling the cops. We know that a lot of these traditions go back to colonial periods.
Dixon: We talk about all the ways we’ve experienced state violence. We recognize it’s generational. How do we talk to the elders in our community about what they’ve been doing and how do we write those strategies down?The systems that are supposed to keep us safe have never worked for us.
Piepzna-Samarasinha: I start with Black and Brown feminists because that is a root for me. These are strategies coming from those whom the state has been designed to exclude and punish. The systems that are supposed to keep us safe have never worked for us. Being a movement from multiply marginalized people, we have tremendous histories and realities of creating brilliant creative strategies of problem-solving. We started doing it because we didn’t have another option; we had to create solutions out of our own brilliance.
Just like able people can learn from disability justice, people of privilege can learn a lot from the brilliant strategies of the marginalized, especially since we know that the system is set up to kill us and we don’t have illusions around that.
Why did you put together this anthology?
Piepzna-Samarasinha: I’m one of three co-editors of The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities. That zine started as an idea in 2004, the zine came out in 2008, and the book in 2011. It came out in a new edition in 2016.
When it came out [in 2016], I started getting emails from people all over, including a collective in Bangladesh. They were glad it was back. I was really glad the work was [still] so useful, but it’s 10 to 15 years old.
I grew up in a Rust Belt town where the library was a huge resource. I love online media; it’s very accessible in some ways, but if you’re not there in the moment, you miss the access to that blog post from Everyday Feminism that everybody is passing around.
There’s still no book that you can get in the library or online that’s TJ 101. The resources that I knew from the early to mid-2000s were getting harder to find because they were web 1.0, so they go extinct or haven’t been updated. Then, in the middle of it, I realized I didn’t want to be the only one to do this because I’m going to miss things. I’m a longtime admirer and fan girl of Ejeris Dixon’s visionary organizing. I asked her and she [initially] thought it was a joke.
Dixon: Writing is a historic struggle for me. I’m one of the people with a ton of training curriculum, resources, documents on flash drives and old laptops. But I’m always so busy doing 20 other things that are often not documented. I began to realize that there’s a whole crew of us organizers who are in that place. I’m so much more comfortable verbally than in any written form. I said no many times. Once I realized that editing a book was so much more like managing a project than it was writing an epic thing and I could have some short pieces and it was really about the vision of it, I wanted to think about which groups, organizations and people get left out of conversations because they’re quick to pick up the call of the community and slow when someone asks you to write something down. Who do I know who’s doing this and hasn’t written anything down? What is most heard and what is least heard?Transformative justice asks, “How do we prevent, intervene, hold people accountable and help people transform harmful behaviors without relying on police, courts and prisons?”
Piepzna-Samarasinha: We’ve both been doing this work for 15 to 20 years. When I started, these [TJ ideas] were weird ideas. One of the turning moments was an article in Rolling Stone in 2014, “Policing is a Dirty Job But Nobody’s Gotta Do It.” [At the same time], we are doing a disservice by over-simplifying what we know is really complicated.
One thing that I’m really proud of is that we have concrete resources around how you support yourself or support someone who’s going through emotional crisis without calling the police. As we know, there are so many instances of people calling 911 because they’re freaking out, someone’s suicidal, someone’s in crisis. We’ve been trained to call 911 and then we see the police murder that person — like Charleena Lyles, a Black pregnant mother who called the police when she thought someone was breaking into her house.
Knowing how to not default to the state systems when someone’s in crisis — it’s like, “Here’s what you can do to de-escalate. Here’s how it works to help people who are thinking about suicide.”
Piepzna-Samarasinha: Something that’s important about the book is that it’s a mid-movement book. We wanted to make room for people to have 2.0 and 3.0 conversations.
Dixon: A book for TJ’s adolescence!
In your interview with longtime prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba, she notes that she has never posited TJ as “the antidote” to the prison-industrial complex. Talk more about how TJ is not the “antidote” or “alternative” to prisons and what it does do.
Piepzna-Samarasinha: There’s a problematic system and then people start creating and dreaming alternatives. It’s not like you take out one paradigm and substitute a second paradigm; it’s like putting a round thing in this square thing. It’s a completely different way of addressing it.
I don’t know what Mariame would say. For me, transformative justice is not “you take out the prisons and put in the TJ One Stop solution” because transformative justice is not one thing. It’s a million different strategies, interventions and practices — from bad date lists that sex workers have created [to identify problematic clients] to a circle process holding someone accountable to when I see someone hassling a woman on the bus and say, “Fuck off, leave that woman alone.”
Leah, you write about burnout and vicarious trauma for TJ practitioners: What should a person embarking on a TJ process do/prepare/keep in mind? What about their friends and community (who may not be directly involved in the work)?
Piepzna-Samarasinha: As somebody involved in the disability justice movement and as a disabled person of color, I understand there’s not one way of being involved in organizing our movement work. In mainstream movement work, many times we think, “The only way to be involved is to be an organizer!”There’s a whole bunch of ways that people are navigating alternatives to 911.
It can be just as vital and important to support a TJ process by making soup or doing child care or letting a person safely vent as it is to organize the process. I wish someone had made me soup 15 years ago. I wish someone had made us all soup! Know that there are a lot of support roles that one can play — witnessing, listening, driving, cooking, looking up resources, fundraising, all of those things.
For the people who want to get involved, I want to shout out API Chaya, which is an Asian-Pacific-Islander anti-violence group in Seattle that I’ve been working with as an adviser. They are launching a new project where 12 people who have some experience doing TJ work are going to get training and ongoing mentorship and support instead of being thrown into the shark tank. The folks from the advisory team recently asked, “What do you wish someone had told you before you started doing TJ?” What I said was, “So much of the time, we’re thrown in because we get a call from somebody that’s like, ‘Something’s happened! There’s been a murder. There’s been a something.’” We go in in an adrenaline-filled crisis, like, “It’s go time! I’ve gotta be the ambulance.” I would say, “Take a minute and think about why you want to do this work. Think about your role — if you were in a family where there was abuse and violence, were you the caretaker, the one making things better? If so, are you doing that now?” I’m not saying, “Don’t do the work,” I’m saying to consider, “What role are you playing?”
I would say, “Know that you cannot master your own trauma by mastering everyone else’s.” They are separate. I wish someone had told me that.
In “Building Community Safety,” you wrote: “When people who’ve experienced life-threatening injuries or people witnessing violence decide to call an ambulance, we must acknowledge that we have yet to build an alternative to 911. However, if we create a culture in which people felt comfortable sharing stories about when they call emergency services but didn’t want to, we actually learn about crucial needs for community safety projects.” Why is that important?
Dixon: I think that people calling 911 in the closet is less useful than people saying, “I didn’t know how else to navigate this. I desire a way to do this without calling 911.”
There’s a whole bunch of ways that people are navigating alternatives to 911 — from private ambulances to cities that have actually set up organizing within families and friends to people using private cabs and cars. When I was at the Audre Lorde Project, we did a workshop called “There’s No Movement 911.” The idea was for people to talk about situations where they didn’t know if they could get out of calling 911 and for us to brainstorm with a paramedic, an organizer and a lawyer about options and alternatives. There was so much I learned from that. For instance, what were the instances in which New York City EMTs and paramedics could call police or decline to call police? What were the legal risks?
I don’t think of shame as a strategy. When people say, “Don’t call the police,” they’re talking to mostly white, upper-class, abled cis people who are causing harm to other people in the process [not marginalized people].
It’s important to identify the gaps in our strategies — every time somebody knows that they need another system and they don’t feel or know of another option, because sometimes there’s alternatives that people don’t know about or sometimes people need to be empowered to recognize that they don’t have superhuman skills for certain situations, you can think, “Okay, I’m going to call a medical professional to navigate this. Here are the types of harm that can happen from calling the state and here are my options.” I was tired of whispered confessions of people who had called systems or filed police reports because they were trying to prove their radicalness to me. I don’t want TJ to be a badge of radical honor.
I grow and thrive in complexity. I think we all do because there’s a type of person who is going to look for the holes in an argument, not from the place of wanting to destroy our notions of TJ, but from the place of having been repeatedly failed by our system and also harmed and failed within radical communities. I want to answer to this because I’m one of those people. For all of us whose survivorship looks like that, there needs to be a space to say, “I don’t know of another option in that case. I hear you. I think we could build that. Let’s think about who and how.”
What do you hope that readers take away from the book?
Dixon: I’m hoping that people learn at least one new strategy that they hadn’t thought of. I’m hoping that people can also see TJ in a way that they can see themselves within the work. I want the book to be something they take to a meeting or to a neighbor and say, “I think we can do this.”
Piepzna-Samarasinha: The first word that came to my head is possibility, that people go, “Wow, there are some real pragmatic tools and discussions.” That includes the discussions about messiness.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.WE CAN’T DO THIS ALONEThe reality is, less than 1 percent of readers ever donate to Truthout. But we need your help to publish independent journalism that doesn’t shy away from the challenges we’re facing, from climate destruction and perpetual war to attacks on democracy and the fight for the White House.Please give what you can so we can amplify the voices of hundreds of journalists, activists and changemakers working tirelessly to turn things around. DONATE NOWCopyright © Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.Victoria Law
Victoria Law is a freelance journalist who focuses on the intersections of incarceration, gender and resistance. Her first book, Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, examines organizing in women’s jails and prisons across the country. She writes regularly for Truthout and is a contributor to the anthology Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? Her next book, co-written with Maya Schenwar, critically examines proposed “alternatives” to incarceration and explores creative and far-reaching solutions to truly end mass incarceration. She is also the proud parent of a New York City high school student.