Jen Angel, an activist, journalist and baker who was fatally injured during a robbery outside of a bank in Oakland, Calif., in early February, believed in building a society without police and prisons, and she would not have wanted her assailants incarcerated. Doing so would only distort her memory and what she stood for, and many of those who were close to her have come together since she died to try and protect that legacy.
Angel, 48, died February 9, three days after she was dragged 50 feet by her assailants’ getaway car, her head hitting the pavement. She spent several days in intensive care before being removed from life support. She was born in 1975 in Dearborn, Mich., spent many of her politically formative years in Ohio, and died in Oakland, which she called home on two separate occasions, including for the past 17 years.
“Jen understood the role of the police in maintaining a system that is racist and not equitable for all,” said her partner, 47-year-old Ocean Mottley, an attorney who supports formerly incarcerated people. “She was adamantly against using the state or police force to solve problems. I know she would have wanted to find a way to heal our communities from this tragedy that didn’t perpetuate more injustice.”
Many friends of Angel’s were interviewed about her death in the following days, and they echoed the call for restorative justice. I was one of those interviewed. In response to one of my answers, a television reporter asked, “So, what you’re saying is that it’s OK that people murdered your friend?”
It’s in moments like these that I missed Angel even more. She knew and clearly articulated that choosing between either what the system allows or nothing at all was a false choice, that in forging a third path ourselves — through organizing and cooperation — we could liberate our collective imagination about what could be possible for all of us.
I met Angel in 2007 through activist and organizing circles and grew to consider her a dear friend. From her, I learned about mutual aid, radical hospitality and modeling the world one seeks to create through the daily practice of how we show up for each other. I was hardly alone in the tremendous impact she had on my life.
In her three decades of journalism, political activism and community building, she had a significant effect on several social movements and subcultures, from punk rock and independent media to anarchism and polyamory.
Angel credited the punk scene of her youth in the 1990s for her lifelong do-it-yourself (DIY) ethic and commitment to mutual aid. As a teen, she created the zine Fucktooth to connect writers, punk bands and activists to each other. Zine making, for Angel, was a great example of how when the system (in this case, mainstream media) doesn’t reflect your values, you make your own.
Her early zine days deepened into a life of independent media advocacy and publishing. Angel was the co-founder of Clamor Magazine, a bi-monthly independent publication “bulldozing borders, defying dogma and inspiring instigation” from 1999 – 2006. She also co-founded the Midwest Zine Conference, which eventually became the Allied Media Conference, now in its 22nd year, and was a key organizer of the Bay Area Anarchist Book Fair. Throughout the years, her writing appeared in Bitch, Punk Planet, Upping the Anti, and she published pieces for In These Times, including “Activism Illustrated.” Angel also co-founded Agency: An Anarchist PR Project, and Aid & Abet, a social justice event production organization.
Angel, who believed that love and family could extend beyond spousal and blood relationships, identified as polyamorous and was a member of a community of people building alternative relationships and family structures.
Angel also understood food to be a powerful force for community-building. After many years hosting weekly community dinners and baking pastries for friends’ special occasions, she turned that casual hobby into something much bigger. In 2008, she founded the wildly popular, community-based bakery Angel Cakes in Oakland, which opened a small retail store in 2016 and routinely donated cupcakes to social justice organizations.
Angel lived her political values in the way she navigated challenges as a business owner. When a nearby encampment of unhoused residents started impacting the bakery, instead of engaging the police, Angel mobilized support for the unhoused, knowing that if they were better supported, her business would do better. That was how she navigated all conflicts: She sought to address the underlying causes rather than getting mired in individual blame.
This — many of her friends say — is the central reason why Angel would not want to continue the cycle of harm by bringing state-sanctioned violence to those involved in her death, and they have called for police and prosecutors to honor Angel’s commitment to restorative justice by seeking alternatives to imprisonment, should suspects be identified.
“As a long-time social movement activist and anarchist, Jen did not believe in state violence, carceral punishment, or incarceration as an effective or just solution to social violence and inequity,” reads a statement released by close friends. “The outpouring of support and care for Jen, her family and friends, and the values she held dear is a resounding demonstration of the response to harm that Jen believed in: community members relying on one another, leading with love, centering the needs of the most vulnerable, and not resorting to vengeance and inflicting more harm.
“If the Oakland Police Department does make an arrest in this case, Jen’s values call for pursuing all available alternatives to traditional prosecution, such as restorative justice. Jen’s community asks that the media respect this request and carry forward the story of her life with celebration and clarity about the world she aimed to build. Please do not use Jen’s life legacy of care and community to further inflame narratives of fear, hatred, and vengeance.”
Emily Harris, co-director of programs at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and a longtime organizer and close friend of Angel’s (and mine), and one of the contributors to the statement, said a restorative justice approach to this horrible tragedy is not as complex as it seems.
“Jen’s community wants accountability, and we understand that putting people in cages does not create accountability,” she said. “It doesn’t address the root causes [of violence], and doesn’t support the healing of survivors or those who cause harm.”
While Angel’s values have led those closest to her to call on the Alameda County District Attorney not to prosecute those who took her life, even if the District Attorney does, “There are all these tools of the system that compound harm, for example stacking on the most extreme charges to pressure a defendant into a plea bargain or pushing for the longest prison term,” Harris added. “The system wants us to believe we have no options but to prosecute. We want Alameda County to move away from these false solutions that ultimately force poor Black and Brown people into long term incarceration. I want this for Jen, and she would want it for all the people these systems fail.”
While restorative justice processes are specific to the needs of a victim’s loved ones — and no specific process has yet been outlined by Angel’s community — Harris said many restorative justice processes start with trained practitioners holding a grief circle for a victim’s closest people. Family and parents of loved ones who have lost their own children to violence offer to speak with the victim’s family and help them process their grief.
Restorative justice also engages people who have caused violence. Formerly incarcerated individuals and other practitioners go into prison to speak with those responsible, help them process what has happened, and mentor them around what accountability could look like.
“The most effective interventions are led by currently and formerly incarcerated folks who are able to offer this in spite of the system, not because of the system,” Harris said.
With the active consent and participation of perpetrators and victims, restorative justice practitioners facilitate a dialogue for both sides to share how this horrific incident has shaped their lives.
Beyond care for Angel’s loved ones, restorative justice asks us to look at the conditions in Oakland that caused these individuals to make the choices they did, and to address those conditions. Putting people in cages does nothing to address the social conditions that led to Angel’s death; it actually widens the circle of pain and deepens inequities that contribute to violence. Countless studies show the negative economic and mental health impacts to incarcerated people and their families that fuels a cycle of violence in heavily policed communities, which ultimately makes all of us less safe.
The call by Angel’s community for restorative justice in the wake of her murder is being lifted up as a model nationally by prison abolitionists and restorative justice advocates. In the words of Mariame Kaba, author of We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice: “That statement from her community is so poignant. I hope my community would know to do the same for me.”
I hope you found this article important. Before you leave, I want to ask you to consider supporting our work with a donation. In These Times needs readers like you to help sustain our mission. We don’t depend on—or want—corporate advertising or deep-pocketed billionaires to fund our journalism. We’re supported by you, the reader, so we can focus on covering the issues that matter most to the progressive movement without fear or compromise.
Our work isn’t hidden behind a paywall because of people like you who support our journalism. We want to keep it that way. If you value the work we do and the movements we cover, please consider donating to In These Times.