“Storytelling” is chapter seven of Maya Schenwar’s book “Locked Down, Locked Out.” Kayla is Maya Schenwar’s sister and Angelica is Kayla’s daughter.
“We need to trust people to be the experts on their own lives.”
—Domestic violence survivor interviewed by the StoryTelling & Organizing Project
Although Angelica’s entrance into the world undoubtedly ranks as my family’s most significant event of 2013, followed by Kayla’s reincarceration, the loss of a dearly loved inanimate object nears the top of my Big Deal list. On a sleepy late summer evening shortly before my sister gives birth, I’m ambling across the parking lot of a Seattle restaurant late in the evening with two old friends. We’re relishing the warm breeze and chatting about the possibility of ice cream.
But one of my companions stops short, two feet from my car.
“Oh my God,” she says, low. “The window.” The back window has been shattered through the middle, as if by a bowling ball. Glistening shards are still dropping lightly onto the back seat.
My heart thuds, pushes me forward. I plunge my hand through the hole. “Where is my laptop?” I say, patting the shard-covered seat, then pounding it. The sharp bits stick to my palm, which emerges wet and red-slitted. The laptop — along with the uncom fortable shoulder bag in which it was kept, which also contained my only pair of glasses, an assortment of tampons, and a notepad filled with embarrassingly moonlike self-portraits sketched during a PowerPoint presentation at a recent conference — is nowhere. The back seat is empty.
One hundred thousand words of the book I’ve been researching and writing for the last eleven months, about prison and prisoners and, well, “crime,” are stored inside that computer. It also contains millions more cherished words — stories, articles, notes, humiliating diary entries from my early twenties, passwords “hidden” in the guise of other files — and all the music I’ve acquired since 2004. My many un-Facebooked photos. My book, my book.
“Do you have it backed up?” my friend’s voice floats into my ear, as if traveling down from the tree. No. I have an external hard drive — I’ve had it for seven months. I just haven’t yet removed it from its packaging.
You aren’t supposed to leave your laptop on the car seat. I have never left my laptop on the car seat, always stowing it away securely in a corner of the trunk. But tonight, I did.
I think fleetingly of the person who bashed in the window. I wonder what they must have been thinking in the act of bashing, whether they needed money, whether they were just teenagers trying to be badass, whether they had thought of me, whether they were thinking about me now. In the background, someone murmurs something about a police report. Calls are made on a cell phone, the name of the restaurant given, the make and model of the car.
“They’ve got your phone number,” I’m told. “We gave them the info about your case, so they’re on it.” In my head, a page from the book I’ve lost reads itself to me, slowly. One sentence asks, “Before you call the police, think, are they really going to help — and who are they going to hurt?” Another reasonably points out, “The prison-industrial complex deals with ‘cases,’ instead of ‘problems’ and ‘human beings.’”
I grab for my phone. My palms are still wet, dotted with small red cuts. I stare at my phone, willing the police to call.
But over the next week, I wait and wait for the announcement of the triumphant return of my laptop. The police never locate it. My “case” is tucked into a bulging file with hundreds of other sorrowful, identical tales — dozens of stolen-laptop reports have already been filed in Seattle that summer. (“It’s kind of an epidemic!” one officer explains to me excitedly over the phone.) Arrests — probably of poor people and people of color — are undoubtedly made as a result of some of those stories. Some of those arrested are probably sent to prison, and some of them may not be guilty. When they get out of prison, it remains to be seen whether they’ll steal more laptops. Or rather, it remains to not be seen. I’ll certainly never know.
In fact, the process I bought into provided no support for me, beyond the false, momentary sense of security that came from filing a report. It was geared toward catching and punishing a person — or a bunch of people — rather than addressing the impact of my loss, or the causes of the “epidemic” in the first place. It’s just one component of a system obsessed not with solving problems or aiding victims, but with “crime.”
Under a framework based on “crime,” a person’s relationship to the law—not to other people — determines whether they have done something wrong. As soon as I pull out my notepad to interview Mariame Kaba of Project NIA, she tells me she’s not going to use the word “crime.” She clarifies, “We use the word ‘harm.’ The question is, ‘What have you done to someone else? How have you harmed another person?’”
The stealing of a laptop may violate a law, but the real reason it’s bad is because it hurt me. “Harm” is not always equivalent to the things the state considers crime.
It gets trickier. “Many things create harm that aren’t legally crimes,” Mariame says, and points to the kinds of business transactions that wreak havoc on the poor. From the genocide of Native peoples in the US and Canada to the rampant practice of wage theft against low-income workers to the construction of carcinogenic factories in poor people’s backyards to the profits reaped by the private prison industry at the expense of millions of lives, accountability-free forms of robbery and murder abound. Indeed, nonviolence activist Kathy Kelly writes in her post-incarceration memoir Other Lands Have Dreams: “What actions pose the greatest threats to US people and to the survival of our planet? Topping any rational list would be the development, storage, sale and threatened use of nuclear weapons, along with the stockpiling and use of chemical, biological and conventional weapons.” These are not classified as crimes under law, but they cause massive harm — the most massive harm.
Lacino Hamilton, who’s serving a life sentence in Michigan, writes to me about the hazy definition of crime. He questions why accepted models for measuring crime, such as the Department of Justice’s Uniform Crime Report, don’t include colonial, economic, political, international, and environmental violence, even when that violence kills vast numbers of people. “To pass these statistics off as anything other than a very narrow investigation of poor and oppressed people is a crime of sorts,” Lacino writes. Conversely, plenty of things that it would be tough to frame as harm are classified as crimes, punishable by law, especial ly if you’re a person of color: undocumented immigration, drug possession, sex work, debt.
This issue of defining and assessing the value of the “crime” label is critical in the quest for “solutions.” If continuing to be black or brown or poor or gender-nonconforming results in future prison time, then no amount of “rehabilitation” is going to do the trick. As Angela Davis has written, “One has a greater chance of going to jail or prison if one is a young black man than if one is an actual law-breaker.”1 And as Glenn E. Martin tells me of the primarily black and brown population with which his organization works, “Some of our clients could get arrested for dropping their MetroCard in the subway, for looking at someone the wrong way.” In fact, a 2011 study by the Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study Commission found that, for low-level drug possession charges, black people were almost five times more likely to be sentenced to prison as white people convicted of the same crime. For all crimes, black people were almost twice as likely to be prosecuted than white people, with Latinos 1.4 times as likely as white people to be prosecuted.2 When we look at how the word “crime” is used to crush lives and hurt communities and worsen already painful situations, it ceases to be useful for talking about transformation.
Moving in a direction that drops prison as the go-to solution to pain or violence, I’ll use the word “harm” to refer to that pain or violence, unless I’m talking about a law-based situation that requires the use of “crime.” This is for accuracy’s sake, but it will also serve to put the focus on what’s happening to the people involved — and the victim or survivor’s right to heal — as opposed to the “breaking” of a law. A law can’t really get hurt, and it doesn’t feel pain when it breaks.
“Hurt People Hurt People”
“Crime” seems straightforward: It’s a violation of a law, which is spelled out on paper. “Harm” is more messy, more tangled because it is humanly, instead of legally, determined. People can’t be clearly split and categorized by “guilt” and “innocence,” by “bad” and “good,” or even, sometimes, by “perpetrator” and “victim.” People who do great damage have, usually, been profoundly injured themselves. The roots of harm-doing are knotted and deep. Mariame tells me, “Hurt people hurt people.”
My pen pal Lacino has been incarcerated for two decades, since the age of nineteen. Locked up for homicide, he has always contested his conviction (which is based on the testimony of one informant who was granted a reduced sentence after testifying against Lacino and others). Lacino reached out to me through a prominent activist who is pushing for a retrial of his case. He considers his incarceration a “crime,” but says it is not out of place in the progression of his life: a snarled sequence of received and inflicted harms.
Lacino’s mother gave birth to him at the age of fourteen while she was a ward of the state. Lacino was placed in foster care himself for three and a half years and then returned to his mother — but she abandoned him after a few days, leaving him stranded at a bake sale. She was poor, suffering from crack dependency, and, Lacino says, “barely surviving.” Lacino spent the next couple of years jumping from foster home to foster home. Soon after he turned five, he was placed with a long-term foster family — the people he’d live with for the next six years. While the Michigan Department of Human Services approved of the situation’s permanence and the family’s relative financial stability, Lacino describes those years as “slavery.” His foster parents put him to work on a near-constant regimen of household labor. They routinely withheld meals and denied him new clothing as he grew, though they regularly bought new clothes for themselves. He tells of how, several times a week, they whipped him with a belt as he lay facedown on his bed, naked.
At the age of eleven, Lacino put his foot down. He left home and began living on the street, where he stole in order to eat and slept in stolen cars. There, theft and violence were not only normal, they were the prescription for staying alive. “My de facto family became the people I met in the streets — other black youth close to me in age, who, like myself, were fleeing dysfunctional living arrangements,” Lacino writes to me, going on to say that these relationships, adrift on constantly changing currents of circumstance, were not lasting ones. From the familial level to the community level to their relations with the larger world, “Our entire lives were modeled and based on alienation.” For these kids, stealing and fighting were justifiable not only because they were means of survival, but also because they were the ways of life they’d always known.
A Queensland, Australia, study showed that people who were physically abused as children were much more likely to offend later on.3 (The study didn’t account for verbal and psychological harm, or the constant, sustained abuse of poverty, institutional racism, heterosexism, ableism, and other factors.) And according to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, the number one indicator for whether teenagers engage in “criminal behavior” is whether or not they’ve been victims of crime themselves.4 Glenn E. Martin tells me, “Most people who appear in court were themselves victims at some point. But no one in court would know it.”
One framework that aims to center human beings — to look at harms not as legal violations, but as problems that occur between people — is called restorative justice (RJ). Many of the restorative justice model’s principles have emerged from widespread indigenous practices that have been overwhelmingly dismissed by modern Western systems of power. Instead of exacting revenge, restorative justice’s goals are to build relationships, empower victims, support them in their healing processes, help them call out the behaviors of those who have harmed them, and bolster them in asking for the things they need to move on. Restorative justice strategies ideally also aim to guide people who have done harm in making reparations to victims (depending on the situation), making substantive changes that help prevent future harm, and staying accountable for keeping up those new behaviors.5
A standard restorative justice response to harm is a “peace circle,” which brings together victims, the people who’ve done harm, families of each, and community members (or some combination of these), with the goal of working toward understanding, healing, and, in many cases, reconciliation and reparations. The circle — or the series of circles it may take to reach a resolution — may conclude with an “accountability agreement,” a consensus statement for moving forward. Often, these circles also help to forge new relationships and new understandings. In a peace circle, I could, theoretically, meet the person who stole my laptop and convey the long-lasting ways in which the theft hurt me.
Another framework that steps outside the PIC mentality is transformative justice, which overlaps with restorative justice in some ways. It focuses on promoting healing for survivors, accountability for people who harm, and a collectively safer and more connected community. But — especially when it comes to sexual and domestic violence — it also calls into question the concept of “restoration,” which can assume that there’s a good place in the past to return to. Transformative justice strongly emphasizes “transformation of the social conditions that perpetuate violence — systems of oppression and exploitation, domination, and state violence,” according to Generation FIVE, an advocacy organization dedicated to ending the sexual abuse of children through transformative means.6
When applied to a specific harm or conflict, the emphasis of transformative justice is often on long-term change-making, addressing behaviors and ways of occupying the world, as opposed to exacting a resolution to one incident. Transformative justice generally operates wholly separate from the state, while restorative justice sometimes works in tandem with police departments, serving as an “alternative to incarceration.” Grounded in principles of connection, both of these community-based practices are very different from the standard practices of a courtroom.
Justice for Victims and Families
Ricky Joseph Langley was charged with the capital murder of a six-year-old boy in Louisiana in 1994. Nine years later, in a retrial, the prosecutor working on the case was intent on seeking the death penalty. The victim’s mother, however, vehemently opposed the execution of the man who had killed her son. The death of this man would do nothing to allay her grief, she said, especially since it would be preceded by the anguish of another long murder trial — an impediment to healing. She pleaded with the lawyer, asking him not to pursue a sentence of death.
The prosecutor grew furious with her noncompliance. He “even blamed [the mother], in part, for the jury’s verdict of second-degree murder — a verdict that does not permit the death penalty,” according to legal scholar and prosecutor Angela J. Davis (not to be confused with Angela Y. Davis, activist and author of Are Prisons Obsolete?), recounting the case in Arbitrary Justice. As the pursuit of capital punishment pushed forward, the boy’s mother expressed that the prosecutor had made her life even more painful in the wake of her son’s death.7
In court, questions are focused on the people accused of doing harm: whether to punish them, and then how much to punish them. Victims and survivors — especially, Davis notes, poor people and people of color — are tossed to the sidelines, rendered powerless. Their wishes are rarely spotlighted in the courtroom except when they make juicy TV fodder — for instance, a high-profile murder case in which a victim’s family member announces that the defendant should “rot in jail” or die, in order to “see justice served.” It’s not just people who’ve done harm who are isolated by the prison-industrial complex. It’s victims, communities, and families, too.
In a journal entry she shares with me from 2005, when Kayla was heading to juvenile detention, Mom writes: “Now the courts are involved, and I stand before the judge and watch him not even glance at me let alone consult me. It is out of my hands. You can’t say a word, and if you do, you’re considered to be disrupting the court.”
A community-based justice approach ideally acknowledges the complex ways in which conflicts affect families, and engages them in the processes of justice and healing. Including the community also helps place an incident in the context of what else is going on — how the particular act in question fits with larger trends in the neighborhood, the town, the county, the world.
A Shifted Approach to Life
For Flathead County, Montana, a working-class, majority-Republican locale at the edge of Glacier National Park, it was numbers that prompted a turn toward restorative justice.8 The county’s wakeup call was a 2009 University of Montana study of “juvenile offender status,” which awarded it the dubious honor of holding the highest youth recidivism rate in the state.9
At the time, Flathead’s approach to juvenile justice involved spending loads of money removing kids from their homes and placing them in detention centers. This program of cutting kids off from their families and communities wasn’t doing the trick. “At-risk teens are in a really unique place in that they already feel disconnected from society because of their age/development status,” Kate Berry, who works with Flathead’s current restorative justice program, tells me. “This is only exacerbated by the fact that they have committed an offense that further alienates them from their communities.” If they’re incarcerated, they’re isolated even further.
Nowadays, in Flathead County, all victims of youth crime are engaged in a process that moves toward a “victim-offender” circle, if they so choose.* The town didn’t attempt to build a restorative justice program inside the police department (a not-uncommon move in line with the “right on crime” approach, which can actually serve to bolster the prison-industrial complex by expanding the range of what constitutes policing). Instead, the probation department handed the reins to the Center for Restorative Youth Justice (CRYJ), a separate organization that holds circles, runs a “community accountability board” that meets with youth to discuss the impact of their behavior on their community, organizes a community service program, and provides spaces for accountability-oriented dialogue around drugs and alcohol.
It’s important to note that CRYJ can’t control who gets arrested and why. Police still exist in Flathead County, along with the profound problems embedded in that institution. It’s the juvenile probation department that calls CRYJ when a kid gets in trouble. Despite this inherent dissonance, the center strives to maintain a commitment to principles of transformation: It emphasizes forging new community bonds (it doesn’t keep to the mold of “restoring” old ones) and recognizing the larger issues of social injustice that shape kids’ motivations.
Once the program took hold, it took off. The county docked a 13 percent recidivism rate in 2011, in contrast with the state’s youth recidivism rate of 46 percent.10 The numerical improvement is encouraging, but the folks I speak with in Flathead County agree that the most important “measurements” are the new relationships that are created: the strengthened community and the previously nonexistent bonds that were formed. Victims have responded positively as well. Bill Emerson, the victim of a residential break-in, says of the conference he and his wife had with the youth (“Just a kid!” he comments) who did it: “I can’t tell you how much going through the conference meant to us. Had we not, I fear we may have never really put that incident to rest.”
One CRYJ social worker shares with me a small story that illustrates that community strengthening: Recently, a youth stole and destroyed a commercial painter’s vehicle, which contained most of the equipment and supplies that were vital to the man’s business. The painter spoke to the youth, recounting the impact of the theft and destruction on his business, how his employees were unable to work and lost pay until he could buy a new vehicle. The painter’s wife then told how the incident occurred in late November, creating an instant host of financial woes and leaving them unable to buy Christmas gifts for their kids. The youth expressed deep remorse and agreed to pay restitution money, which he would earn. The painter and his wife then reached out further, telling the youth that he was a valued member of the community, and that if he stayed on track they would give him a job. In addition, they asked that the youth write them a monthly letter detailing his progress.
Diane Dwyer, CRYJ’s victim impact coordinator who leads the circle-based aspect of the program, said of the youth in this case: “He was so taken with their benevolence…. This adolescent had several other offenses before he did this. He had very little supervision at home and took pride in being an ‘offender’ till this happened.” So far, she says, the youth has moved forward with his monthly letters, developing a strong relationship with the victims, his future employers.
He took pride in being an “offender” until this happened. This change in course, not only in action but also in mindset, is not deterrence. It’s not I‑really-want-to-do-this-bad-thing-but-I-won’t‑because‑I’ll-get-arrested (which, of course, in a retribution-oriented system, is a less likely sentiment than I’m‑going-to-do-this-bad-thing-and-try-not-to-get-caught). This is a shifted approach to life.
Several years ago in Flathead County, a fifteen-year-old kid crashed a car and killed a young woman in her twenties. The woman’s parents, although — or perhaps because — they were awash in grief, very much wanted to engage in a restorative process. This tragedy could have resulted in a stint in juvie, a “graduation” to adult prison, and, quite possibly, future harm. Instead, a circle was organized, including the driver and his friends, the deceased woman’s parents, the highway patrol officer at the scene, and passersby who stopped to assist after the accident.
No one went to jail. After an intensive series of circles in which the deceased woman’s parents described what they would need to begin healing, an accountability agreement was reached. As part of that agreement, the youth developed an informational pamphlet regarding the risks of teen driving and the consequences of carelessness on the road and presented it at area schools, along with the story of what he did. Instead of being siphoned off from his community and sent to prison and forgotten, the driver of that car became a spokesperson for road awareness and caution, striving to prevent others from making the dangerous choices he had made, inflicting the immense harm he had inflicted. Real justice isn’t only about preventing people from doing wrong. It’s about supporting them in doing right.
There’s an essential ingredient that sits at the heart of this different approach to justice: remorse. The role of remorse in court is often simply just that — a “role” that’s played by defendants, coached by their lawyers once they’re entering a guilty plea, in order to appeal to the judge or jury for a mitigated sentence, or to appeal to parole boards who may cruelly deny release based on a perceived “lack of remorse.” In criminal court, an apology isn’t addressed to the victim, since the victim usually isn’t even present; it’s an offering to the judge, a form of self-defense.11 If a defendant were to reach across the aisle and ask the victim for an honest, repentance-oriented conversation, sans judge, chances are the courtroom would fly into chaos.
When I raise this topic with Father David Kelly, a longtime Chicago youth restorative justice leader who works with people trapped in the system, he speaks of the way the court system explicitly discourages and even punishes such emotion. “As far as expressing remorse, the criminal justice system says dont do it,” he tells me. “The whole system is designed to say, ‘Don’t admit anything. You have the right to remain silent. Plead the Fifth.’ Father Kelly describes the case of a kid he’s working with who’s currently in juvenile detention. In court, the kid was desperate to apologize to his victim, but his lawyer told him, “Don’t you dare!” Lo and behold, when the sentence came down, the judge scolded the kid for not being remorseful. “He was remorseful,” Father Kelly says, “but there was no mechanism for him to show that. He was supposed to be thinking, ‘I’m fighting this case they’ve got against me. Because “true remorse” can’t be expressed, because the legal process is about people defending themselves against the state, there’s not much room for accountability to other people.
Carlos Rodriguez, a Chicago-based addiction counselor who works with kids and adults embroiled in the criminal justice system, specializes in community-based and nonadversarial justice. Carlos runs wilderness trips that mesh with these techniques, aiming for 24⁄7 immersion in healthy, interdependence-based existence. He works to guide people, he says, toward the Mayan principle of Lak’ech: “I am the other you, and you are the other me.” When we meet for coffee, he tells me how, since these practices are so different from the dominant model, it often takes a mental leap to get to a place where real, heartfelt apologies are OK. He describes how in a circle it’s necessary to get “out of your head and into your heart,” where empathy is born.
“That Is Justice!”
Even the most genuine empathy can’t erase poverty, racism, and other structural factors that often drive harm. However, Father Kelly points out that empowering people to speak to their daily struggles holds potential for beginning to confront the oppressions that saturate and fuel those struggles. He tells of one circle in which a victim became a mentor to the young man who had burglarized his house. The victim talked passionately about how he’d lived in the house since childhood, and how, in the wake of the break-in, that haven had turned into a space of fear, unsteadiness, and violation for him, his wife, and his two small children. The young man responded with visible sympathy. Then, bolstered by his mother sitting next to him, he told of his past — the traumas he’d endured, the dead weight of poverty that had dragged him backward at every turn.
“When the guy who did the harm was telling his story, the victim felt like, ‘Wait a second, this is just like me,’” Father Kelly recalls. “There was a real connectedness.” When the group, which included several other members of the community, asked the victim what he needed to help address the harm, he could barely speak — he was so moved by the young man’s story. At first, he said he didn’t need anything. But then he paused. “Hold on,” he said. “There is something I need. This kid has to go back to school.”
The return wasn’t a simple prospect. The young man had long since dropped out, and the high school didn’t want him back. The circle crept toward a stalemate. Then one of the community members, a retired principal, spoke up: “I can help you get back into school.” She initiated the process, creating the circumstances through which the young man could keep himself accountable for what he’d done — and, in the process, transform his life.
The connection-building process spun forward, gaining momentum. The victim was a basketball coach, and through ongoing circle conversation he discovered that the young man who’d burglarized his house loved basketball and played often. He’d always wanted to be on a team, but had figured that he’d lost his chance when he left school. Father Kelly recounts how, after a few more conversations, the victim said, “Look. You play basketball, I coach basketball. Would you be willing to come play basketball for my team — and I’ll be your mentor?”
The boy agreed. He returned to high school and became an avid basketball player. Years later, his bond with his coach and mentor remains tight.
“Now, that!” exclaims Father Kelly. “That is justice!”
Still, justice doesn’t always look the same, and it may not involve reconciliation. Sometimes, coming face-to-face with a perpetrator (even to receive an apology) may not be something the victim or survivor wants; in fact, regardless of preparation, it may be re-traumatizing. As Philly Stands Up! — an organization that works specifically with perpetrators of sexual assault — notes, “It is not the work of a survivor to hold a perpetrator accountable.”12
Pointing to the necessity of offering support to victims without urging the goal of reconciliation, Father Kelly speaks of a woman whose two sons were killed within two months of each other. When she first engaged with the circle process, she couldn’t speak at all. It took many months of counseling, as well as circles with other mothers who had lost their children, for her to piece together the stories that described her pain: “who she was” beforehand, her personal story, how the series of unspeakable traumas she had borne had ripped her to the core. What she needed was the support of those with shared experiences. “This is about storytelling,” Kelly says, describing how trauma is processed in ways that break up our narratives so they often don’t seem to make sense. “Narrative helps us to reknit our lives.”
These words apply to people who have done harm, as well: Kelly works to guide people who have hurt others toward addressing the ways that they have been hurt — the root causes of their harm-doing — so they can be fully accountable for what they’ve done. In a letter to me, Lacino notes that those who do harm aren’t only dealing with the trauma that led up to the act — they’re also likely dealing with the trauma of having done harm, which may prevent them from confronting what they’ve done head-on.
This is especially true if they’ve already been subject to state-inflicted violence like incarceration. “There is no way you can feel good about yourself and do crime,” Lacino says. “Something inside of us has to be comatose or dead to harm people and sleep good at night.” In order to fuel transformation, he argues, people who have done harm must come to a point where they are revived from that “comatose” state — where they can talk about what has hurt them in the past and what they have done to hurt others.
However, Father Kelly emphasizes, community justice should not be about excusing injustice or letting perpetrators “off the hook.” An effective community-based process is often a more challenging undertaking than the punitive, isolative one. And it may last a long, long while. “This process is an investment of time and energy,” Mariame Kaba says, noting that receiving punishment doesn’t take much emotional excavation. “It’s not just about The People Vs. the Perpetrator. It’s about forcing you to engage in ways that the current system doesn’t.” When it comes to reaching inside, yanking out your deepest self and linking it with other people’s deepest selves, you can’t just go through the motions. Mariame also notes, regarding restorative justice, that sitting in a circle by itself won’t lead to long-term shifts in consciousness. It depends on what specific actions are taken, what happens afterward, whether self-conceptions and worldviews are shifted to the point that lasting change can emerge.
Restoring to What?
Mariame points out that, absent the buy-in of all parties involved — and an extremely supportive community and culture — the concept of “restorative justice” can sometimes fall flat. The word “restore” may assume that there’s already a “store,” a safe and healthy place to return to that can be repaired and peacefully rein-habited. Depending on the practice, it may operate on the premise that relationships can be “repaired,” that they were “good” before they were “broken,” that a supportive community once existed and can now be fixed. And, by itself, the concept doesn’t encompass the huge structural factors (race‑, class‑, gender-and sexuality-based oppression, to name a few) that drive the system and inhibit “repairs.”
Especially when it comes to sexual and domestic violence, the prospect of community “restoration” may well ring discordantly. For survivors of gender violence, the key factor in whether a restorative justice process can be effective is whether a community unites with the victim in holding the perpetrator accountable. Often, communities end up siding with the perpetrator, according to Andrea Smith, a feminist scholar, antiviolence activist, and co-founder of INCITE!: Women of Color Against Violence. Victims and survivors may be coerced into participating in a “restoration” in order to maintain some façade of community equilibrium.
“Restorative justice tends to promote a romanticized notion of community,” Andrea tells me. “What if the community is sexist, and racist, and homophobic? Or what if there isn’t any community to begin with?” And since practices classified as restorative justice often work with or within the criminal punishment system nowadays, they’re controlled by that system’s power structures and are subject to its rules.
Transformative justice, as distinguished from restorative justice, was first conceived as a response to the ineffectiveness and brutality of the criminal punishment system’s methods of dealing with sexual and domestic violence, as well as the way in which restorative justice strategies can betray and further traumatize survivors if the community involved doesn’t stand with them. Transformative justice centralizes the “safety, healing, and agency” of survivors; the role of the community is to support them in those goals. Coming back to Generation FIVE’s definition of transformative justice — “transforming the social conditions that perpetuate violence,” including domination, exploitation, and oppression by the state — the question becomes this: How can we imagine ourselves beyond any sort of prescribed system?
Since it’s impossible for any readymade model for dealing with violence to work effectively in every single community, Andrea Smith suggests, “We need to be jazzy — to think, in every specific context, what is the perpetrator motivated by?” Like jazz music, transformative justice requires both improvisation and structure. It requires intuition, creativity, collaboration, and an understanding that no process is ever finished.
However, just because every situation is different doesn’t mean strategies can’t be shared. Circles aren’t the only places that storytelling can happen, and communities engaged in transformative justice come together through meetings, conferences, online networks, workshops, social media, and spur-of-the-moment conversations to speak about what has worked, what hasn’t, and all the stuff in between. The Oakland-based group Creative Interventions runs a Storytelling and Organizing Project (STOP), which collects narratives like these — instances in which violence was addressed or prevented without state intervention. These stories illustrate how people work every day, in their own ways, to change the circumstances and social structures that make it possible for violence to occur.
One STOP story recounts a situation in which a woman in Orange County, California, responded to domestic violence by seeking refuge at a friend’s house. The friends then helped her reach out to other people to bring into her support network. The group listened closely to what the survivor wanted. Her mom assisted with getting her husband to leave her house (remaining calm despite his “raging”) and convinced him to stay away, so the survivor could live there with her kids. Her network of family and friends then set up a schedule in which someone would come over every day and bring food and sit with her, and talk, if she was up for it. She explained, “It felt so good to have this full house, you know, this busy house of people coming by, and, you know, people were playing with the kids, and we were making art in the kitchen, and someone was always making tea, and it felt not alone.” In the end, the survivor stressed that the community’s response worked because she was able to say what she needed, and she was actively heard. She told STOP, “We need to trust people to be the experts on their own lives.”13
In early January 2014, INCITE!, along with CURB and several other organizations, compiled a long list of transformative justice strategies for dealing with “police/vigilante/hate/white supremacist violence.”14 They emphasize that since approaches need to be community specific, they do not endorse any particular strategy. Instead, they’re opening up a conversation about possibilities that will hopefully multiply, change, grow, and spread. Ideas include developing community centers that use transformative justice; gathering and circulating information about transformative practices used in other countries; starting up “neighborhood check-in” systems to keep connected with neighbors and ensure their safety (as opposed to vigilante-ish neighborhood watch groups); talking to people from hate groups directly (since they are, indeed, made up of individual people); using transformative justice strategies in workplaces; and many, many, many more.
“We Can’t Do A Plus B Equals C”
INCITE!’s shared ideas demonstrate that “strategies” aren’t always neatly sewn up, beginning-to-end stories that tidily close with the perpetrator held accountable and the survivor “sufficiently” healed. In fact, when I speak with Jenna Peters-Golden, a member of the Philly Stands Up! (PSU) collective that uses transformative practices to work with perpetrators of sexual assault, she tells me that she’s not a huge fan of either numbers or anecdotes as metrics to measure success. “We can’t do A plus B equals C here,” Jenna tells me. “So we use small, specific tools.” For example, she says, people who’ve caused sexual harm may tend toward narcissism; they’re often better at focusing on themselves than noticing cues from others or engaging with others’ feelings. So, Philly Stands Up! members stress considerate practices like showing up on time and asking, “How are you?” They’re looking for shifts in behavior, changes in how people who’ve caused harm interact with those around them.
Jenna says, “When I’m meeting someone for a session, if they don’t show up after twenty minutes, I’m not waiting — and if they call me later, I say, ‘No, I’m not coming back; I’ll see you next time. Showing up on time is a way of showing you respect me.’” Processes for working with perpetrators are lengthy, and Jenna tells me it may take a year before a person starts coming to meetings punctually and inquiring after other people’s thoughts and emotions. “In the first twelve months, it’s common for people to not remember to ask how my day has been, so I have to be pushy and say, ‘I really want to tell you how I’m feeling,’” Jenna says. “Eventually, people start saying, ‘How was your day?’ They start listening.”
In talking with people about transformative practices, Philly Stands Up! members emphasize that “eventually”; nurturing the possibility of lasting, evolving justice takes time. I ask scholar and activist Beth Richie, who’s also a cofounder of INCITE!, how we then might begin to conceptualize a universe in which the widespread response to immediate violence — for example, the instant of an attack — is something other than Call the cops! “I think it is still an experiment, a way of thinking, and a call to develop something new,” she says. “We need to take a long view.” And that view isn’t confined to the realm of harm response. New “ways of thinking” interweave with daily life, transforming our perceptions, our definitions, our experiences of justice, and our understandings of how to live together in the world.
“Storytelling,” is re-printed with permission from Berrett-Koehler Publishers from the book, Locked Down, Locked Out, by Maya Schenwar, 2014.www.bkconnection.com