Envisioning a New World: Restorative Justice in Activist Communities

Content Warning: Sexual Assault

Photo by  Inma Ibáñez  on  Unsplash     [Image Description: Blue sky and fluffy white clouds float above a worm’s eye view of two white neoclassical pillars.]

Photo by Inma Ibáñez on Unsplash

[Image Description: Blue sky and fluffy white clouds float above a worm’s eye view of two white neoclassical pillars.]

A pale person with wavy red hair and cranberry lipstick, dressed in all black, spoke in front of a circle of people sitting in metal folding chairs.

“We’re thinking about activities we agree to do or not do. That comes up often when we’re organizing, whether we’re organizing events, whether we’re trying to get people to come to our direct actions, we want people to wheatpaste with us or whatever your anarchy flavor is,” they said, adding quickly, “Or not not anarchy. I don’t know how you identify.”

The person in black is Anna Kark, a social justice and harm reduction educator who brought a consent workshop to a DC church. They worked with an organization called Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS). The church was full of people who do anti-oppression work, Kark told me. The International Workers of the World and No Justice No Pride worked with CASS to teach activists how to incorporate consent into every part of their lives, from consenting to specific organizing to consenting to sex. This included antiracist organizing, organizing your workplace, antifascist work, and more.

“I don't think there will ever be a cohesive definition or understanding of the DC left. It's probably very complicated and about how capitalism crushes our ability to organize with each other. But for whatever value of self-identification there is, that is who I selected to be apart of this workshop,” Kark said.

Anna Kark is a DC activist who has experienced sexual assault within their own activism community. They were the survivor in an accountability process, which means that they and their community tried to hold the person who assaulted them accountable and educate the person as a response to the assault.

The person was not pushed out of the community, but regularly asked to acknowledge what they did wrong and take steps to learn how to be better. An accountability process is just one of many ways activists in these networks are trying to make their spaces safe for everyone. Activists are also trying to hold each other accountable for other ways people push each other’s boundaries, learn bystander intervention techniques, and build mechanisms to ensure activists who refuse to accept what they did wrong and change can’t simply move on to other activism circles.

Why activists want transformative justice

The accountability process is not supposed to be a panacea for harassment and assault, Kark points out. It’s just one tool. But activists want alternatives to involving police officers and meting out justice through what some might call “carceral feminism,” or relying on the justice system for solutions to violence that is usually carried out by men on women. For activists who acknowledge that police often brutalize people of color and are responsible for sexual violence themselves and as people who fight for prison abolition, it’s necessary to have alternatives. However, Kark said that doesn’t mean activists try to dissuade survivors from reporting to police. Activists are also focused on looking at the entire community and systems of oppression that contributed to sexual violence, not simply one individual who carried out the violence.

This a necessary step, since media often seems transfixed with the personality of serial sexual abusers, and how to armchair diagnose them, usually to let them off the hook. As a society, we’re obsessed with going over the details of the assault in question to determine exactly what we think the victim should have done to avoid assault and sometimes, because people derive some form of enjoyment from their pain. Like so-called “poverty porn” which media creators claim is about exposing the damage of poverty, many unnecessarily detailed descriptions of sexual assault are often more about exploitation of someone’s pain for the purpose of spectacle.

As we saw last fall during the avalanche of sexual assault stories in the news, numerous people of all genders enabled these perpetrators. By demanding that we consider an entire community’s responsibility, we are moving away from those unhealthy tendencies and are working to reduce the likelihood of future harm.

I have experienced sexual violence and harassment, like many women, and some of that violence came from people who belong to marginalized communities that are targeted by police. I also do not trust police to address sexual assault survivors in a responsible way, knowing how police themselves target and retraumatize sexual assault survivors. I don’t trust employers to address sexual harassment. Employers see the primary purpose of sexual harassment training and human resources responses as legal protection for themselves, assuming they don’t circumvent the process entirely to protect a perpetrator they consider less disposable than the victim. That means I’m not going to get what I need out of the process and neither will the person who harassed me.

I see why this approach would be preferable for many survivors. It isn’t necessarily a flawless practice or above criticism and personal biases against marginalized groups are still present, but I one would argue the justice system’s response is usually far worse. The justice system puts survivors’ emotional needs second, punishes men of color to a very different degree compared to their white counterparts and, sometimes, wrongly imprisons them. It counts on the threat of incarceration and incarceration itself to prevent or change a person’s behavior, which simply doesn't work. It nourishes the idea that victims must be white women and women who perform femininity correctly in order to deserve the justice system’s protection. The stakes are incredibly high, and when you lose, as many marginalized groups do, you lose big.

The justice system requires that in order for perpetrators to receive some form of accountability, they must be cruel evil men who have never been loved or supported by their families and communities; men who don’t really exist. Additionally, officers who were supposed to help survivors at their most vulnerable have subjected them to more violence. When it’s working, the accountability process also demands that communities look at the environment that allowed violence and harassment to happen, not simply an individual person. It demands that survivors needs are considered paramount and that communities acknowledge the humanity of perpetrators through education.

Kark said by having a community behind them, people aren’t asked to process what happened to them alone. This is particularly important for people who are experiencing poverty or financial precarity.

“I started a community accountability practice [last] spring when I was raped,” Kark said. “It is very difficult to do because all of the functions of capitalism prevent you from being able to do that work, right? You’ve got police state telling you conflict can only be mediated by a court of law, which is untrue. You’ve got poverty, which prevents people from people able to seek appropriate resources from their community because they have to focus on immediate material consequences within their lives.”

Kark said their anarchism makes it difficult for them personally to turn to “disposing of people as a first response.” This language about not disposing of people and healing from harm in a way that excludes punishment is consistent in anarchism. Cindy Milstein writes in her book, Anarchism and Its Aspirations, “... anarchism serves unflinchingly as a philosophy of freedom, as the nagging conscience that people and their communities can always be better.”

How the process works

Akosua Johnson, who has been involved in these processes before, said that the first step in an accountability process is to be open about the harm that the perpetrator committed. But the survivor gets to tell activists what they are comfortable with the community knowing. Then activists who are part of the process, usually activists who have participated and conducted this process before, gather information about what happened and how the person was harmed so that perpetrator understands what they did wrong. Activists acknowledge that some people may not know what they did wrong because we have all grown up in a society that normalizes sexual violence as a “natural” expression of masculinity.

Johnson said the next step is to educate the person who harmed the survivor. Then people close to the perpetrator need to make it clear to them that they need to be held accountable for their actions. The perpetrator also needs to fully understand what they did harmed someone else.

“That makes it more meaningful and more effective as opposed to some stranger coming up to the perp and saying, ‘You did something bad!’” Johnson said.

Activists need to ensure that the perpetrator and surrounding community prevent anything like that from happening again, Johnson said, but it’s important to look at the entire community’s role in what happened. Enablers and people who simply didn’t notice how this person’s behavior affected others have to sit with their own actions and learn how to hold themselves accountable for that.

“This is not simply an individual acting in a vacuum. It’s the community around that person that allows those ideas and actions to occur, so you spread it out in terms of educating in a ripple out from perpetrator,” Johnson said. “You’re making sure there is accountability not just for the perpetrator but people in the perpetrator’s life who may have excused or allowed behavior that is harmful or violent.”

Sometimes that starts with enforcement of boundaries in all activism practices, to build a culture of consent. For example, that means not putting fellow activists on the spot when determining who will do what for an event or protest, such as becoming a street medic or bringing food to an event. People in the activism community need to ask people if they want to put in a Signal group and be clear about how long a training will take. During the consent workshop, people took turns to be the person asking for things and the person saying no in response, to normalize the process of asking for consent and enforcing boundaries. It felt good to practice saying “No” to requests for information I didn’t want to give, as benign as those requests were, such as “Where did you get your shoes?” because I’ve been socialized to give reasons for saying no. In this space, it was clear that we didn’t need a reason and that it isn’t rude not to give one. People were learning to accept a no and not be personally offended by it, Kark explained.

Jen Deerinwater, a community organizer and freelance journalist and Citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, said that until activist communities respect femmes in all contexts, including meetings and inclusion in leadership, harassment and sexual violence will be a problem. In queer activism spaces, queer people can also be “misogynistic and chauvinistic,” Deerinwater added. “There is definitely an idea that for those of us who are more feminine, we have to do all of the caregiving work. We’re not as respected as those who are more masculine of center.”

A common complaint from women and nonbinary people in the movement is that men aren’t doing enough to address sexual violence and provide other forms of care that are considered traditionally feminine.

Although folks should get training to avoid asking questions that enforce rape myths, Belinda Rodriguez, an activist whose organizing focuses on climate, racial, and economic justice, said that  starting with a sincere commitment to care for another person’s wellbeing goes a long way. She said the most common response she sees is a “deer in headlights” response where people don’t know how to react and ending up doing nothing rather than risk giving the wrong response.

“People are afraid to deal with the situation and so they don't do anything,” she said. “That’s why it’s important for people to read about this stuff in advance and have conversations with each other about what kind of response they would like to see before shit hits the fan. I think that's really important so that trust is already there when something goes down because inevitably, at some point it does, and we will all have a friend who is in a shitty situation or we’ll be in a shitty situation.”

Kark said that they’ve seen other activists become more aware of harassment as well as behavior that can be labeled “boundary-crossing.” For example, they were recently street harassed while a few of their male activist friends watched and did nothing to intervene. But months later, after talking to a partner about what happened, one of those men reached out to talk to Kark about what they should have done differently.

On another occasion, two activists had a difficult time working together because another kept pushing their boundaries, such as touching the person without asking. The activist who wasn’t comfortable being hugged and otherwise touched told the person to receive education and talk to someone in their community about how to be better about understanding people’s boundaries. The person did seek out that education and now they have a healthier relationship, with the person whose boundaries they crossed, Kark said.

“The person who was on receiving end of harm wanted that relationship to continue and believed in that person’s capacity to change,” they said.

Within an entirely punitive and faceless justice system, you don’t really get to ask the person who harmed you to consider what they did and take steps to change in any meaningful way. Any relationship with the person who harmed you can be used against you as evidence that you weren’t actually harmed. It isn’t very realistic to expect people who faced harassment or violence from someone close to them, someone in whom they’ve seen sparks of kindness, to end all contact if they want to seek accountability. And the people who have harmed us are usually people we know.

That doesn’t mean the person who was responsible for that harm is going to be interested in being held accountable, however. Some activists have gone as far as to offer to pay for someone’s therapy if it would help them process what they did and change their behavior. But they don’t always accept that help, Chris, who does antiracist and anticapitalist activism work in DC, explained.

“I’ve had long-term friendships end over trying to hold someone accountable.” he said.

In one case, over a few months, it became clear to Chris and other activists that the perpetrator of the sexual violence wouldn’t take those steps. At first, the person seemed willing to participate and then it became apparent to Chris that their actions were only performative. Soon, he only responded to him on social media. But one day he ran into him on the street.

“I just knew the last time I saw him, he cried in my arms and said, ‘I’ve done terrible things,’” he said. “I said, ‘We’ve all done terrible things.’ And he wouldn't go any further on that.”

Sometimes survivors don’t want to move forward with an accountability process either, and fellow activists have to respect that, Chris said, even if others in the community would like to move forward. The priority is with the survivor's needs. And there are good reasons not to stick with a one-size-fits-all approach, BR explained. A survivor could be living with the perpetrator or share an employer and it’s important to be sensitive to their needs across these different circumstances.

In an accountability process, when survivors do move forward with the process and perpetrators won’t respond to the community's requests, Kark said they aren’t forced to leave but rather decide to leave because their friends won’t stop asking them to take steps to change. They gave one example.

“The process of being asked about that was so difficult for him that he voluntarily left and I think that happens a lot. Being accountable is a lot harder than being punished.”

When that a serial abuser leaves, however, they can go to another activism community where people don’t know what they did, which activists are concerned about. Johnson said this happens often and that they repeat the same behavior. They said they are working on developing a larger accountability communication network with other activists in DC to prevent this from happening.

Power differences

Still, that decision of how to respond -- whether or not to alert other communities, tell someone they can’t continue being in a space with the person they harmed so the survivor’s activism isn’t hindered, or welcome them back into certain spaces -- has to be weighed carefully.

Rodriguez said the specific harm by the perpetrator took, the risk of future harm, and the power differences on all sides need to be considered in crafting a response. Rodriguez noted an example where a young man of color was  shunned from a predominantly white space without being given the chance to understand what he did wrong, where a white man was allowed to stay indefinitely, despite displaying repeated harmful behavior and showing no interest in accountability.

“This kid seemed very disposable in a way that a white dude in the same circle was not,” she said. “I have seen white men consistently be really problematic and manipulative and people tolerate them. I definitely have seen abusive behavior. But they were tolerated because they had more access to power and people were more afraid to push them out as opposed to this kid who became completely disposable, even though he was trying to be accountable and didn’t seem like he posed a risk of causing future harm.”

Often, people with more access to power are allowed to get away with bad behavior unchecked, and Rodriguez explained that she has seen movement organizations give prominent leaders a pass at egregiously mishandling situations, because they don’t want to sever their ties with someone who is high profile.

Deerinwater said that when there is violence within any activist community, there is a concern that it will provide ammunition for the government.

“There is this feeling that women and whoever is being assaulted just need to shut up and take it out of fear it will hurt the movement. Not everyone feels that way. I personally don't. I feel like that has hurt our movement already,” Deerinwater said.

There are challenges, however, since activists will try to insist that the community can’t afford to lose their support. Akosua Johnson, an activist who has worked on accountability processes for the DC activist community, said there is a tendency for people to try to leverage their cause to discourage people from holding them accountable.

“They get agitated and angry and they get into a regression. I don't know if you’ve heard this before, but ‘If you're not nice to me, I’m not going to help your cause,’” they said.

Activism communities face many barriers to tackling power differences within networks when sexual violence and harassment occurs, ensuring that efforts to handle accountability processes and care for survivors are spread evenly, and that people are prepared to handle accountability thoughtfully. But by talking about consent in all contexts, not just sexuality, activists are fostering an entire culture of consent where sexual violence is less likely to thrive. By turning attention to the community as a whole when sexual assault happens, activists are less likely to pretend that you only need to get rid of one person to make a space safe for all activists. And when we don’t see violation of consent as something only monsters do, but as something everyone is capable of, it becomes something everyone must watch out for and prevent. Our justice system and other institutions often fail us because, by their very design, they aren’t supposed to accomplish these things.

“I want to live in a world where someone can hurt me and then they can apologize and actually take responsibility for their actions,” Kark said. “In order for us to be able to get to that world, we have a long way to go.”

Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter for ThinkProgress who writes about education, labor, and criminal justice issues. Her work has appeared publications such as Bustle, The Establishment, The Guardian, In These Times, Glamour, Autostraddle, Dame Magazine, and The Crime Report.