Ep 7: Beyond Punishment: The Movement for Transformative Justice

Abolitionists are committed to creating a world without police and prisons, but what alternative visions and practices of addressing intimate harm might point the way toward such a world? In this episode we explore efforts to re-imagine the politics of violence, harm, safety, and redress, spearheading practices of accountability and healing that move beyond the punitive logic of the carceral state.

Mia Mingus from the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective discusses alternatives to carceral feminism, and how the movement to end child sexual abuse points the way toward radically re-imagining practices of justice. We also speak with Claudia Garcia-Rojas, co-director of The Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls & Young Women, and Maya Schenwar, Editor-in-Chief of Truthout and author of Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better.

Image credit: Jenna Peters-Golden

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Episode Transcript:

Andrés: Welcome to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, my name is Andrés. Abolitionists are committed to creating a world without police and prisons, but what alternative visions and practices of addressing intimate harm might point the way toward such a world? In today’s episode, “Beyond Punishment: The Movement for Transformative Justice” we explore efforts to reimagine the politics of violence, harm, safety, and redress, spearheading practices of accountability and healing that move beyond the punitive logic of the carceral state.

We speak with Mia Mingus from the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective about alternatives to carceral feminism, and how the movement to end child sexual abuse points the way toward radically reimagining practices of justice. We then turn to a conversation with Claudia Garcia-Rojas, co-director of The Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls & Young Women, alongside Maya Schenwar, Editor-in-Chief of Truthout and author of Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better. But first, here’s co-producer Kaif Syed with some news you may have missed.

NEWS HEADLINES

Kaif Syed: On June 11th a group of prison abolitionists, including the family members of some of those incarcerated, marched to the home of the director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, Heidi Washington. On the suburban street and sidewalk they staged a “solitary is torture” demonstration to pressure her to let the remaining 70 Kinross rebels out of administrative segregation, or solitary confinement. They have been in ad-seg for 9 months following their alleged participation in the Kinross uprising on September 10th, 2016.

Towards the end of June, the prisoners inside El Dorado Correctional Facility in southern Kansas participated in a nonviolent demonstration, protesting the conditions they are forced to live and work in. The men refused to return to their cells and occupied several parts of the prison for a significant portion of the day, demonstrating how overcrowding within the facility had reached unsustainable levels. The strikers eventually returned to their cells, with no reports of immediate retaliation. Their dissent raised concerns within the state’s government about the number of people incarcerated, but officials from El Dorado insist there is no cause for worry. This uprising is only the latest in the long and proud history of prisoner rebellion, but will undoubtedly not be the last.

On June 28th, hundreds gathered in protest outside Jamesburg Prison, the largest youth detention center in the state of New Jersey. The protesters called for the closure of the 150 year old youth prison and highlighted the institution’s failure to prevent recidivism and its history of racism.

See “News From the Streets” at rustbeltradio.org for links to these news items.

INTRO

a Maria: I’m a Maria here with Kaif Syed and you’re listening to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, an abolitionist media and movement-building project based in Detroit, Michigan.

Kaif Syed: What are the ways we can address issues and conflicts in our communities without resorting to the violence and authority of the state? How can producing processes of accountability independent of the so-called justice system strengthen our families and neighborhoods? These are the kinds of questions abolitionists ask.

a Maria: Co-producer David Langstaff spoke with Mia Mingus — national disability justice and transformative justice activist and writer — about her work with the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective to build and support responses to child sexual abuse that don’t rely upon police and prisons, and the ways in which these emergent practices of accountability and redress contain the seeds of a world beyond racial capitalism and the carceral state.

MIA MINGUS INTERVIEW

Mia Mingus: Hi, my name is Mia Mingus, and I am a transformative justice organizer. I do a lot of disability justice work as well, and specifically the transformative justice work that I do, I focus on child sexual abuse. But I’m also end up responding to lots of different types of violence.

Davis Langstaff: You were recently a contributor to a special issue of The New Inquiry centered upon the theme of Abolition – what does abolition mean to you, as a critical framework for thought and practice, as a vision of the world as it could be, as a “plot,” as Ruthie Gilmore poignantly puts it?

Mia Mingus: Well so when I think about abolition, what it means to me is not only getting rid of prisons and dismantling the prison industrial complex. But it also to me is about challenging that culture of prisons. So whether that’s a culture of disposability, whether that’s a culture of criminalization, always bound up with capitalism and depression and trauma. So for me I feel like when I think about abolition it’s a much larger project than just no prisons. It’s also about how we abolish the prison state inside of us too, so that we’re not just throwing people away or using punitive measures even in our own relationships and worlds.

David Langstaff: So for those of us engaged in various forms of movement-building against and beyond racial capitalism and the carceral state, one of the questions commonly put to us is, “What would we do without police and prisons? What about the murderers, the rapists, and others that symbolically stand in for being irrevocably depraved? How would we real questions of violence and harm, of safety, accountability, and healing?” How does the framework of “transformative justice,” which has been central to your writing and activism, address these questions?

Mia Mingus: First and foremost, if we were really concerned with the murderers and the rapists and the serial killers, the largest one we have at hand is the state. So it’s a both/and to me. One, it’s obviously a critique around how we understand “crime and violence,” and that so much state sanctioned violence doesn’t get integrated into that understanding or analysis. But there’s the other piece of it, which is the more pragmatic piece of it. Which is you can critique and critique all day long, but at the end of the day, really, what are we going to do about serial rapists, for example, or people who have abused their partners for the last 60 years? These are real questions. What I love is that, I feel like those folks who are actually trying to put transformative justice to practice, I think it’s good that we don’t shy away from those things.

Now, while the poetics of transformative justice sounds really beautiful and is really compelling – “yes, nobody is disposable, yes, everybody deserves healing, and we want to humanize defenders, and recognize the humanity and dignity of everybody…” – those poetics sound really wonderful. But in practice they’re much harder to make happen and to live out. When I think about the larger, broader project of transformative justice, it needs to happen on lots and lots of different levels. We need to have multiple strategies and long-term strategies. I think where we are right now, in terms of this historical moment, is we’re still in the phase of transformative justice where we’re doing a lot of experimentation.

And where we’re learning a lot more, everyday. We’re learning all the things that we didn’t even know we needed to learn. I think for right now there is a sense from a lot of us of, “how do we pick the low hanging fruit and learn as much as we can, and build up a foundation to the larger cases?” And so when people ask me those questions, I think they’re very valid. And I also feel like, yes, we want to figure out how to address some of these larger problems, and how to address some of the folks who are probably the hardest to address in terms of accountability and transformation and change. And, at the same time, I think that our revolutionary imaginations can only go so far, but as we practicing and as we keep using them, they can go farther and farther and farther.

David Langstaff: Much of your work has been centered on transformative justice as a means of confronting, ending, and creating a world beyond child sexual abuse. In what ways does transformative justice depart from the mainstream movement against domestic and sexual violence, particularly with regard to the latter’s reliance upon increased policing, prosecution, and imprisonment as putative mechanisms of prevention and redress – a tendency that abolitionists, queer feminists of color in particular, have critiqued as a kind of “carceral feminism”? Why isn’t carceral feminism an acceptable response to these terrible forms of violence?

Mia Mingus: Carceral feminism is not an acceptable response to the levels of violence and harm that we see everyday for so many reasons. So there’s two parts to this question. One is that it’s not effective – and we’ve had at least now a good 25-30 years of this. And, granted, there were a lot of people, specifically feminists and women of color, who were saying this is not the right strategy. For example the DV movement, that started with radical roots, and then ended up getting in bed with the state. A lot of people knew this is not the way to go, but that’s where we’re at now. So there’s one part that is to say, we’ve done this for decades now, and continued to lock people up. We’ve done these strategies of criminalization and punishment, and they haven’t necessarily made our communities safer. And many people would argue they’ve actually made our communities much, much less safe. There are still millions and millions of people in communities that fall through the cracks.

So whether you’re talking about immigrant women who are in abusive relationships, who are being actively isolated, not only by their abusers, but then actively isolated because they don’t speak the language, because they may not have documentation – all of the different things that immigration, and poverty, and xenophobia set up, and white supremacy, and misogyny – all the rest of it. And I think about disabled people who might be being abused by their caregivers, who are being severely isolated, and/or services out there that might not be accessible to disabled people to use. And then there’s the other piece of it, which is that it’s actively harmful, and that continuing to rely on prisons, and rely on police, and to rely on the criminal legal system and the state, whether it’s the foster care system, ICE, etc, is actively harming so many of our communities. Especially communities of color, immigrant communities, disabled communities, queer and trans people of color communities, we could go on and on and on, poor communities.

The state positions itself as a protector, when we know that the state uses the very kind of violence that they say they want to protect – well, really just their citizens – from, let’s be real. And so if they use these same types of violence, how and why would they have a vested interest in ending them? I think, for a lot of us, because we live in such oppressive violent conditions – in a fascist country, really – and a society where the grinding out of people’s imaginations, and grinding out people’s ability to even imagine something else is possible, is such a defining part of what it means to live in the US today.

David Langstaff: Can you tell us more, concretely, about the work of the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, of which you’ve been a member?

Mia Mingus: So the BATJC, the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, we are made up of individuals, community members. We’re not a non-profit – nobody gets paid, we all show up because this is part of our life’s work. We work to build and sustain transformative justice responses to child sexual abuse. And so part of our work is figuring out: what are the conditions that we can build, what kind of conditions can we create, that could actually support transformative justice responses to child sexual abuse? Meaning responses to child sexual abuse that don’t rely on the state, and that actively work to cultivate the things that we know will prevent future incidences of child sexual abuse, but any form of violence, from happening. And because child sexual abuse is often bound up with lots of different types of violence, we end up working on lots of different types of violence as well.

One of the ways that we’ve been doing that lately is through this concept of “pods” that we’ve been using. Your pod are the people you would call on if violence happened to you, or if you did violence, or you witnessed violence, or if somebody you know was violently targeted, or did violence. We were using a lot of the terms of community: community responses to violence, community accountability. But the term community became very confusing, because a lot of people have very different ideas about what community means. And a lot of people feel like – especially, I feel like, in the west – don’t feel like they’ve experienced community even at the same time as they long deeply for community.

What we were trying to figure out was how we specifically name the kind of relationship that characterizes the people you would call on around violence and around crisis. And what we found was that it wasn’t necessarily your closest people. Because that was oftentimes where the violence was coming from, and that actually people had very specific criteria for their pod people – I don’t know how much more sci-fi we can get! [laughs] Even within your pod people, the people that you would call on if you were a survivor of violence for example, are very different oftentimes than the people you would call on if you were trying to take accountability for harm or violence or abuse that you’ve done. And still, that they also might be very different than the people you would call on to support you if somebody you love was trying to take accountability for violence and/or was targeted around violence. So we came up with this language of pods, and it’s just been really useful for us in terms of trying to identify, really reveal back a network of pods. And it was also a very sobering process to do this, because I feel like a lot of folks, especially seasoned activists and organizers, it was a sobering process for them to realize that they didn’t actually have as many people as they thought.

These needed to be reliable relationships where you could count on them to show up. Relationships where you could have nuanced kinds of conversations about accountability without falling into collusion or minimizing, right? Like, “oh, I’m sure you didn’t mean it, it wasn’t that bad.” Or demonization, as well as survivor support. I think that we often think, like, “oh survivor support, that seems really easy.” But most of the time people again, fall into a binary of either shaming or blaming, even if they don’t mean to. Or just minimizing the whole thing, or paternalizing, “they’re totally helpless, they can’t do anything.” And so rather than saying, ok well we’re going to take the six years or five years it takes to build enough trust even to be able to say, “hey I did CSA,” or “I survived CSA.” We just learned through our work that, oh, people already actually had folks in their lives, even if it was just one person.

And this is true across the board, that, most times, people don’t call a hotline. They don’t call the police; they call a trusted friend, confidante – somebody that we would call their pod people. So pods has been a great way for us to think about how do we set the conditions for transformative justice responses. So that’s one of the things that we do.

David Langstaff: So you’ve spoken several times to the violent regulation of the imagination, and the ways in which that shapes the turn to carcerality as a punitive means of addressing harm, as well as the difficulty of imagining other worlds and other ways of being in the world. The work of building a movement for abolition can often feel overwhelming and disheartening, especially in an historical moment such as the one we find ourselves in which the forces arrayed against us are ascendant. What advice would you give to abolitionists struggling around questions of survival, resilience, creating new relations of collective care, and protecting the sense of possibility that animates the radical imagination?

Mia Mingus: I think that transformative justice is one of the key parts of sustainability for abolition movements. The overwhelmingness can come from feeling like we have to do everything, all the time, all at once. One thing that’s been helpful for me in terms of sustainability has been getting really clear on what my role is. What is your role? Is your role resistance work? Or is your work building alternatives, and building the world that we do want and that we long for? If you feel like it’s all up to you, you will burn out faster. The other piece of that, too, is it requires of you that you realize that you are in a legacy of work.

We’re not going to end violence, and harm, and abuse all in one generation, one campaign, one organization. We need generational strategies – long term visions that can stretch over generations – for this work. We need to resist against the world that we don’t want, and also actively build the world that we do want. I don’t think that we can do one or the other.

I think interpersonal violence, intimate violence, sexual violence, domestic violence, can be harder to imagine justice for. Because what you’re talking about are your relationships, oftentimes with the people that matter most to you in your life, that are very complex. And when you’re faced with the question of figuring out, what am I actively fighting for? The active, literal exercising of our imaginations is part of how we concretely build resilience.

David Langstaff: Well thank you so much Mia, for joining us on the show. It’s been a pleasure to have you.

Mia Mingus:  Thank you! Thanks for having me!

INTERVIEW WITH CLAUDIA GARCIA-ROJAS & MAYA SCHENWAR &

David Langstaff: At the 2017 Allied Media Conference in Detroit, we spoke with Maya Schenwar, Editor-in-Chief of Truthout and author of Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better, as well as Claudia Garcia-Rojas, co-author of Reporting on Rape & Sexual Violence: A Media Toolkit for Journalists to Better Media Coverage, which was published through the Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls & Young Women, an organization that she co-directs.

Claudia Garcia-Rojas: I’m Claudia Garcia-Rojas, I’m Chicago based and the work that I primarily have always done is around sexual violence. And so I recently joined Love and Protect, and I’ve also served as co director for the Chicago Task Force of Violence Against Girls and Women.

Maya Schenwar: I’m Maya Schenwar, I’m the Editor in Chief of Truth Out, which is a social justice news organization. A lot of my work centers around the prison industrial complex, and I’m also an organizer with Love and Protect in Chicago and the Chicago Community Bond Fund.

a Maria: In your book Locked Down, Locked Out, you point to the ways in which incarceration not only fails to address the roots of social violence, but in fact compounds and exacerbates existing structures of violence. Can you tell us why the carceral state isn’t an answer to the social dilemmas we face?

Maya Schenwar: I’m going to do that in three words [laughs], just kidding. Yeah, I think you hit on the core of it. I had a pen pal who was in Pelican Bay Prison, and he was there for a rape conviction. And he told me, he would write me these letters saying “I’m innocent,” and then he would describe what happened that led to his conviction. And I thought, that’s rape. And so he was in solitary confinement, he had been there for 8 years, and had actually 7 more to go on his sentence. And obviously prison had not even taught him the definition of rape. So it’s like the idea that prison addresses sexual violence, or changes anything for the future in terms of sexual violence, is I think fundamentally flawed.

Alejo Stark: The question that we’re asked is then, what is the alternative? What is the alternative to that? What kind of transformative visions and practices have prison abolitionists been building at the grassroots?

Maya Schenwar: I think that one of the ways in which we need to address that question is thinking about the things that are criminalized, because not everything that’s defined as a crime currently, and for which people are incarcerated, needs to have an alternative. A lot of people are still saying, instead of prison, people who are arrested for drug possession should go to treatment, actually like a lockdown treatment center because they need treatment not prison. And I look at that and I’m like, okay, so that assumes that criminalizing drugs is actually a thing that we should still be doing in society. And it’s the same thing we do with sex work, that sex workers should be rescued, that’s the alternative to prison. And I think that that’s true for so many things we call crime, because crime is really a different thing from harm. And we have to, I think, get past the idea that because something is against the law, that it’s actually a thing thats has harmed someone and needs to be addressed in a way that involves a response – particularly a response on the part of the state.

Then there’s also the question of, okay, so what do we do about the things that are actually harmful? And I think that when we address that question, it’s not just about alternatives to prison, because so many things that are harmful in our society are actually not criminalized. And the example I always like to use is: possession of crack cocaine is criminalized, but for the United States to have possession of nuclear weapons is not a crime. From there, that’s where we have to start approaching our creative solutions and our transformative justice and our restorative justice. It’s not from a place of replacing all the things that prison is used for, but thinking about what’s actually causing harm, and then thinking about mass decriminalization.

Claudia Garcia-Rojas: And I would just say that in terms of what that would look like, this move to abolish prisons, it depends on each individual community. I don’t think that there can be a one size fits all response, and as Maya was saying, we’re not looking to replace the practices that currently prisons fill or engage in. But we’re looking to actually abolish those practices of punishment and discipline and correction, and actually find different solutions for some of the issues that we might have. And so I don’t think that there’s necessarily an answer to that, right? Because I think that those answers need to be developed in community, and they need to be organic and they might not all be the same.

Alejo Stark: Just to close off with another practical question, what are other concrete strategies, or tactics, everyday practices, those of us that are committed to abolition can focus on? Both in the short-term and long-term.

Maya Schenwar: To me, the most important things to focus on in terms of abolition involve growing and building the society that we actually want, that would address the social problems that lead to harm. In that sense I’m not talking about transformative or restorative justice, I’m talking about healthcare, mental healthcare, child care – lots of care words, interestingly. The arts, jobs, housing, food, all of these things. And not just adequate housing, adequate food, but we know that actually there’s enough so that we could all be living comfortably. What would our society look like in relation to harm and violence if that were shifted?

Because we talk about survival crimes, and criminalize survivors and that type of thing, but really almost all crime is survival crime. Because people are surviving really difficult economic circumstances and economic violence. People are surviving mental illness, and drug addiction, people are surviving homelessness, people are surviving poverty. So if we think about all of these things, we can begin to piece together the fact that we need to be challenging capitalism if we’re going to get to abolition. And the other piece of that is that we need to be challenging the structures that led to imprisonment in the first place. So we need to be challenging white supremacy and colonialism.

Right now we think prison is natural, prison is the natural response to crime. But when you look at prison, particularly in the United States, it’s an institution that evolved out of slavery. We see that police evolved out of slave patrols and also Indian constables, so this is also a product of colonialism. We see that the system that has been built has been constructed to replace these previous oppressive institutions, and of course there’s a lot that’s been written about that by Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Michelle Alexander. I think that we see the way that these chronicles of history play out and we have to say, ok if we’re going to dismantle this and build something new, it’s not just about dismantling the buildings called prisons. It’s about dismantling these systems of oppression.

Claudia Garcia-Rojas: The other thing that I would say is, I think some of the most productive and radical work is happening at the grassroots level – always has and perhaps always will. So communities coming together to think about what are some of the local issues that they want to see changed in their local areas. That’s not gonna look the same for everyone, but I think just being imaginative and thinking through what are some projects that we could come up with. And I think in Chicago we’ve had a very excellent mentor for how to do that, specifically with Mariame Kaba.

One of the questions I remember when I first started working with her was like, how can we change the ways that media reports on rape and sexual violence? And I was handed this project to come up with a media guide. I was very young, I was younger at the time, but I did it. And that has put me in a trajectory where I started off as someone who believed in prisons, and now I identify as a prison abolitionist. I think that that is an example of how we can transform people and communities – it’s just local projects, like what gaps need to be filled? And people want to do things, and they want to be in a community, and so I think that this gets people together and organize collectively.

The other thing is I think we’re at a moment where we need a lot of political education. Political education is critically important, and one of the things I try and do with my students is this question that Socrates would always ask, and that’s: what is X? Fill in the gap – we need to be asking questions about: what is justice? What do we mean when we say justice? Right now in terms of how it’s defined for us, what do we mean even when we’re talking about abolition?

There are so many thinkers that have written on abolition, and there’s so many ways in which it’s talked about. I think it’s like a term that’s catching currency right now, but I think people always need to just engage in literature and continue reading about the work that people have done previously. And to always engage these concepts and these ideas, because we hear them often, we see them on social media, but that doesn’t mean we actually understand them thoroughly. And so we need to better understand what these concepts mean in order to mobilize that language for our messaging, and also in developing our goals, as to what it is that we want to do and how it is we want to change our society.

a Maria: Well, thank you so much, to both of you.

Maya Schenwar: Thank you!

Claudia Garcia-Rojas: Thank you!

EPILOGUE

a Maria: Abolitionists continue to identify and build on resources that exist among our communities. Chief among them: our resilience and imagination. To this end, the 2017 Allied Media Conference included two network gatherings: No Perfect Victims, in which survivors of violence and their supporters — struggling at intersections of gender violence and criminalization — strategized about how to deepen local efforts and build a long-term transnational agenda through coalition building and cross-movement coordination, as well as Families United For Justice, a growing frontline collective of families affected by police violence, who convened in order to share skills with one another and create a tangible and collective vision of justice and reparations.

The same day of the gatherings, in the rustbelt city of St. Paul, Minnesota, Valerie Castile delivered the following address to a crowd gathered in front of the local courthouse in response to the acquittal of the police officer who murdered her only child, Philando Castile, nearly one year prior.

Valerie Castile: These are some things that you need to know and recognize, there has always been a systemic problem in the state of Minnesota. And me thinking with my common sense that we would get justice in this case, but nevertheless, it never seems to fail us. The system continues to fail black people, and they will continue to fail you all! Like I said, because when this happened with Philando, when they get done with us, they coming for you! For you, for you, and all your interracial children! Y’all are next! And you’ll be standing up here, fighting for justice just as well as I am.

I am so disappointed in the state of Minnesota! My son loved this state. My son loved this city and this city killed my son! And the murderer gets away! Are you kidding me right now!? We’re not evolving as a civilization, we’re devolving! We have taken steps forward, people have died for us to have these rights, and now we’re devolving! We’re going back down to 1969, damn! What is it going to take?!

CREDITS

Kaif Syed: Thanks for tuning in. Check out our website at w-w-w-dot-rustbeltradio-dot-o-r-g. This show was co-produced by the Rustbelt Abolition Radio Team: Andrés, a Maria, David Langstaff, Kaif Syed, and Alejo Stark. Original music by Bad Infinity.