intentions feminism abolition
Thoughts on justice, abolitionist feminism, anarchism and being a better human being.
Content note: There are mentions but no descriptions of assault in this post multiple times. There is a lot of content about the aftermath of dealing with assault.
I'm a big fan of punchy openings but I never know where to begin with my stories of assault. It's a funny thing, how I've told these stories so many times to so many people for so many years, and I still don't really know where to begin, much less how to stop once I've gotten started. I'll spare you the details in the interest of saving me from re-living trauma and also because that isn't the point of this post anyway. In the big picture, the incidents of assault themselves were the smallest part of the story thereafter.
Like a lot of people who have experienced assault, I went to therapy to try to heal. I actually couldn't have afforded it if not for the Crime Victim Assistance Program, and the only reason I had access to the counselling benefits from that was because one of the people who assaulted me got arrested and charged with a crime.
The months after that particular assault were the hardest because apart from being traumatized and depressed and unable to function properly, I kept receiving mail about the court proceedings. The person was released the morning after the arrest on the grounds that he wasn't dangerous enough to be worth the money to confine him. One of the conditions of his release was that he was not to contact me or be in my vicinity again, and to enforce this they had to name me in the document, de-anonymizing me to this stranger. And well, with a name like mine, I can't disappear, even in a city as big as Vancouver. I was terrified and hurt and angry and all I could see at that point was a system that could've kept me safe by confining and punishing someone who had hurt me.
But as I received more mail about the case and as I talked to case workers, I started to discover more. I heard he was dealing with various issues, including homelessness and mental illness and various addictions, and well, at some point I started to find it rather ironic that I was the one who was given access to a year of therapy and money to replace my ruined clothes, while he was given absolutely nothing. Not even the basics - food, shelter, medication.
One of the final pieces of mail I got about this whole incident invited me to submit a victim statement that would be shown in court. It had a very open-ended format where you could write a letter or a poem or draw something, and if it was writing, it would be read out for the person. I didn't end up sending anything in because I didn't know what to say. All I had were questions, and none were ones that he could answer. I felt that he had been harmed by society more than I had by him or anyone, and so how would he be in a place to understand the harm he did to me? And the harm he was experiencing was on such a different scale, so did it even matter? What might he have needed to be in a place to respond to this better? What did I need from him?
I've been in therapy for years now and all I have is more questions. Not just pertaining to this person and imagining what a world would look like if he got as much therapy and food and shelter and support as I have, but more generally - about other assaults that looked completely different.
Another story features a university student like me, who had the basics and more already taken care of, who was good-looking and successful and on scholarship and who (to my knowledge) never had to reckon with any of what he did in any way, let alone in a punitive legal system. Yet another story is a combination of assault and abuse by someone who was very close to me, cared for me a lot, and promised to keep me safe at a vulnerable time for me, but could keep that promise only partially, doing a lot of harm to me at the same time.
I haven't wanted to interact with these people again since removing them from my life, but I do hope they grew. I hope they found what they needed to not harm other people in these ways again, even if it was just the knowledge of what's okay and what's not. In some cases, I was able to tell them. In other cases, someone else did. And in yet other cases, I don't think anyone knew or said anything at all, and I'm not sure how one learns from that.
In thinking about these experiences, the question that has kept coming up for me has been: What would a world look like in which there was enough space for all of us to heal from the pain we experience, and grow from the harms we inflict, separately or together, safely? I centred my healing and in most of these cases (especially the ones involving men), the world was with me and I am grateful for that, but I no longer think my healing needs to be to the exclusion of other people's healing or their growth.
A few weeks ago I virtually attended this fantastic conference on abolitionist feminism, and a lot of what I learned there seemed to directly address this question and it gave me hope. Three ideas stuck with me:
"Abolition feminism cares about safety for everyone, everywhere, all the time. The only way we survive is to see how all of our fights are connected." - Angélica Cházaro
Something about starting with this premise feels correct because it seems to echo my question. It means that when someone harms me, there is space for both of our lives to matter, for both of our safeties to matter. This means there is space for their needs to be addressed as much as mine are, and they are not necessarily incompatible. Under this premise, it is clear that imprisoning someone for my safety or peace of mind is not a globally optimal solution, even if I want to be far away and safe from them.
"I am less interested in labelling oppressors and victims, and more interested in the question: How do we wrest harm out of our communities?" - Treva Lindsey
That's really the question, isn't it? My therapist tells me she's proud of the way I manage to exist in the grey areas of life, and really, I can't imagine any other reaction to my particular set of life experiences. As soon as we peel back a layer in many of my experiences of harm, it becomes clear that the oppressor-victim dichotomy often needs more nuance. What if a person is an oppressor in one way and a victim in another, like several of the people who harmed me? Richie Reseda said it was a "patriarchical paradigm" to split things into a binary - right and wrong, good and bad. Rather than creating these binaries which leave us stuck and unable to move forward, he says, "Abolitionist feminism is about belief in the power of transformation, about leaning into conflict with curiosity and courage and hope."
"We keep us safe." - Zachary Norris
This is one of the central premises of abolition - that we know best how to keep ourselves safe, our communities safe, and that we can't outsource justice to cops or prisons or "the universe," because it is us who must do the work, communally. Kandace Montgomery's vision for an abolitionist future was one where people would "get the care they need and protect themselves from unsafe partners without having to criminalize that person and bring the state into their familyhood." It is about realizing that most of the harm we do and have done to us is from the people close to us, and the solution is, in Richie Reseda's words, "being even more concerned about our choices and how we act with each other."
At this conference, Leigh Goodmark said something that has been rattling around in my head ever since. She said, as a white woman, her whole life, carceral feminism was just feminism. I'm not white, of course, but I have definitely grown up with the same frame. I was reminded of the responses I saw to sexual violence in India when I was a teenager - with folks polarized between victim-blaming on one side, and on the other side, protesters taking to the streets calling for the death penalty and/or chemical castration for rapists. I suppose this felt like a way of taking back control, and when I was younger this was exactly the sort of way I funneled my rage, but it just doesn't feel compatible with who I am anymore. The black and white thinking here is not about whether an act of harm was violent or not, or violent enough or not. The black and white thinking here that I disagree with is that there are no options between death penalties and victim-blaming.
A lot of what I learned and heard at this conference solidified feelings I already had, but it didn't necessarily give me concrete strategies and actions to carry forward in my life. There have been times in my life when I've felt disempowered, and like I needed to invoke carceral systems to re-empower myself, but the more I've thought about it over the years the less that has made sense to me, and I've wanted to learn about alternate ways of dealing with situations both as an individual and at a societal level.
Enter Isis Agora Lovecruft. Now, I already thought they were massively cool but after I read their blog post about anarchist justice, I just have infinitely more respect for them. I highly recommend reading it but the gist is: they tell the stories of two people who raped other people, both of whom were offered anarchist, rehabilitation-focused opportunities for transformative justice. The similarities end there. One participated, grew and changed, apologized to his victims and begged for forgiveness at one point, and was eventually able to convince both his victims and others involved in this process that he was not going to abuse anyone again. The other person retaliated with threats, verbally expressed that he was trying to ruin his victims' lives, and never apologized.
Despite the difference between these two people, and despite the very important fact that they themself were directly harmed by the second, Lovecruft stands firm in their beliefs - that they can't condone violence and threats against this second person, that prison is not a solution (for various reasons outlined in the post), and that he needs help. All these positions are evidence-based and come with links to data in their post.
There are two things I got out of this post: 1, that I admire their unwavering commitment to their moral system (anarchism and transformative justice, in this case), and 2, that they provide, with the case of the first of the two rapists, a concrete example of what such a transformative justice process looks like in practice.
The safety of the victims is critical and they are centred instead of disempowered: they get the final say. But at the same time, there is this fundamental belief in the person's ability to change and someday convince his victims that he would not harm anyone in that way again. Everyone in the situation (including the victims, importantly!) holds this belief. This story offers me a lot of hope as someone who has been a victim. It also offers me a lot of hope because the person who harmed others isn't just thrown away.
A critical point to remember about this story and this process, though, is that we all have a role to play in what transformative justice looks like. In the first case where they weren't a victim, Lovecruft and others did a lot of work and invested time and effort into this person's rehabilitation program. They did this for the people they were in community with (which included the person and their victims, as I understand), and in this case the community was an anarchist collective. This is conceptually similar to initiatives like the Policing Alternatives & Diversion Initiative that I learned about at the abolition feminism conference. The people who are a part of this initiative define community more broadly, based on geography, and help reduce arrest and incarceration by helping address the immediate needs (hot food, clean clothing) of people experiencing poverty, substance abuse and/or mental health issues.
So I've been asking myself whether I would have it in me to do that for someone I'm in community with, and also what communities I am a part of in that sense. I can and would certainly do it for the people who are close to me, but beyond that I think the honest answer is that I am not brave or principled enough to invest the energy and time.
All of this effort to help people address their needs and prevent them from being harmed or from harming others, all of it is a labour of love. And frankly, while I don't think I have that level of love for a broader group of people than my chosen family, I think it's beautiful that these other folks have these broader definitions of communities. Maybe it's something I want, even.
And this model of the anarchist collective and transformative justice in all its forms provides an alternate way of living life, of being in community with each other, one not bereft of consequences but where there's actually hope and the possibility of change, of moving forward.
But again, critically, it relies on people deciding that we owe each other something for whatever definition of community we use - that when there is a harm, there is an important role that can be played by the folks around the situation who aren't directly harmed.
One of my favourite quotes is this Proust one that goes: "Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom." I think about this quote often because I feel like I have had incredible luck with a lot of the people I choose to have in my life.
One of the greatest gifts I have ever gotten from anyone was when an ex and I slowly started to rebuild a friendship after many months of radio silence after the breakup. We spent years talking about the relationship, the breakup, what we did wrong, how we could be better. I remember a lot of bitterness initially in how we each talked about the other. It took time to find the tenderness we had had for each other before, but fundamentally, I think we were both committed to trying to grow and heal in the aftermath of that relationship. We came together to do that, and I think it's rare to have that happen and moreover for it to be successful, but we really both did a great job of listening to the other, understanding and accepting our mistakes, and trying to do better for future partners. This person remains my second oldest friend.
The cornerstones of my closest relationships with people are radical vulnerability and holding each other accountable, honest, and to higher standards. Whenever shit hits the fan, I am reminded that these qualities exist in my relationships in abundance, and I am so grateful for it. We are comfortable questioning decisions and opinions and words and actions. It means telling your friends you think they can hold themselves to a higher standard when they're hurting people and it means hearing them tell you they think you're needy and insecure and it means each of you telling the other they're being a shit friend when they are, and then trying to do something about it in all these cases. (All of this has actually happened.)
As an aside, what's not omnipresent in my relationships is fancy terminology. Having conversations about what it means to be in a strong friendship and how to help each other grow doesn't really require therapy words or words like abolition feminism or anarchism or any of it. To use another fancy word, what's more important is praxis, or what people actually do in their lives. Terminology is cool and certainly a useful tool for me to get access to more spaces and learn what people cleverer than me have to say about the nebulous thoughts I have, but it's not a prerequisite to my friendship and I would never want it to be.
So now we come to the main question this blog post was supposed to address: what do we owe each other? This is only the title of this post in the sense that it's a question that's been roiling in my head for years. It is a question I want to answer for myself, and in true linguist fashion, I have no prescriptivist agenda for you to be exactly like me. Deciding what I owe others will let me commit to giving them that, allow me to be held accountable when I don't give people what I decided I owed them, and it is also a way of communicating to other people how I would like to be treated and held accountable for my harms.
Part of what I owe everyone is my beliefs. I believe without exception that no one is irredeemable and that everyone is capable of change. I firmly believe this about everyone, including all the people who have ever harmed me, however egregiously. This belief stems from having made mistakes myself and having learned things and grown and improved, and if I'm able to do that, well, then everyone is able to do that, and if I believe I am owed the patience and opportunity to learn and grow, then I owe that to others too.
Another important thing I owe everyone is basic respect and valuing their existence and needs as human beings. When confronted with emotions of anger and hurt and betrayal, it is so easy to, as my friend EJ puts it, "accidentally become a carceral bastard." But this is a thing I am actively working against, as are they. It seems to me that in the absence of love, we are more willing to throw people away, but I don't want to live my life treating people as disposable. This means wanting people who have hurt me to have their needs addressed and to have communities that hold them close and hold them accountable, so that they get better. The accountability bit is key; communities that make excuses for bad behaviour or allow harms to continue are not okay. But accountability can definitely co-exist with holding people close, rather than banishing them.
I also believe that people need help figuring out when and why and how they're fucking up, and help with becoming better. I know this also from my own life and the familiar experience of being told that if I didn't magically know what I'd done or said that was wrong, then that was even worse than just doing or saying the bad thing (imagine for a second, how this goes down for an autistic person, especially in childhood).
When people have directly harmed me, I believe I owe them the information - the when, why and how. I do not believe I necessarily owe them my presence after that or my help with getting better. My safety, security and mental peace are not things I am willing to sacrifice in order to help someone who has harmed me. This means nothing changes unless the person decides to change, and/or other people who remain in their life work to help them get better.
The role of these "other people" is also my role in situations where I have not been directly harmed. I see a huge opportunity (rather than an obligation) to affect change by being one of the people who helps someone stop fucking up, in whatever capacity. It is a way of showing up for the entire community, not just the person fucking up, because it is also a form of indirectly helping people who were harmed and people who might otherwise be harmed in the future.
The only remaining question is: how far does my willingness to take this opportunity extend? How much will I commit to, as something I owe other people, and how much will I decide I just can't do?
It feels quite easy for me to commit to helping my chosen family get better, with honesty and patience, in situations where I'm not a harmed party and my own safety is not at risk. I think we already all have a demonstrated history of doing this for each other, often even when we have harmed each other.
The harder thing is extending this commitment, one of work and energy and time - to not-close friends, to community members, to strangers, to worse harms than "fuckups," to people who don't seem to want to change, to people who have harmed me directly and badly, and so on. I don't think I can commit to consistently doing this just yet, but I have great respect for the abolitionists and anarchists I have encountered so far who do. And as I keep reading and thinking about this question, I wonder if perhaps the next post I write about this will be me deciding that that too is something we all owe each other.
Beka for the pointer to the Isis Lovecruft post. Everyone quoted in my livetweet of the abolition feminism conference. My therapists, obviously. My small army of friends, but in particular for this post: E, K, L, M, O.