Transformative Justice Can Only Exist If It’s Black

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Mia Mingus of the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective defines transformative justice as “a way to respond to violence within our communities in ways that 1.) don’t create more harm and violence and 2.) actively work to cultivate the very things that we know will prevent violence, such as accountability, healing, trust, connection, safety.”

How can Transformative Justice ever be a multiracial framework when ‘violence’ is globally defined as Blackness/ Black people? How could we ever address the roots of abuse when the carceral foundation of our society is designed for the purpose of hunting and killing Black people? How could the intimacies we share in relationships be transformed if we aren’t committed to protecting Black people (Black life) as the ultimate undertaking for accountability?

If Transformative Justice doesn’t start with ending anti-Blackness, it’s inherently a failed project of white supremacy that will never unearth the climate of abuse, but instead perpetuate it. And therefore, we all still die. There is no possibility of a culture of accountability in a world where Black death is the foundation. When the soil is anti-Blackness, only death grows. When the ground is built from Black cadavers, the only way to freedom is centering Black life.

Questions this essay addresses:

  • How is violence defined as Blackness/ Black people?

Violence is Defined as Blackness

The premise for the enslavement and colonization of African people was the fact that non-Black people felt like it. They mirrored their own savage soullessness into their projections onto Black people. There is literally no purpose, no function, no reason, no logic, and no goal of anti-Blackness but to create a world where Black death is the only shared language.

“Black” became a confinement and definition of those seen as ‘other.’ We became ‘Black,’ and non-Black people by default cultivated an identity that made them un-Black and always in response to what Blackness was/ wasn’t. ‘Black’ became what we know as the animalistic, the un-human, the grotesque, the abominable, the spook, the nigger, the predator, the hunter and the hunted, the monstrosities of non-Black people’s imaginations, the violence to rid the world of, and the worst form of being.

Rev. Traci Blackmon said “It is impossible to be unarmed when my Blackness is the weapon you fear.” In this world, in our current society — what we know to be ‘violent’ is Black people/ Blackness. The very basis for state sanctioned policing and safety commissions are based in Slave Patrols to hunt niggas/ the other/ Blackness. The very purpose of building prisons was to confine Black people. The hunting of Black people has always been the precedent for forms of safety that we’ve inherited and continue to negotiate with. The basis for abolition in any context is always about freeing Blackness, or maintaining the noose around it. Every cage, every form of carcerality, every form of cultural and structural abuse (that also shapes our interpersonal) is based on killing Black people because Black is violence, and violence is Black. Therefore, we can also conclude that Black people can never be seen as nonviolent or innocent in this world.

When we navigate systemic oppression, Black people’s responses to that oppression are inherently viewed as violent even as we’re always the target/ victim. As a society, we are viewing Black people’s responses as the same as the state’s. “You can’t fight violence with violence,” some proclaim as Black death is quotidian. Our responses being equated with anti-Blackness not only assumes that Black people are just as violent as the systems/ non-Black people we’re fighting — it also gaslights us into believing we must achieve nonviolence to be free (and healed).

There is no access to nonviolence in this world for Black people as we can never be nonviolent to the imagination of non-Blackness, and the practice of nonviolence would never disrupt the illogic of anti-Blackness. Instead, it’s imperative that we expand and grow our nuances of our perceptions and definitions of ‘violence’ in order to transform our interpersonal relationships. Transformative Justice is rooted in addressing systems of oppression that create more abuse and harm — in order to effectively do this, we must start with Blackness.

If Black people are considered the most dangerous within the hierarchy of violence to the non-Black gaze, how could we ever pursue healing justice as a multiracial commitment? We can’t. And we shouldn’t.

A Brief History of Transformative Justice

Transformative Justice seeks to find community based accountability practices that exist without and outside of the state to transform the safety of survivors and transform harm (rather than perpetuate it). Generation Five developed this term and formalized this framework with the help and legacy of other organizers and visionaries who cultivated practical forms of abolition.

“The term “Transformative Justice” emerged directly out of Generation FIVE’s work on child sexual abuse as the term that best describes the dual process of securing individual justice while transforming structures of social injustice that perpetuate such abuse. While we developed this model as a response to child sexual abuse, we imagine Transformative Justice as an adaptable model that can and will be used to confront many other forms of violence and the systems of oppression they enable and require.”

Transformative Justice in commitment and practice wasn’t always deemed ‘transformative justice’ when we start to string together the years of organizing work folks have done to cultivate community accountability through abolition. Yet, it is the language that has stuck with us in current movement and social spaces. And we must grapple with the reality that this term ‘transformative justice’ and those who developed it to encompass our abolitionist work have limited the possibilities of its functionality.

The vision of Transformative Justice has expanded beyond the original focus on child sexual abuse, but the framework (in original form and the expanded form) never reasserts that the foundation to these systems of oppression and this culture of abuse is rooted specifically in anti-Blackness. The history of organizing that has led us to ‘Transformative Justice’ as a language is based in the work of Black abolitionist organizers — yet, Blackness isn’t centralized or named explicitly. Abolition is literally developed from slavery. Yet, the foundation of why the state cannot be trusted to heal our communities isn’t cited explicitly within Blackness.

What is healing if the wound is never addressed?
What is abolition without Black people?
What is liberation without Black life?

This only reaffirms that our understanding of our relationships and intimacies are not being properly contextualized in an environment rooted in Black death. If ‘transformative justice’ refuses to be rooted in Blackness, it will continue to be a weapon against Black people and therefore everyone else.

Perpetuations of Anti-Blackness within Mainstream Transformative Justice

First up: The hypercritique of ‘Cancel Culture.’ Cancel Culture has been the site of a lot of anti-Black projections. From saying that digital call-out’s are rooted in carcerality and punishment, to naming call-out culture as a product of whiteness — there is a lot of anti-Black misogyny grounding these assessments.

Cancel Culture in its basic form is a call to action to divest (or shift power) from abusers and harm-doers in positions of power and/or who remain unaccountable in private spaces. This as a praxis has existed long before this language was developed. Calling-out as a means for transformation and shifting power is rooted in Black feminism, led by Black gender oppressed people. (i.e. Mute R. Kelly, #MeToo Movement, any attempt at civil rights/ end to state violence, etc.) But like everything within anti-Blackness, what started as a praxis within Black feminism quickly became co-opted as a tool of white supremacy to reverse + homogenize the roles of victim/ offender.

Now most of the narratives around Cancel Culture within the public discourse are dominated by critiques (including critiques from social justice movement leaders and transformative justice practitioners) instead of the safety and power it offers to victims and communities. Here are some reasons why the divestment of calling out seems like an attempt to employ more anti-Blackness and shame towards victims:

  • The critiques around call-out culture are never grounded in the reality that victims are pushed into silence, community isolation, fear, and are often punished long before they come forward.

These realities actually only amplify anti-Blackness because we expect that immediate victims will be the leaders of transformation before we create the conditions for them to thrive. In the same pattern, this is how we see Black people. We want Black people to intervene in our prescribed deaths while the world expects us to survive silently and nonviolently. Then in turn, society asks us to teach everyone how to keep us safe while we’re bleeding out. We either want victims to survive, or we don’t. We either want Black people to live, or we don’t. We can’t ask people to fight for their life and then get mad when they ask for livable conditions.

The second example of how mainstream ideals of Transformative Justice have perpetuated anti-Blackness is the way in which there’s a belief that responses deemed ‘violent’ or defined as ‘punishment’ will never be a valid or transformative consequence for abuse/ harm.

Specifically, consequences vs. punishment is one the most distinguishable factors of the practice of transformative justice. The very basis of TJ is that a.) in order to affirm the safety of the survivor and the integrity of the community, there is a commitment to intervening the perpetuation of carcerality/ violence within the accountability process to transform the harm, and b.) the process seeks to address the systems of oppression that enable more abuse.

In Fumbling Towards Repair, Mariame Kaba and Shira Hassan write: “Punishment is passive — it happens to someone. It does not require taking responsibility or transformation. Accountability is actually harder because it requires real transformation — accountability is active.” Kaba and Hassan define punishment as ‘suffering, pain, or loss that serves as retribution’ and consequence as ‘the results or effects of an action or condition.

These definitions will be complicated by:

  • who you ask

I made this chart of common types of examples used for consequences vs. punishments used within our current mainstream (multi-racial) understanding of Transformative Justice:

A pink square with text that compares consequences and punishments within mainstream transformative justice.
A pink square with text that compares consequences and punishments within mainstream transformative justice.

While some of these examples offer nuance, some of these examples deemed as ‘punishment’ imply that they can never be a.) a consequential outcome or b.) transform our relationships. Call-out’s transform. Physical responses transform. Vigilantism transforms. Death transforms.

We perpetuate anti-Blackness by having rigid definitions around punishment because we associate them with the definition of ‘violence’ whiteness has given us. Violence is more complicated than this. And violence isn’t the end/ death of possibility, love, transformation, or connection.

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For example, vigilante justice. Generation Five includes this assessment on vigilante justice:

Vigilante violence is an act of punishment out of an emotional response, usually with no intention of transforming people or shifting the conditions — of which bystanders are a part — that allow for violence to occur. Vigilante violence is most easily directed at members of the community who are already socially or otherwise vulnerable; rarely does vigilante violence touch those who collude with the violence in families, networks and communities or the public systems and institutions that allow the violence to continue.”

This is a perfect example of how ‘violence’ can be misused to assume that a.) we all have a choice in violence (we don’t) and b.) that all violence is “bad” and doesn’t work to transform relationships. The foundation of this society is Black death. Black people are seen as violent, and we will remain violent no matter how we fight for our freedom here. This alone complicates what we deem as violence, when we choose violence, if violence has utility, and how we respond to violence.

Generation Five names that vigilante violence is “this kind of violence traps us in a cycle that equates power with domination.” Our society is designed in domination where the subjugated are Black people. There is no morality or commitment to nonviolence that protects Black people in a world that illogically has decided we must die for everyone else to live. Therefore, domination is required to out-do our oppressors and out-imagine our way out of this world. Instead of demonizing violence as a tool, let’s broaden our perspectives on how violence operates across the spectrum of embodied values for a liberatory world.

‘Violence’ Cannot Be Confined to Anti-Blackness or Morality

We should never limit our realities, our embodiments, our imaginations, our relationships, or our possibilities to the cages of anti-Blackness.

Some of us preach ‘end violence’ without the context that ending violence will require violence. Many of us believe that using violence against violence creates a continuity of anti-Blackness and carcerality. But violence is required for our freedom as Black people because the alternative is our death. Where do we distinguish what violence we’re willing to navigate, utilize, dismantle, and transform? It starts with acknowledging that violence must be radicalized and nuanced in the first place.

To differentiate the different ways violence operates, here are three nonexclusive categories of violence: necessary violence, prescribed violence, and consequential violence.

  • Necessary violence is what MUST happen as a means to intervene or deescalate immediate trauma/ harm/ anti-Blackness (this is what must happen to end anti-Blackness — non-Black people will die and blood will be shed).
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Additionally, there isn’t a function of using morality to limit these responses, rather the focus should be intention and purpose of the violence. What utility does this violence have? Is it to subjugate? Is it to kill for no reason? Is it project insecurity and shrink the people around you? Is it for survival and a means to ensure safety? Is it a response to a world that is designed to kill you?

Morality is carcerality. The confines of what is good vs. evil will always be subjective, but the climate is shaped by seeing evil as Blackness/ darkness/ fatness/ other/ nigger. There is no way to reshape morality as a compass for our commitments in this world. There is also no function to using morality as a measure of value for what transforms and moves us as complex people. Because there is no world where everyone would or should agree.

We have already publicly and privately grappled with the complicated realities that all violences aren’t the same. For example, we understand that all forms of assault do not look the same, and therefore require different responses based on the survivor’s needs and the circumstance. We understand that killing in self-defense is not the same as someone intentionally attempting to kill you.

Often, we understand certain violences when we decide that the story is compelling or understandable *enough* for us to find humanity in it. For example, Cyntoia Brown. There were mass campaigns to free Cyntoia after she was incarcerated as a sexually abused teen for killing her rapist and trafficker in self-defense. But juxtapose this support to movement-wide conversations around using physical responses to abusers — and we’re landlocked on an island of ‘transformative justice’ that says accountability shouldn’t recreate more “violence” (or that physical responses cannot transform relationships).

We’re doing a disservice to Black people, especially Black victims/ survivors, when we make rigid definitions around what is transformative in a world where the only option is: die or fight to die slower. Violence will never be eradicated, because violence isn’t one-dimensional nor is it inherently a means to perpetuate abuse. Our fight is designing a world where Black death isn’t the foreground to our relationships. Our commitment is redefining how we see violence, how we intervene violence, how we lessen violence as a love language, how we transform violence, how we give nuance to violence, how we redefine violence through our own Black imagination.

We should acknowledge that Blackness is always the question and the answer in every situation of violence/ harm/ abuse because the foreground to our relationships is anti-Blackness. The reasons why none of our relationships and intimacies could never thrive in this world is because the climate, the soil, the air, the culture is Black death. We must start there. Our individual and collective commitment to Black death is the site of transformation we are searching for. If we seek to heal our relationships and ourselves, we must invest in Black life. Until we unearth anti-Blackness and rid our gardens of Black death — only more death will bloom.

Takeaways:

  • ‘Violence’ can never be confined to anti-Blackness. If it is — then we’ve already lost this fight for a world where transformative justice and healthy community accountability are possible.

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