When People Who Harm Don’t Consent to Transformative Justice

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The reality we must face is that even when liberation comes — people who cause harm may not choose to transform. Consenting to the process and commitment of transformation is difficult even when love, community, and resources are present and available. Everyone will not make the choice to be accountable and transform themselves. And we will have to learn how to adapt when people in our communities choose otherwise.

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.” Transformative justice frameworks are a part of the revolutionary work cultivated by Black, Indigenous, and people of color to dismantle the root of abuse and violence — systemic oppression. This framework offers us a future where we are whole and valuable rather than disposable. So of course, those of us who are committed to liberation want to utilize transformative justice frameworks whenever possible because we know harm WILL happen, and we want our communities to thrive. But an issue we have yet to address succinctly is when someone who has harmed will not consent to transformation, and there is still an expectation and push from our communities to make transformative justice happen anyway.

Transformative justice is not a cage for us to die in. Some of our traumas, conflict, and situations of harm will not align with transformative justice processes. We must be prepared to not know all the answers when we can’t make people consent and commit to transforming their harms. We must be prepared to navigate uncomfortable repercussions because there aren’t enough options to support survivors and those who are harmed. When situations arise where transformative justice is not available, appropriate, or consented to (by the person who harmed) — we have to make room for the complicated, messy, public, agitating, war-waging, and deadly responses to harm.

The onus of transformation should not be on those who were harmed. And if those who cause harm do not consent to transformative justice processes— let’s hold survivors more gently for the blood that will inevitably be shed. Sometimes people who cause harm will be killed. Sometimes people who cause harm will get their ass beat. Sometimes people who cause harm will be publicly shamed. Sometimes people who cause harm will be stripped of resources or be exiled. And often, these decisions are not made initially or consensually by survivors. Rather, these decisions are often made out of desperation, lack of options, burnout, compassion fatigue from overextending to those who have harmed them, and in response to those who have harmed failing to be accountable.

Sometimes the amplification of harm doesn’t directly impact the person who caused harm — but rather intimately affects those who were harmed. Sometimes survivors remove themselves from space, exiling their own livelihood. Sometimes survivors self-harm, become destructive, and emerge as entirely different people. Sometimes survivors don’t survive. We should hold all of these possibilities in tension as we continue to recognize that these realities will exist regardless of transformative justice.

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.” This is deeply true. But to be clear, the context of this passage is through the practice of engaging a community accountability process. When someone does not consent to transformation, how do we hold the nuances of punishment and consequence for perpetuating or enacting harm? Have we arrived there yet?

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 were given within the context of transformative justice processes.) How do these definitions change when the opportunities for consequence and boundaries are not applicable? How does the possibility of punishment get held with care if the people who harmed us never commit to accountability and transformation? If we are all in different communities, with different embodiments of liberation, how will we draw the line between what is punishment and what is a natural consequence for causing harm outside of transformative justice? The truth is — we won’t.

We must disrupt the idea and hope for an accountability utopia. Not only is it unrealistic for our vastness as human beings who deserve a world of possibility where violence is no longer cultural and systemic, but it also inadvertently puts the onus back on survivors (and those who cause harm) to adapt to one kind of accountability. Anything that is expected to be a utopia for all of our communities would inherently mimic the rigidity and one-size-fits-all model of the prison industrial complex. We cannot project transformative justice frameworks onto survivors who are often surviving people who are not committed to transformative justice. We cannot make anyone transform themselves or their harm. We also cannot limit transformation to one idea or embodiment when we are of different communities, identities, cultures, and experiences. This may mean that survivors and communities may utilize consequences AND punishments that everyone does not find value or validity in.

When the people who harm us do not consent to transformation — it leaves us open for more questions that may not have answers. Do we just let it go? Is it inherently carceral to want them to suffer if they’re not committed to addressing the suffering they created? Does it make us less aligned with liberation to want our harm-doers to feel the impacts of the harm they cause? What are the “right” consequences for someone who doesn’t consent to transformation? Is there room for us to make decisions that may lean towards punishment? Is there grace given to those who want to punish those who have harmed because their opportunity for accountability was denied?

When I chose to fist-fight my abuser, I was so deeply fearful that I strayed from my commitment to Black liberation. If I was really about liberation, I wouldn’t want to physically fight my abuser — I would want them to transform, right? But the reality was: a.) my abuser had a history of abuse and has already gone through a community accountability process before for the same harm, b.) my abuser is an emotionally abusive manipulator who could’ve been given the platform to continue their abuse through a community accountability process, c.) I tried to hold them accountable privately and they declined, and d.) I don’t give a fuck about their transformation. After researching, conferring with my community, and processing my feelings, I felt like there was no other option for a consequence that made sense for what they did to me. But I also realize in hindsight that this particular type of consequence — something that many Black communities have utilized to navigate harm and conflict — could also be seen as punitive to someone else. The nuances of how we define consequences has the ability to divide those who see transformative justice as the “right” way to address harm, and those of us who know that we need more variety of options for survivors and the different circumstances we’re navigating.

We have to make room for the reality that everyone will not come to the table. And survivors will survive how they have to. How survivors survive these circumstances should be less about being “right” or “perfect” in our trauma, and more about the lack of options that exist for surviving harm. Every response will not translate the same to everyone, and it shouldn’t. We are all in different communities, with different cultures and identities that shape how we see accountability, transformation, consequence, punishment, and beyond.

The truth is that we cannot control or predict how our trauma will show up. We also cannot predict how those who harm us will show up through our trauma. What we find valid as survivors is complicated, and sometimes does not align with our values beyond that trauma. What we determine as a response as survivors is deeply contingent upon the impact of trauma, our circumstances, our communities, and those who harm us. But retribution and punishment will not be eradicated from our decision making if there aren’t more options to support survivors who’s harm-doer’s do not consent to transformation or when transformative justice just doesn’t apply.

***There are no right or wrong answers in this work — only more opportunities for growth. Here’s to growing deeper and wider together as we figure this shit out as we go.***

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