By Alix Johnson
In five years with the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, I have seen folks reaching toward accountability in different ways. We haven’t put out a definition or set of criteria for an “accountability process,” so people come asking for what it is they really want. It might be expressing their hurt to a parent who failed to protect them. It might be a safety plan for a vulnerable child. It might be a space to reflect on and try to make amends for violence they have done in the past. It is rare, in fact, for it to be an “accountability process” in the way many of us imagine in our heads: everyone in the same room, talking to and hearing each other, expressing their own and meeting each others’ needs.
That’s the romantic image some of us have, anyway. On the other hand, folks who’ve been through such a process – as survivors, bystanders, or people who have harmed – often feel burned or exhausted by this ideal. What if I’m ready to meet before you are? What if you and I need different things? Even if we are both ready and willing, what if we trigger one another again? What if everything goes as expected and at the end we still don’t feel good, or “done”? It can be immensely powerful for a survivor of violence and the person who harmed them to be in relationship, communicate, and share space. But it is not the only way people want accountability, and make it for themselves.
When we distinguish “transformative” from “restorative” justice, we say that restorative justice is about “restoring” relationships and transformative justice is about transforming them – often it’s not enough to restore the relationship to what it was when violence happened, because that relationship allowed the violence to occur. “Restoring” a relationship implies a coming together. Transforming one doesn’t have to. I believe it’s useful to see coming together not as the end goal, but as a tool, among others, that might serve along the way.
When it comes to crafting community responses to violence, we are in such an exciting and terrifying time: our options are not neatly laid out in front of us, but scattered around in second-hand stories, half-forgotten memories, and the occasional zine. Holding onto this ideal of a meeting between the person who did violence and the person they harmed can make us feel like if we can’t make that happen (we can’t organize it, can’t tolerate it, or can’t hold it well) then we can’t do anything at all. But we can, and we have to. We do, all the time.
We might start from questions like: What does accountability mean? What does accountability look like? How does accountability feel? This is not to say that accountability can be anything – we push folks to think about their actions and impact, the amends they owe, and the changes they need to make. We ask people to consider what they need for their safety and healing, and what it would take for lasting transformation to take place. We ask them what might get in the way of accountability – what experiences or memories they might need to revisit, what beliefs or messaging they might need to unlearn. But it is to acknowledge that accountability means different things to different people, and those specificities should shape the process and its goals.
For example: I have heard survivors of violence express that accountability would mean having their experiences validated; feeling a shift in their community spaces; having a coherent narrative of what happened to them. Sometimes, it is important for these things to work in relation to the person who did the violence; other times, it’s not. Sometimes it is, but that isn’t possible – or at least not in the way they envision, right now. But sometimes there are other ways to get a piece of what they need. Having supported or facilitated conversations with loved ones might feel validating. Having a meeting at their work, school, or organizing space might start to shift dynamics that allowed violence to take place. Exchanging letters or other mediated communication with the person who did violence might allow a survivor to articulate their experience in a helpful way. These are actions all of us are capable of supporting right now.
I have heard people who bore witness to violence describe accountability as expressing support for survivors; holding clear and consistent boundaries amongst themselves; learning the skills they need to better intervene. An organization might show their support for survivors through a collective statement, or simply through daily actions of interdependent care. A family might learn to express and respect boundaries by practicing open communication and consent. A group of friends might prepare themselves to prevent and stop violence by taking a course in mediation, de-escalation, or medical care. These, too, are things that many of us can do
This doesn’t mean that everyone is always satisfied – sometimes folks don’t get what they want – or what they want changes – and it can be painful and unfair. But starting from a contextual, not a prescriptive understanding of what accountability means and looks like gets us closer to making it in real, if imperfect ways.
The thing about opening up accountability – seeing it as specific asks and actions we can all pursue and seek support in (not as one predetermined course) – is that it allows us to practice outside of intense moments of violence. What does accountability mean in your workplace? What does it look like with your friends? How do you ask for it when you don’t have it? What does it look like when you’re not showing up? How can you get support to do better? I am learning, slowly, to ask these questions in my life. We try hard to practice them in the BATJC. Because we’ve found that flexing these muscles – taking accountability beyond the “process” – helps us prepare to meet the more intense moments of violence with creativity, alignment, and heart.