Survival as Transformative Justice: “Live and Work and Be Free and Heal”
Transformative Justice is not just replacing the cops. It’s a completely different worldview.
In these edited highlights from an episode of their “How to Survive the End of the World” podcast, hosts adrienne maree brown and Autumn Brown talk to Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, veteran activists and editors of Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement (AK Press, 2020). The book is a go-to manual for transformative justice, or “TJ,” a movement that aims to create an entire ecosystem of community alternatives to calling the police.
Autumn: How do y’all define transformative justice? And what do you believe to be the conditions that actually make transformative justice possible?
Ejeris: I think of transformative justice as a framework that includes strategies on how we prevent and intervene and hold people accountable and heal from violence and harm. And also how we transform the social context and conditions that fuel and feed a culture of violence. And how we do all of those things without relying on state systems—police, prisons.
Leah: I don’t think that transformative justice always has to mean that the perpetrator transforms in a deep way. For years going back, we would talk about this idea that there’s no place to throw people away. If someone is violent or abusive or rapes, we want to have as part of the work a deep transformation with that person: “What made you do that? And how do you change so that doesn’t happen again?”
That’s incredibly important. However, I’m coming from more of a harm reduction place where I often describe TJ as “anything that creates more safety, justice, or healing for people who have survived violence, abuse, or harm that doesn’t rely on the cops or courts.” It could be that the perpetrator transforms, or it could just be that the survivor got out alive.
Emphasizing transforming perpetrators—that’s not wrong, but sometimes people feel like, “But they didn’t. So I guess we failed.” But the survivors are alive, the survivor got out of the relationship. The survivor was able to set up structures where they were able to live and work and be free and heal. And those are wins.
I’m a long-term survivor of childhood sexual abuse. And for most of my life, I’ve sat with the fact that my abuse perpetrators are probably never going to say they’re sorry or admit what they did. I’ve wondered, “Does that mean I failed?” A really good friend of mine said, “Think about it this way. Your life is your justice. Look at the life you created for yourself. That’s justice. And it doesn’t depend on them ever admitting what they did or not.”
I helped reclaim my life and my community through non-state solutions, through my friends. I think self-defense is TJ. If you have ever told somebody hassling someone at the bus stop, “Hey, can you shut up?” that’s TJ, you know?
Building community safety strategies and squads proactively is transformative justice. Creating resources for mental health disability, for emotional crisis, that don’t rely on calling 911 is transformative justice. It’s a really big ecosystem. It’s not just: You take out the cops and replace them with something that fits in the same spot, but it’s a different color. It’s a completely different worldview.
Ejeris: We know that there are so many conditions that create a more violent society. And for every person who caused harm, there are people in their lives who looked away. So I think it’s also about the role of community and what are all of these other roles?
I have a history of doing this work with stranger-based violence, which is complex. Because you’re like, “What’s the relationship?” But there’s so much of the work that’s actually building relationships between people and building relationships between communities because people change and we change conditions in connection. What makes TJ more possible is also practice, right? We practice this work, we practice learning, we practice deepening. We learn from our mistakes.
It’s pretty impossible to commit to TJ without also committing to the relationship-building work and the small and big parts of practicing transformation.
I got asked to apply for a job at the Audre Lorde Project where they had a really long history of doing work around police violence. There’d been a series of attacks on queer and trans people of color, mostly Black and Latinx folks, in central Brooklyn. There weren’t a lot of models for stranger-based work, and that’s often what’s happening in many forms of homophobic and transphobic violence.
Through that process of literally being on my street and recruiting friends and loved ones, and outreach in the club at 3 a.m., I started to understand myself as a survivor and understand a broader sense of the work, and through building conversations and strategies with other folks in community around how we were going to keep each other safe. What do we do if we’re running from violence? What do we do if someone’s been attacked and we want to support them? How do we get each other home safely?
Leah: I was in a relationship that became abusive physically, with somebody who was a movement comrade, who was my lover, who had already done time, was a working-class, queer kid of color, and who was my immigration sponsor. So I was just like, “Well, I can’t call the cops on you because you’ll be arrested and I’ll be deported. So I guess I’m going to figure something else out.” So many people have a version of that coming into TJ. Everyone I know who co-created TJ got into it because we were survivors.
I’ve heard Ejeris say, “I was a queer Black kid trying to get home alive.” And yeah, I was a queer Brown femme trying to stay alive. That’s where it came from.
Sometimes you hear people saying, ”This has never been done before. There are no models.” One thing that [Ejeris and I] were adamant about was, “No, we’ve been doing this!” You can go back to 2005 to Safe OUTside the System, which Ejeris was co-leading in New York, to all the many different people who’ve already done this work, role models to learn from and study and emulate. There are more TJ success stories than we think.
I want many people to write many, many different TJ how-to-do-it books with examples, or zines or podcasts or whatever. I want some things to come out that are both documenting what we’ve already done and documenting the works-in-progress that are going to be happening in this moment of abolition.
adrienne: Transformative justice really is about community. So thank you so much for everything that you’re offering us and our movements right now. And for leading with a bad-ass, no-holds-barred way of dealing with it directly. We’re really grateful to be in the same time as y’all.
adrienne maree brown is a writer, editor, activist, social justice facilitator, coach, speaker, and doula. Her books include Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, which she wrote and edited, and Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements, which she co-edited. She is a YES! contributing editor.