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What Does Accountability Look Like Without Punishment?

When most people are introduced to abolition, they first want to know how prison-industrial-complex abolitionists propose handling violence in a world without police or prisons. These conversations often become extreme: What about rape, murder, and hate crimes? What if the victim were a member of your family? Though it might not seem this way, we already have many choices to consider when reacting to violence, but society urges us to make the same choice over and over again: Call the police, demand vengeance, and hide “evil” people away in prisons. What would happen if we made a different choice? Abolitionists Josie Duffy Rice and Mariame Kaba have been instrumental in imagining what accountability—not punishment—would look like for communities that see harm as an everyday occurrence if we saw people as whole human beings instead of categorizing them as “good” or “evil.”

This isn’t necessarily easy work, because vengeance can feel good, and accountability, forgiveness, and growth can be painful, but that doesn’t make the work any less worthwhile. By exploring and engaging the different choices, we open ourselves up to the possibility of a world where our so-called justice system isn’t built around the worst-case scenario. If we commit to abolishing death-making institutions (as Kaba calls them) and instead build those that are life-giving, we might not be so married to revenge and punishment. We could acknowledge and sit with the fact that we all cause harm and that no system will prevent that. Instead, we could think up imaginative ways to prevent and deal with harm—ways that don’t exacerbate it. In this conversation, Kaba and Rice discuss how we can move toward this goal, beginning with being accountable to our immediate communities.—Reina Sultan

Josie Duffy Rice: I went to one of the smaller sessions you were running at the Building Accountable Communities in 2019, and we had a talk about what accountability means. You were like, “Let’s talk about a real-life situation.” The situation was: You’re in your apartment, and you hear a domestic conflict happening downstairs. What do you do? It was such an effective way to bring home the importance of thinking through some of the more complicated questions about abolition. Is that a question you normally ask when you’re facilitating?

Mariame Kaba: Yes, I use that example when I’m facilitating workshops. Nearly all of us have had some experience where violence is happening around us and we have to make a choice. We can figure out a way to intervene, or we can choose to have no reaction at all. Both of those are choices. You’ve made a decision that you’re not going to do anything, and that puts us square in the middle of having to reconcile our values with our actions. I also ask this question because every time I talk about prison-industrial-complex abolition, the visceral reaction is, “But what about: insert a form of violence that folks feel like they have to confront.”

I find it interesting that that’s where we go when we’re confronted with having to deal with violence in our everyday lives, with the systems that abolitionists want to see eliminated. It’s an understandable and normal response to the current moment we’re living in. It’s also a strange response because all of the scenarios they’re asking about are happening right now. So asking, “How do you deal with it right now?” forces us to have a conversation about what the “systems”—I call them “death-making institutions”—are actually doing for us. Why can’t one of the responses be intervening as someone who has a modicum of a relationship with [the people in conflict]? That example helps us confront the fear, which we all have. We haven’t done a risk assessment, so we’re fearful of intervening. That question forces us to think about what it would take for us to feel more comfortable in intervening. What do we need to overcome that fear?

Let’s work on building that, whether it’s building new skills or developing a new social relationship with our neighbors—the proactive things that we ought to be doing all the time so we can be responders to the harms that occur in our communities. Maybe you have a phone tree in your building so if you heard something like that, you know who to call and ask, “Are you hearing this too? Maybe we should go together.” There are concrete ways of trying to intervene.

Rice: The closer of a community you build, the more you know your neighbors, and the more you understand them as real people with real conflict. It’s a different thing to get into an argument with strangers than with people who like you and respect you. That example undergirds this idea that we really have this transactional relationship with accountability

Kaba: It’s good to talk about what accountability is and isn’t because that also has a lot to do with where we are as a society. There’s an assumption that being anti-punishment means that you’re not pro-accountability; that couldn’t be further from the truth. Most people who subscribe to an abolitionist vision have come to understand accountability as it’s defined by Connie Burk, [former director of NW Network of Bi, Trans, Lesbian and Gay Survivors of Abuse], who has spent decades addressing domestic violence in the LGBTQ community. Years ago, Connie wrote an essay that references the , “What do we mean when we talk about accountability?” Shannon Perez-Darby, who also worked for many years at the NW Network, expanded that vision to talk about self-accountability. Connie frames accountability as an internal resource for recognizing and redressing the harms we have caused to ourselves and others. Accountability is an active process through which people have to make a decision that they recognize the harms that are occurring, they want to try to redress them, and they’re thinking about the harms through the lens of what’s been done to others but also what’s been done to them. That’s really challenging because everything in our culture is about coercion; dangling the idea of punishment is meant to keep you on the “right path.” Within the culture we have, there’s very little incentive to take accountability for anything

Danielle Sered’s [2019] book, Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair, breaks down the concept of accountability. [She writes], “Accountability is the corollary to grief for those of us who are responsible for harm, and it is as essential as a grieving process is in restoring us to our best selves.” That encapsulates why we need a reframing of what we mean when we talk about accountability. It should be something that’s desirable. Perez-Darby talks about it as a process we do with ourselves for ourselves. When we’re being accountable to ourselves, we’re acting in a way that honors our values. We’re acting with integrity by taking responsibility for who we are in the world and for living in alignment with our values. I’m responsible to myself, but I’m also responsible to those who are around me for the consequences of my choices.

Rice: In some ways, accountability is a gift. When we talk about accountability, we’re saying accountability is not just important and necessary, but a gift. It’s something that we should embrace. We’re not perfect; we’re going to make mistakes, and we’re going to hurt people. But we should embrace the fact that we have the ability to be more accountable today than we were yesterday.

Kaba: Absolutely. As we’re talking, people might be wondering: Now I understand that you can’t coerce people into taking accountability. They might now be convinced that they need a different frame. That’s the first step, and people like Mia Mingus and Mimi Kim and other practitioners of transformative justice tell us that there are a couple of other steps in the process. Mia talks about accountability having four parts: self-reflection, apology, repair, and changed behavior. Accountability is not just apologizing for doing something that’s harmful to people; self-reflection [increases] understanding of the impact of your actions. It’s hard work to take accountability for the actions you’ve taken, reflect about why you did what you did, craft a good apology, seek to repair that harm, and then actually change your behavior. It takes so much commitment to change your behavior.

Rice: I think about how much harm people inflict before they have any language for it. Young people are just starting to navigate their emotional range. I think about a lot of the women’s groups I used to sit in on and how many of them talked about this traumatic experience they had in high school. There’s this sense that so much time has passed, I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I was so young. There’s this thought process that if I didn’t intend harm, then I don’t have to be accountable for it.

Kaba: People think accountability is an event, which comes back to being a “good person.” I don’t think there are good people. There are people who do good and bad things. I think about that all the time because people think accountability is an event rather than an ongoing, minute-by-minute choice. This is also what you see in these “decisions” made by people inside these death-making institutions, where people can literally convince themselves that they’re taking actions that are supposedly neutral because they have to [follow] the law. It’s just so much easier to turn back and rely on the rules. All the stuff we’re talking about is hard to do, and a lot of people just don’t want to do hard work.

Rice: Right. I think about that story about the 26-year-old cop who was on his fourth day of work when he answered the call about George Floyd. And here’s the man who trained him standing in front of him, killing someone. We all want to think that we would say, “Stop it right now. He’s dying.” But very few of us would do that. The guy who’s training you has been on the force for 20 years. Are you really going to be the one to tell him? [When a man] experiences this horrible thing without the emotional reaction, [they’re told] that’s what being a real man is and being a real cop is. I was reading that article about [that cop], and I was feeling so sad because it talks about how his siblings are understandably done with him.

Kaba: I get the sibling thing on a reflexive level. But guess what? He’s your responsibility too. Being a cop is a bad move, but even with that I have empathy because I’ve taken jobs that haven’t been the best jobs. But again, this is where accountability can be such a gift because it’s hard for us to see ourselves clearly. We need to be building support in our lives and have people in our lives who can support us in the hard work of doing accountability. It makes a difference, by the way, when my brother says, “You know, that’s just not cool.” I respect him. I love him. I want to remain in relationship with him. And if he says, “You could have done so much better here,” that’s hugely consequential to my behavior because I don’t want to disappoint him. When you cut somebody off who did a terrible thing, that person is now dangling in the wind. The person’s going to be so ashamed, and when you’re dealing with shame, you’re just consumed by that feeling of wanting to close yourself off.

Rice: You just want it to be over. When we think about this guy, the cops are around him telling him that what they did is OK. That’s what this “brotherhood” really is. We won’t abandon you unless you sell us out. Instead of having family, siblings, or friends around who say, “Here’s what you could have done better,” he’ll just have cops telling him that what he did was right. It’s easy to cut people out because it’s easy to imagine that that’s accountability. It’s much harder to say, “I’m not trying to kick you out or cut you off. If you haven’t already done the work, then you can’t really make the road in the crisis. I wonder if this goes back to the worst-case scenario, like the minute you talk about abolition, people automatically [go to] murder and rape. I can’t even imagine what kinds of things have been in your inbox these past few months, but I can guess it’s a lot of, “Wait until you get raped or someone kills your kid.” We don’t build systems around the worst.

Kaba: Why orient a system around the worst of the worst? That makes no sense, when the vast majority of people who commit harm are not Ted Bundy.

Rice: Maybe if we had a better system, Ted Bundy wouldn’t be Ted Bundy. Bundy killed 40 people before we got him. So that system wasn’t supposed to be the solution; it didn’t stop 40 murders.

Kaba: We get to know about serial killers from a concerted effort by mass media and popular culture to tell you that’s the norm, but the vast majority of people who kill somebody else are people who know one another. It isn’t some serial rapist who’s going to rape you; it’s your uncle or your aunt, your father or your mother or your best friend, and I don’t think people can compute that.

Rice: Part of life is understanding that you don’t have all the control, that something can go wrong and bad things can still happen to good people. There’s something freeing in the fact that we can’t control everything, and the point of being a healthy, accountable person isn’t because it will definitely benefit us on the back end. It might hurt us.

Kaba: What is it that you want to control? I find that what we’re trying to control isn’t actually useful. We have this whole way that you could create a proactive space and community within your direct family unit and the people around you. You could be building pods right now, which you have total control over. This is part of what transformative community accountability forces us to do. Figure out who you’re going to turn to when harm happens to you, and also who you’re going to turn to when you cause harm. That’s actually in your control. Why aren’t you working on that? It goes back to what makes a lot of people uncomfortable about prison-industrial-complex abolitionists: None of us is above causing harm.

Rice: Think about the infinite decisions you make day after day and the decisions that you don’t make. The decisions you don’t make to go check on your neighbors or help a person or an organization. The potential for harm is infinite. We’re all gonna harm something or someone.

Kaba: Let’s say I’m in a situation where it’s me or somebody else; I might very well kill somebody. It’s situational, contextual, and not about some deep moral failing on my part. A lot of times violence is so situational that we have to also be accounting for that when we’re trying to make sense of all of this. I love working with others to think about the actual practices of accountability, whether it’s listening to people we’ve harmed, honoring the needs and self-determination of the people who’ve been harmed, or thinking about and enacting our boundaries. Inevitable harms are going to happen, but you should have more tools to respond to them before they escalate. When a lot of people hear about prison-industrial-complex abolition, [their response is], “How dare you act like there isn’t such a thing as evil?” Even if I believed in evil people, to think that I need to subscribe to having death-making torture chambers as a way to “handle” those evil people makes no sense.

Rice: One of the things I keep thinking about is justice for Breonna Taylor. There’s no justice for Breonna Taylor. She’s dead. I understand why people want the cops [who killed her] in prison, but even if we hold [these cops] accountable, she’s gone. People talk about prison-industrial-complex abolitionists being idealistic, but they’re also talking about justice for a woman who was shot and killed in her bed.

Kaba: There’s also this idea that justice looks like locking people up in cages. It’s my belief that [locking people up in cages] won’t actually transform the harms that have occurred. I’m going to work really hard to make sure that the cages, [the] cameras, and the cops are gone. That’s my work, but it doesn’t have to be yours. This doesn’t mean that I won’t support Breonna’s family in other ways that don’t conflict with my value system. We can walk part of the way with people without walking all the way. I don’t believe that being a friend of yours means that I have to support your feelings of vengeance. I have to support you as you’re navigating things; that may look like sleeping on your couch for several days, cooking you dinner, doing your errands, and maybe accompanying you to court if that’s something that could be useful. I don’t have to cosign your feelings of vengeance to be a good friend. I saw someone tweet that people like how abolition sounds but love what vengeance feels like. That’s exactly right.

This article was originally published in the Monster issue of Bitch magazine, published by Bitch Media. It has been republished here with permission.


Reina Sultan is a Lebanese American Muslim woman working on gender and conflict from nine to five. She believes in smashing the patriarchy and eating the rich. Her work can also be found in Wear Your Voice, Vice, Rewire.News, and Greatist.
Josie Duffy Rice is president of The Appeal, a news outlet that produces original journalism about the criminal justice system.
Mariame Kaba is an organizer, educator, and curator who’s active in movements for racial, gender, and transformative justice. She’s the founder and director of Project NIA, a grassroots organization with a vision to end youth incarceration. She has cofounded multiple organizations and projects over the years and her work has been recognized with several honors and awards.

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