Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
Many of us have been demanding structural changes: Defund the police! Abolish prisons! And we speak of these massive and amorphous ideas as if they are clear proposals we are ready to roll out. But most of us, even as advocates, don’t have a ton of lived experience of what it feels like to be inside of accountable relationships or structures. What I witness most often, even among those of us who claim to be abolitionists, is the longing for a future free of prisons and policing, paired with a tried-and-true practice of punishment and our own versions of social policing.
And before any pedestal formed against me can prosper, I want to be clear that I am not above or beyond this behavior. When situations feel violent, when children I love are endangered, when people in my community are causing harm, I still feel that first instinct to control the situation and clarify a right–wrong binary, and sometimes that instinct goes as far as wanting to dispose of those causing harm. I grew up in the United States (nation and occupied territories) during late-stage racial capitalism; I was trained to be exactly this reductionist and punitive.
But then I began the lifelong journey of decolonization, in which I have slowly and steadily been politicized into alignment with a collaborative, adaptive, healing worldview. I have been on a journey of self-exploration and community exploration: How do we get free? Not just individually, but on a collective level, as a species? Is it possible to free ourselves from the patterns that turn us against our complexity and longevity? What does justice look and feel like in practice? Can it be something we enjoy?
We are dreaming of abolition, but in order to make it real, we have to understand that every relationship with other people, or with the land we are on, is practice ground. And we need each of these places to practice toward a viable, embodied accountability, one we can rely on under pressure.
Our dreams get fortified each time we move through conflict, misunderstanding, harm, or violence without turning to the carceral state of prisons and policing. Many of us are practicing, learning, and evolving a framework called “transformative justice,” or community accountability. Instead of endangering ourselves by engaging the police, who will show up armed with weapons, biases, and quotas distorting their view of what’s happening and what’s possible, we turn to each other. Instead of responding to the surface-level symptoms of conflict and misalignment, we reach to the roots, looking for the patterns of systemic and structural impact. We acknowledge we cannot go backward, but we seek a way forward that honors peoples’ dignity and capacity to recover, to heal, to reclaim themselves, and possibly to return to each other in new relationships. We release the binary of right and wrong and instead pay attention to the complexity of the situation in front of us: What happened? How can the community support resolution and possibility?
In the interest of moving toward making our abolitionist dreams into reality, I want to share what I’ve learned about how it looks and feels to be in accountable relationships and structures.
We know punishment doesn’t work.
First, it’s reality-based. While we may have huge long-term visions of utopian communities, right now, particularly in the U.S., we live inside of systems that pit us against each other. So much of the conflict we face is rooted in human-made scarcity and illusions of identity-based supremacy. Rather than hold people to some ideal, we invite people to their own honest assessment of where and how they are, and what is needed to move forward.
Second, it requires a release of punishment. Mariame Kaba has gorgeous teaching around this. She reminds us that our current carceral system is a 250-year-old experiment in punishment. This system comes directly from the systems by which slavery was enacted and upheld. (I recommend reading “The 1619 Project” and The New Jim Crow if this piece of history is new for you.) If punishment worked to end harm, we would know that by now, because we have punished more people in more ways than any other Western civilization. And yet within U.S. borders, we have immense injustice, violence, sexual abuse, and unmitigated conflict. Punishment isn’t working. Even if you aren’t quite ready for abolition, it is time to acknowledge that we need to try other strategies.
Third, accountability is generally a private journey. Sometimes, we think accountability happens with a press release or a hashtag. Those tactics can bring attention to the need for accountability, but the actual processes of being accountable involve slow work, growth work, work to undo and learn and become more self-aware, learning how to make an authentic apology and being willing to accept appropriate consequences. This doesn’t move at the speed of social media, it moves at the speed of one human, changing. Think of things in your life you have been wrong about, mistakes you have made, beliefs you once held that now seem ignorant to you. Think about how you realized you were mistaken, or caused harm, or were ignorant. How did you change?
This is a very exciting time to be an abolitionist.
And even though it can feel satisfying to demand immediate apologies and changes, what we often get from that approach is performance and punishment. We know punishment doesn’t work. And I think most of us would agree that the performative accountability acts—apologies that clearly aren’t rooted in true understanding of harm or contrition, but rather in shame or public pressure—fall flat, and often leave us deeply unsatisfied. We don’t need the performance of accountability, and in our recent cycles of history, what we see is that the absence of authenticity in that performative apology practice actually leads to backlash. People may even go so far as to believe transformative justice and developing a culture of accountability aren’t possible, because they haven’t felt it. Yet.
Fourth, accountability culture, transformative justice, and abolition are all on the horizon, but we are just beginning the slow movement toward realizing these ideas. We aren’t there yet. We aren’t even close. Not only do we not know how to take accountability in meaningful ways, we don’t really know how to feel satisfied by the moves others make to be accountable to us. We often want a fireworks of satisfaction that completely rights the wrongs and erases the wounds. We sometimes show up to these processes thinking we can move backward in time, to the way we were before hurt entered the dynamic. I have mediated so many situations in which one person wanted a total reconciliation, and the other wanted a visceral punishment, and the most satisfying outcome we could land on was clear boundaries and an authentic accounting for harm.
There are some incredible tools available to us now that were not around five, let alone 10, years ago. The culture of accountability is growing, even if it feels too small or chaotic right now. Here are some of my go-to tools:
- “How to Give a Genuine Apology” by Mia Mingus
- Fumbling Towards Repair: A Workbook for Community Accountability Facilitators by Mariame Kaba and Shira Hassan
- Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
- We Do This ’Til We Free Us by Mariame Kaba
- An Abolitionist’s Handbook: 12 Steps to Changing Yourself and the World by Patrisse Cullors
- Finding Our Way podcast, hosted by Prentis Hemphill
- And my own works, Holding Change: The Way of Emergent Strategy Facilitation and Mediation and We Will Not Cancel Us: And Other Dreams of Transformative Justice
The truth of this moment is that we don’t quite know where we are going or exactly how to get there. But we are practicing, and you are invited to practice accountability in every relationship and structure that matters to you. We are growing a muscle to make our dreams of abolition and ending cycles of harm a reality. We are creating a future in which accountability is the norm in our culture. This is a very exciting time to be an abolitionist. What are you practicing?
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.