Accounting for Ourselves – A Review and Interview

June 30, 2013 at 10:38 pm (Interviews, Reviews) (, , , , , , , )

6bAccounting for Ourselves – A Review and Interview

How do restorative and transformative justice processes work in practice?

In April, the anarchist collective CrimethInc published a new pamphlet critiquing accountability processes and suggesting ways forward. “Accounting for Ourselves” is not an introduction to accountability processes, nor to the concepts of restorative or transformative justice, but an attempt to evaluate the current implementation of these concepts in political subcultures.

My interest in this topic has come from participating and supporting friends and comrades in this work over the last ten or so years. Accountability processes attempt to put many of my values into practice—mutual aid, respect, direct action, a DIY ethic, an acknowledgement that “crime,” safety, harm, and support are complex. Accountability processes haven’t been a perfect solution, however, and many of the participants I know have left these processes frustrated. At the same time, a lot of the collective knowledge about what works and what doesn’t work is scattered, unwritten, and lost as ad-hoc groups come and go around particular crises.

I started thinking about doing a writing or research project on accountability processes, motivated by the urgent feeling that we must do this better. After I began talking with friends and comrades about collecting best practices, I discovered that a friend had already done a lot of good thinking in this area, and I read some early drafts of this pamphlet.

“Accounting for Ourselves” is a necessary critique done in an effort to move us toward a better process. Though written as a reflection of the practice of accountability processes in Anarchist circles, the writing offers accessible insights to anyone interested in these issues. I find this type of honest self-reflection both rare and urgently important.

If you are unfamiliar with accountability processes, the following Q & A with Nikita, one of the primary authors of the pamphlet, is an introduction to these ideas and to the pamphlet. The pamphlet itself (available for free) also gives historical context for how these concepts have developed over time and how they have been put into practice. It includes an excellent (and thorough) list of articles, books, ‘zines, and organizations. We recommend starting with these five resources:

“Accounting for Ourselves – Breaking the Impasse Around Assault and Abuse in Anarchist Scenes” and is available for free online here: http://www.crimethinc.com/texts/recentfeatures/accounting.php

This interview was conducted in May 2013.

Q: Could you give us an idea of what an “accountability process” is?

A: “Accountability process” is a broad term for alternative methods for responding to harm on a community level. Instead of focusing on punishment through the criminal legal system, these processes try to actually address the harm that was done, on the terms of the person harmed rather than those of the state. These processes can be as simple as a few friends coming together to support someone and confronting a person who’s hurt them, or can involve more complex mediation between collectives of people who support and intervene.

“Accounting For Ourselves” focuses on these alternative processes as they’re applied in situations of sexual assault and abuse. We chose this focus because these are some of the primary forms of harm that folks have attempted to address through accountability processes, in part because the criminal legal system is notoriously ineffective at providing resolution and preventing harm in these situations.

Q: How do accountability processes fit into your political framework? How did you come to be involved with this work?

A: I first got involved in men’s anti-violence education and rape crisis support work because so many of my friends and loved ones had experienced sexual violence. I was also getting involved in anarchist organizing and prison abolition work, and community accountability brought together these visions on an intimate level.

Accountability processes attempt to put anti-authoritarian ideals into action. If we’re struggling against police violence and the prison industrial complex, but we don’t have tools to address harm in our own circles, we’re unlikely to dismantle this society or successfully create alternatives.

Q: Can you give examples of what people find ineffective about the criminal legal system, and why some groups would want to deal with these issues internally and not go to the police?

A: Most people are sexually assaulted or abused by people that they know—romantic partners, family members, friends and acquaintances—rather than by strangers who can be dismissed as two-dimensional “bad guys.” We often have complicated relationships to the people who harm us, and can’t easily dehumanize them enough to believe that kidnapping them and locking them in a cage for years would be a positive thing. And the “solutions” offered by the criminal legal system don’t give survivors of violence resources for healing, nor do they address the root causes of gender violence. Prisons don’t make us safer; relying on the state for “justice” decimates our communities and legitimizes the racist prison system.

Many accountability strategies emerged from communities of color in which the devastating impact of policing and mass incarceration renders the “options” offered by the criminal legal system even more harmful. So it’s crucial for us to find different ways to respond to sexual violence, both to get what we need in specific instances of abuse and assault in ways that preserve rather than further fracturing community, and to strengthen our struggles against white supremacy and state power.

Q: The majority of “Accounting for Ourselves” discusses ten “pitfalls” of accountability processes. Can you talk about where these critiques came from?

A: I’ve been involved with quite a number of accountability processes related to sexual assault and abuse within the radical scenes of which I’ve been part, both as a supporter for survivors and intervening with folks who’ve been confronted about their behavior. So the pitfalls or difficulties we address in the pamphlet come first and foremost from my personal experience of things going wrong. As I spoke with folks who had been involved in similar processes elsewhere, I started to see patterns in the problems we encountered. These common themes formed the basis for the pitfalls discussed in the pamphlet; most folks who’ve seen these processes play out will relate to at least some of them.

Q: One of the most common questions I hear about accountability processes is about whose responsibility it is to “investigate” allegations of abuse or assault. Could you talk a little bit about who should be involved in accountability processes? And what is the role of community institutions, such as infoshops, clubs, or publications?

A: Well, the person who is most centrally involved is the person who has been harmed, who I’ll call the survivor. This person’s needs and desires guide the process, as opposed to a conventional criminal process, which is guided by the needs and desires of the State instead of the survivor’s. Other people that the survivor seeks out for support can be involved, too: that can be individual friends and supporters, collectives that focus on support and intervention, or other stakeholders.

Community institutions can play crucial roles by helping enforce the demands of survivors, sharing information, promoting consent, and encouraging intervention. When people realize that they’ll face consequences for their behavior in the spaces they patronize, in print and online, throughout their social networks, the norms that excuse assault and abuse actually start to shift.

Let me clarify one thing, though: the point of an accountability process isn’t to “investigate” and determine “the truth” of what really happened. That’s the adversarial justice framework– basically a winner-take-all competition mediated by the State, which assumes that one party is lying while the other has a monopoly on truth, as in the US legal system. The point of an accountability process, by contrast, is to promote healing, safety, and liberation: healing for people who’ve been harmed, on their own terms; safety for all the folks in the circles involved, through assurances that the underlying conditions that led to instances of abuse and assault are addressed; and liberation, the collective transformation of oppression necessary for healing or safety to be possible.

Q: Outside of a formal method of determining “truth,” and with the sensitivity of the information involved in instances of abuse and desires for privacy, sometimes these situations result in a maelstrom of rumor and gossip. These dynamics may appear divisive or petty, but can also reflect genuine concerns about safety and desire to challenge abuse behaviors.

When people hear rumors, especially if they are not closely connected to the individuals involved, what’s the best course of action?

A: Many problems in accountability processes have arisen around secrecy and disclosure. Supporters guided by the wishes of a survivor often want to err on the side of preserving privacy, which is certainly reasonable. But unfortunately this has lead at times to great confusion about what kinds of behaviors folks are being asked to account for, or even a sense of Kafkaesque persecution. Although folks wishing to avoid being accountable sometimes make these sorts of claims to sidestep responsibility, others simply may not understand what’s going on, while the rumor mill rages on.

Processes in which folks speak as openly as possible about what’s going on can prevent some of these dynamics. A survivor or supporters offering a written statement as a reference point can also help. And folks who aren’t directly involved should be very careful about taking actions in the name of a survivor or acting from a sense of righteousness. Ask questions directly to the folks involved, be clear on what the participants are and aren’t asking for, and try to recognize and put aside your own pre-emptive judgments. Pursuing healing and transformation rather than punishment requires humility, patience, honest communication and a willingness to listen on the part of everyone involved.

Q: Could you give us an example of one of the pitfalls?

A: Often community accountability processes don’t have clear standards for success or failure, or require resources we can’t realistically provide. I’ve seen processes drag on indefinitely and eventually run aground, because we didn’t know how to tell when vague goals like someone “working on their shit” had been achieved—or when to throw in the towel because it simply wasn’t working. Likewise, if we promise something like “safe space” that we can’t deliver, we undermine our trust in each other and burn out trying.

Q: I don’t think that your intention here is to discourage people from using these processes or being more accountable to each other. Despite these pitfalls, do you still support the “accountability processes”?

A: Accountability processes can be really useful in some circumstances, but they are not a panacea. We can’t apply one fixed model across the board in radically different situations. I still support community accountability processes as one tool in our toolbox of grassroots methods for staying safe and addressing harm outside of the state. But we need to be constantly experimenting with other tactics and learning from our mistakes, which is why “Accounting For Ourselves” was written.

Q: Do you identify any solutions to these pitfalls? What do you think is the way forward?

A: The ways forward will be as diverse as the groups of people who use these processes. But in general, there are some steps that I think could be useful. First, prioritizing conflict resolution and mediation skills within all sorts of radical scenes and movements. If a broader range of people have experience directly engaging with conflicts of many kinds—rather than simply sweeping them under the rug in the name of the urgency of struggle, as happens all too frequently—we have more of a basis to make accountability work.

Next, let’s look at prevention rather than just response. Organizers against gender violence have often relied on gender-based organizing for prevention work; we can look at anti-sexist men’s groups and autonomous women’s organizing as options within radical circles, informed by trans feminism and anti-essentialist understandings of gender, as well as other strategies for prevention and especially bystander intervention.

Finally, the most important direction forward I see requires grappling with the question of what “community” really means, by concretely defining our circles of affinity with each other. If we start explicit conversations in all of our collectives, spaces, and movements about what we share and what we expect from each other, we can lay the groundwork for resolving conflict and responding to harm.

Q: What was your goal with writing this pamphlet? What do you hope happens next?

A: One goal was to identify the common themes among our frustrations with these processes, to be able to understand what wasn’t working and why so few of these processes turned out to be successful. This frustration has resulted in a tide of reaction against accountability processes and their perceived ineffectiveness.

That feeling is totally valid, but we’re worried that in rejecting them out of hand we might miss crucial lessons we need to learn from our failures. Also, we don’t want a return to the previous situation in radical scenes, in which silence about abuse dominated, punctuated by occasional acts of individual vengeance or he said/she said conflicts dismissed as “scene drama.” Ultimately we want a world free from gender violence, and until we’re there we want to have as many useful tools as possible to prevent and respond to it. Whether or not our future efforts take the form of accountability processes, we wanted to distill some of the things we learned from our years involved with them and spark discussion about how to move forward.

Q: Do you have any future plans to write more or create other resources on this topic?

A: We’re interested to see how folks respond to the analysis in this pamphlet, and to continue dialogue around these pitfalls and directions for action. There’s actually quite a bit of writing and material out there on the topic, so rather than creating more texts, I want us to experiment with more models, trying out different things to see what can move us past this impasse. As we develop more strategies for response, we’ll keep sharing how things worked and what we’ve learned. The StoryTelling & Organizing Project started by Creative Interventions is an inspiring example of this, an ongoing compilation of stories about how folks have responded to violence in a wide variety of community settings.

I’m interested less in new texts and more in experiments with new forms of organization and action.

“Accounting for Ourselves – Breaking the Impasse Around Assault and Abuse in Anarchist Scenes” and is available for free online here: http://www.crimethinc.com/texts/recentfeatures/accounting.php

 

 

2 Comments

  1. katyotto said,

    Reblogged this on CPR: Creative People in Recovery and commented:
    incredible interview on why analyzing restorative justice practices in community response to sexual violence is critical.

  2. tpoablogger said,

    Reblogged this on The Peripheries of Anarchy and commented:
    I found this and decided to reblog it. Recently I was involved in a discussion group where the subject was Crimethinc’s pamphlet “Accounting for ourselves – Breaking the impasse around assault and abuse in Anarchist scenes”. The discussion started out slow as it often does with sensitive subjects such as this. After a while we moved on to how we could practically address issues around accountability and safer spaces within our community. We decided to contiue to meet as a reading group with the end goal of producing a new accountability process and safer spaces policy for our local Anarchist social centre, Kebele, in Bristol.

    We decided to split in to smaller groups and read texts relating to these subjects and use these to inform our progression towards our aim when we next met. The next texts we are reading are “As if they were human. – A different take on perpertrator accountability” and “The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Partner Abuse in Activist Communities”. There was some talk along with some sub-consious nods and winks about the (re)formation of a mens/ all gender anti-patriarchy/ pro feminist group, we will see where it goes.
    Anybody is welcome to come along and get involved in the reading group. Here is a review of the Accounting For Ourselves pamphlet along with an interview with thye Crimethinc collective from May this year.

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