Mutual Aid Justice: Beyond Survival

 

 

 

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What does mutual aid look like in the Justice sphere? If you don’t want to call the cops, what else can you do? Many people turn to transformative justice for help. In the nation that incarcerates more people than any other on earth, there are many reasons why a person might not want to call 911. Undocumented, sick, over-policed, dependent on or in love with an abuser? In this episode, Laura talks with the editors of the just-released book Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement.

 

Transformative justice applies the principles of mutual aid to justice. It seeks to resolve violence for the long term at the peer-to-peer, grassroots level by looking for resolution, not punishment, and relying on community, not the system. Recorded on the eve of New York City’s “stay at home” order, this far-ranging conversation with renowned poet Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and anti-violence trainer Ejeris Dixon resonates in the time of Covid-19 as families sheltering at home face a spike in domestic violence.

 


 

In This Episode

 

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, poet, educator and activist

 

Ejeris Dixon, anti-violence trainer and organizer

 

 


 

 

Want To Learn More About Mutual Aid and Transformative Justice?

 

Watch or listen to New Justice: A World Beyond Prisons

 

 


 

 

 

 

Transcript

 

 

Laura Flanders:

How do we keep one another safe without relying on police? What if prison and punishment aren’t the best or even the most effective response to violence, harm and hurt? Today’s guests say, “We can’t hurt or heal alone. We can only hurt or heal in relationship.” Conveniently, they have pulled together a toolkit on how to do that. In fact, in their new book, Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement, they’ve gathered insights from people who are doing that work every day on front lines. The tools and experiences they share don’t just relate to addressing violence, but also preventing it and they might just inspire you to get involved with yourself. Co-editors Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha joining me with a how to on transformative justice next. This is The Laura Flanders Show, the place where the people who say it can’t be done take a backseat to the people who are doing it. Welcome.

Laura Flanders:

So first, Ejeris and Leah joining us from Seattle. Thank you for being here.

Ejeris Dixon:

Thank you.

Leah Lakshmi:

Thank you .

Laura Flanders:

And while we’re going to be talking about trauma and violence and fear and surviving and getting beyond it and making health, I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling incredibly stressed. Oh, TV is the least of it. We’re dealing with a pandemic. We’re dealing with an out of control government. We’re dealing with lack of transparency, sometimes feels like lack of community and now social distancing is supposed to be good for us. What’s your top-line advice to somebody like me who’s like, I don’t even know if I want to have this conversation in the midst of everything else?

Ejeris Dixon:

I think there’s both always a right time and it’s always difficult. So the truth that I would see around so many of the communities that are represented in Beyond Survival, so many of us come from places where, whether it’s pandemic, whether it’s Trump’s kind of neofascist America, we’ve been under threat most of our lives. So what that also means is that what we’re doing in this book is that we’re documenting resilience and we’re documenting this skillset of survival and that genius. So I would say that we’re social distancing. We’re taking the time. This is actually a great time to skill build. This is a great time to do relationship building with the people nearest to you. People are talking about going to talk to your neighbors and just reminding them that you’re still there.

Ejeris Dixon:

I live alone. I have a friend who lives alone and who started to feel sick yesterday and I said to him, “I need you to tell me how you’re doing every day. I need us to write a plan together.” I learned that both out of life, but I learned that also because I come from a community of queer and trans people of color where we have been figuring out how to keep ourselves safe most of our lives.

Laura Flanders:

Leah, is there anything you would add to that beautiful response for Ejeris?

Leah Lakshmi:

Hi. Well, first of all, I think you both are beautiful. Second of all, I would have the, I think specifically disabled communities, particularly disabled black and brown communities have been planning these skills for a long time and a lot of us are saying that a lot of the strategies that are being suggested right now and the realities of having to stay home, having to work online, having to build together to make sure that we have what we need are strategies that second disabled communities are really well versed in. So I would say that if you’re able bodied and this is new for you, really look to what disability justice folks have been doing for a long time because we know how to do care collectives, we know everything about where you can order stuff online and get delivered at home. And there’s so many instances of wonderful solidarity happening in Seattle, which is ground central right now that I’m actually really proud to be here.

Laura Flanders:

When we say transformative justice, what do we mean? What do you mean the Ejeris?

Ejeris Dixon:

I like to keep it simple. How do we create safety without relying on police and prisons? Period.

Laura Flanders:

Does that mean that you never call a cop?

Ejeris Dixon:

I think many people experience violence at the hands of the police and at the hands of the state. I used to do a workshop with people that would think about even harm reduction. So there are times where there’s a heart attack, but there are still many options. There are private ambulances, there are first-aid skills that we can build, but the idea is how do we create safety without police and prisons because we want to recognize that while many people in society are often told that that’s the key to safety, low income people, black people, queer and trans people, disabled people. So many of us-

Laura Flanders:

Undocumented people.

Ejeris Dixon:

Undocumented people, right. I have generations of strategies in my family around creating safety that don’t involve policing and that’s because the police are also a threat.

Laura Flanders:

Leah?

Leah Lakshmi:

Everything that Ejeris said, I would also say that I believe in transformative justice as harm reduction. I think that sometimes in some open spaces, and this is part of why we did the book. People have an idea that transformative justice means one thing. It means you sitting with someone who’s caused harm for years, being like, “Okay, we’re going to figure out why you did this and transform it.” And I believe in those strategies, but I also believe in transformative justice is going up to the guy who is hassling a woman at my bus stop and saying, “Hey, you need to leave her alone.” Or telling somebody who’s being abusive and threatening the Rex partner, “You need to stop posting on Facebook. We’ve got friends here.” Or I don’t even know this person, but she reached out to me and I care about her.

Leah Lakshmi:

I think that there are many, many, many steps, small and large, that we can take towards creating this world without prisons and that everybody can play a part no matter what that part looks like.

Laura Flanders:

There’s a lot wrapped up in what we just talked about, but it’s not like we’re talking about a boycott strategy per se. We can get there that we perhaps can do better than the institutions. We know we can do better than the institutions we’ve built so far. But just to start with the reason somebody might not for them make the decision to call a police person or dial 911. You have a lot of examples in the book. You want to tell some?

Ejeris Dixon:

Sure. So I used to work at the Audre Lorde Project years ago, and-

Laura Flanders:

LGBT center predominantly from people of color.

Ejeris Dixon:

Yes. And in central Brooklyn. And we had noticed around the early 2000s that there was a rise in violence. People were either experiencing violence at parties or on their way home. So the Audre Lorde Project has the safe party toolkit in there, which is really built from strategies that people use to secure demonstrations and actions. And instead, how do you apply that to a party space? How do you think about a space where people can still enjoy themselves, but you can intervene in violence? How do you think about a way that people can get home? So that’s one of the many examples.

Laura Flanders:

And just to tease that out, to put a point on it, why would you want to be doing it yourself and not just paste the 911 number loudly on the wall?

Ejeris Dixon:

Well, to give them a very concrete example, there was a party that was mostly black lesbians, and especially like masculine-of-center lesbians, they saw all of the folks who were masculine as threats. If two people were having an argument, it’s not like we have natural deescalators in our police. It’s not like they say, “What’s going on? What do you need? How do we help resolve this?” No, it was two people in handcuffs and it was usually just a presumption of like gender and masculinity as violence, black people as inherently violent. There are all of these societal tropes that don’t bring us to safety, but that just criminalize so many of our identities.

Ejeris Dixon:

So the reason that we need to keep ourselves safe is because… I got a call once from a black gay man who was attacked on his way home. He grabbed a garbage can and he defended himself with this garbage can. He was still attacked. He didn’t even call 911 himself. 911 was called, the ambulance came, he actually ended up in the precinct. He did not get medical care and was attacked again. And so he was like, “What can you all do for me?” That’s just an example of why and what some of the strategies can look like.

Laura Flanders:

Yeah. We’ve seen from the Say Her Name campaigns that we’ve covered often on this program that it is often a family member calling for help.

Ejeris Dixon:

Oh yes.

Laura Flanders:

And an under-resourced society that sends untrained cops. And those cops in the end often say, “I felt threatened. I was scared.” Their language is very subjective and their reaction is often very different to a woman of color having a bad day, problem with her meds, whatever, than it would be for a comparable white person.

Ejeris Dixon:

Yes. It reminds me of the… There was a murder of a young black man called Kyle Coppin. He was actually in the building where I live now. I lived a couple of blocks away. He and his mom got into an argument and she called 911 seeking support. At some point, the police saw him with a hairbrush raised, assumed it was a weapon and shot him. And there’s a lot of folks I would think of like Trans Lifeline is talking in the book about how they are navigating issues of suicide without relying on the police. There are organizations that are organizing in New York City who are thinking about, “How do we have an alternative number and alternative institution that we can call for people when they are in mental health distress? So it’s necessary because we have seated or as a society we have assumed that issues of deescalation, understanding and navigating people who are needing support is the role of the police. And when that doesn’t make sense at all and when there is so much structural violence that happens at the hands of the police

Laura Flanders:

Leah, coming to you, it’s also true that many stories in your book relate to in-relationship violence. You have your own story about how you got into this work?

Leah Lakshmi:

Yeah, I mean, when people have been asking as, “How did you get into this work? Why is it successful?” My first response is always like, “The way that I got into transformative justice is also why I would say that it’s worth it. Because without it, I wouldn’t be alive.” Like many, many people who are in this book, I got brought into it because I was a survivor who could not go to the police. My ex-partner, who was physically abusive, was a non-binary queer person of color who had all ready done prison time and who both threatened me with a lot of violence if I ever called the cops. And with my immigration sponsor, this is going back 20 years. So the police were not an option. And there are many people who have much less privilege than I do who are in similar situations where, because of the interlocking facet, the immigration, the police, et cetera, they can’t call the people who are supposed to help them.

Leah Lakshmi:

So before transformative justice was a word that I’d ever heard. I had like a lot of people, I had a group of my young femme of color friends who were like, “Okay, every place, every time we go out we’re going to go into the club or go into the meeting first and see if he’s in there. And then we’re going to come out and talk to you and see what you need and we’ll either go in and ask him to leave or we’ll go in with you so you’re supported.” And that supported me over a 10-year period of sharing a really small community with that person where I knew because I tried, we all tried. He was not willing to face what he’d done and take accountability, but he could see that I wasn’t alone and that kept me safe. That kept me alive. That continues to keep me alive. And there are a million different examples of that kind of strategy in this book and other spaces.

Leah Lakshmi:

I know that it can feel really overwhelming to replace the entire prison industrial complex, especially in a situation where someone might be facing immediate threat of harm or death. But there are a lot of examples in this book where it really starts with one other person stepping up and being like, “Hey, I’m there with you.”

Leah Lakshmi:

I wanted to particularly shout out some of the sex work organizers like Monica Foster and Elene Lam, who are from communities that really can’t call the police. And Elene Lam with the Migrant Sex Workers Network has these amazing stories of being in her home country and organizing with other sex workers who are facing violence from clients. And doing things, they’re like, “Yeah, we bought video equipment so that we could have secret video cameras in workspaces and then we could point it to clients who’re getting violent and say, ‘Hey, do you want to be on camera?'” There are all these ways they organized without the police. From teaching people how to memorize what violent clients look like so that word could go out to sex workers working with people in their neighborhood, including folks who are doing street-based work, including drug dealing to be like, “Hey, this is somebody who is a problem. Watch out for them.”

Leah Lakshmi:

When we’re in situations without a lot of systemic power, it can look like we don’t have options, but actually we’re always innovating and we’re always creating stuff imagine that can work anywhere.

Laura Flanders:

That’s one aspect of this work and one aspect of the book, people at the margins have reasons not to call the police. The other aspect of this book is maybe punishment, incarceration, criminalization, sending people away for a long time isn’t the best way to address violence in our society for anyone.

Ejeris Dixon:

Right.

Laura Flanders:

When you watch Harvey Weinstein, for example, get sent away for 23 years, there’s a part of me that says, “Bright.” And a relief, and some women were believed. But there’s another part of me that says, “Okay, what changes so that this doesn’t happen again?” That’s a big part of what’s in here too.

Ejeris Dixon:

I’ve been thinking about that a lot because both the Me Too Movement and the Transformative Justice Movement have been particularly active in the last couple of years and how prison takes Harvey Weinstein away. But it doesn’t change that behavior. It doesn’t necessarily heal someone. It doesn’t transform the skillset…

Ejeris Dixon:

I recently came out with a toolkit to actually think about what are the steps that we can take around creating more education based on consent. Intervening early on, finding ways so the people can report information to each other and address violence it getting to the point where people know that somebody has been harming someone, has been harming hundreds of people or many, many people and there are these secrets… We know about what happens. People want to experience violence in prison and sometimes people end up more traumatized, more… Like the idea that someone comes out of prison and is transformed or less harmful is really a fallacy. That’s not what that institution is for.

Leah Lakshmi:

I would just add, this is something that’s pretty basic, but it really bears saying. Something like 95%, 97% of survivors of violence can’t even get a court date if they wanted to. There was so many cases of people who are survivors of incest, rape, domestic violence who basically get told they’re not good victims so they can’t use the system, or who don’t have the money to go to court, or who are cut off of court by statute implementation.

Leah Lakshmi:

I’m one of many children sexual abuse survivors who’s never thought about taking my parents to court because I know that my mom, who was my perpetrator, is a nice white lady and it would never even make it to pretrial. So I think that I understand often when people are like, “What are you saying prisons don’t work? What are we going to do with them?” There’s a fear that we’re saying that we’re going to just hold rapist hands and give them a cookie. And that’s not what we’re saying. But we’re saying that prison doesn’t actually work to stop rape or abuse or violence. Period. So we need something else. We need consequences. And we also need resources that will work, that are not led by the survivors or the people who are harmed. By which I mean that the survivors shouldn’t have to do the work, but there needs to be staff out there that will sit with people who are doing horrible violent behavior and be like, “Okay, we’re going to change this.” .

Laura Flanders:

What does it involve? I mean, you’ve got this nice tool kit, everyone is going to go away and read it, but give them a few hints. .

Leah Lakshmi:

Yeah, no. Generation Five, we’ve got a segment from their transforming childhood sexual abuse toolkit in the book. And they talk about the really… I mean, this is stuff that very difficult to find any information about. They talk about, “Okay, so people who sexually abused kids, what are the resources out there that are intervening with those perpetrators?” And they have really interesting information about programs in Europe where they’re like, “Okay, in the States, there’s nothing like this.” If you call and you say, “I think I’m at risk of losing it and doing something harmful.” There’s no place you can call.

Leah Lakshmi:

But I believe in Amsterdam there’s a program where they’re like, “We set up a hotline for people who are like, ‘I’m worried that I have pedophilic urges.'” And they saw a really dramatic drop in the cases of those people perpetrated. So, there’s that.

Leah Lakshmi:

There’re circles of accountability and support program in Canada that’s done similar for people who are released from prison for doing CSA perpetration, that’s like, “We’re going to sit with you and give you a relationship and not just throw you in the garbage. But we’re also going to keep an eye on you to be like, ‘Look, are you worried that you’re going to mess up and do something harmful?'” Those are just two examples.

Leah Lakshmi:

I would also really shout out, there’s so much preventative work that is highlighted in the book. .

Laura Flanders:

Can anyone do this? And CSA, as you just say, child sexual abuse.

Ejeris Dixon:

Yeah. I think anyone can and everyone has to. That’s where I would think so.

Laura Flanders:

You don’t have to be an expert? You don’t have to have degree?

Ejeris Dixon:

You don’t have to. No, I think practice matters. Learning different types of skills around how to receive someone who’s disclosed to you that they’ve experienced violence, how to receive someone who’s disclosed to you that they have harm to somebody. Those are important skills to build, but some of that is also very much practice-based. I think about, the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective has a piece in the book about Pod Mapping. Where it’s really about-

Laura Flanders:

I really wanted you to talk about that because we do, and they address it in the article where they say we talk a lot about the community and people think they have a community. But then…

Ejeris Dixon:

But then, instead people were realizing, “Oh, I don’t know actually who I would call or who I would rely on if something happened to me or if I harmed someone.” So it’s this process where you kind of define who the people you would go to are and what I-

Laura Flanders:

Define meaning write it down with the phone number?

Ejeris Dixon:

Right.

Laura Flanders:

Okay.

Ejeris Dixon:

What I love about their model is that then people actually come to the meeting with their pods. They go and have a training around what does transformative justice mean? What would we do? What do you need?

Ejeris Dixon:

Mariame Kaba often says, “People transform in relationship. People transform in relationship with each other.” So it’s not only something that everyone can do, but everyone has to, most of us are far more likely. There are people who know my survivor stories, but authorities do not. So more often than not, we are called, we are the ones who need to intervene. We are the ones who feel guilty at night when we did not. We’re the people that if and when I cause harm, like I will listen to someone in my community or somebody that it’s in relationship with me, somebody in my pod. Those are the people who are most likely to change.

Ejeris Dixon:

I’ve done a lot of work where people are thinking about this person. I’ve done a lot of work around strangers. And you have to start to even map those relationships. “Okay, well I saw this person at the store. Maybe the store owner knows them, maybe the store owner then can let us know who their relative is.” Because the piece is, is that people do transform in accountability with other people that know them. People don’t transform as much in a vacuum.

Laura Flanders:

So backup, you call up the person who’s being violent towards you, your friend or someone in your pod and say, “We need to talk.”

Ejeris Dixon:

You can. You can. I mean, the last process or a current process that I’m working on, I got an email from a friend about a friend of mine that was like, “This thing happened, and I’m wondering if you would be willing to help hold your friend accountable.” That’s how it starts. I’ve gotten calls from people I’ve worked with. Yeah.

Laura Flanders:

And one of the essays in the book that I think must come up a lot is somebody asked to be part of a coalition with a group that hasn’t addressed the abuse by somebody in that group and they have to decide what’s the priority for me being part of this coalition about some important issue or addressing this, which is probably going to have ramifications down the road.

Laura Flanders:

Leah, what does it take actually to do this work? I mean, you’re dealing with your own situation, everyone is dealing with their own challenges, our own survival needs, particularly in this period of stress, but all the time everyone’s in stress. This is taking on a very big deal, isn’t it? Trying to make your community, your pod safe, being on call?

Leah Lakshmi:

Well, I was going to joke and say a strong stomach, but I would also say really think about what your boundaries are. Know that you’re going to discover them through doing this work. I think part of the reason why it Ejeris and I and the contributors in the book really stress that yes, we all have to do this work and there’re so many different roles to play, is that I think when it just falls on one or two people, that’s a huge recipe for burnout. But there are many different roles that folks can play in terms of like if you’re tired and you want to bring to the meeting? Great If you want to, if you want to sit with someone who’s perpetrated harm and you have those skills? Awesome. If you don’t want to do that, you could work with a survivor. If you want to do research, that’s important.

Leah Lakshmi:

So I think really thinking about what role you want to play, what your skills are, what you’re good at, and not feeling like you have to say yes to everything. I’m thinking about a phrase I’ve heard actually in the context of housework, which is, “Nobody has to do everything, but everybody has to do something.” And I think that when we moved towards a role of more and more people doing one dish as it were in a transformative justice process, it makes it more possible to do the work of remaking the entire world.

Laura Flanders:

How do you know when you’ve been successful, Ejeris?

Ejeris Dixon:

I know that I’ve been successful… I can tell you a short story-

Laura Flanders:

Okay, sure.

Ejeris Dixon:

… of something that I realized. There was a point where we were reaching out to store owners when I was doing this work more actively, and I had said to a store owner, “Would you be willing to join this neighborhood project where if somebody is experiencing violence, they could come into your store?” And she was like, “I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s me.” And we’d had this conversation. I kind of let it go. I was like, “Maybe I’ll stop by.” And she called me up the next week and she was like, “I did it.” And I was like, “You did it?” She was like, “I was a safe space.” And I was like, “Okay, great. Tell me about it?” She was like, “There was a young woman, I could tell she was being chased…” The woman I was talking to, the store owner, she ran a coffee shop. “I let her in the coffee shop, I locked the door, I gave her tea and I helped her call her parents.”

Ejeris Dixon:

And so I think there’s a piece around if we locate success and the idea that we have eradicated all forms of violence, then I actually don’t think that that’s where we get. If we locate success in the fact that we have empowered and supported people to intervene when they see something is wrong, they feel like that it’s not only their responsibility, but they’re equipped. I think that’s success.

Laura Flanders:

Beautiful. You end the book with a conversation about what’s hard in this work and also what’s great. We’ve heard quite a lot about what’s hard. What about what’s great in it, Leah?

Leah Lakshmi:

I think that speaking as a survivor, I can say that for so many survivors, our experience of dealing with the violence and abuse that we have survived is that we’re really alone in it and that the community just kind of goes, “Oh, I don’t know what to do.” And looks the other way. I think the thing that’s the greatest for me about doing this work is being part of work where at the end of the day the survivor’s like, “Wait, I wasn’t alone and I wasn’t just abandoned by my community. I actually am helping creating a just, safe, vibrant, amazing life.”

Laura Flanders:

Want to add anything to that?

Ejeris Dixon:

What’s great for me is going and meeting up with people. Sometimes I even don’t remember what I helped with, and having them take me aside and say, “Do you remember when I called you when I was scared to get home?”

Laura Flanders:

Beautiful. Thank you both. I think with the two of you and all the people in this book, we can be a public that creates public health and welfare. Appreciate it.

Ejeris Dixon:

Appreciate you.

Leah Lakshmi:

Appreciate you, thanks.

Ejeris Dixon:

There’s more information about the book and another interview I was lucky enough to do with Leah earlier in this program at our website. Check it out.

 

 

 

 

 

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