A Survivor's Case Against Restorative Justice

Updated: Oct 23, 2020

CW: Sexual Violence

Two years ago I found myself as the survivor in a restorative justice process. This stunted my healing and, eventually, I opted out. Through this experience what solidified for me was that, from an abolitionist perspective, we must understand transformative justice, specifically, as the primary way to address violence in our communities.

As far as I’ve seen and experienced, the most common question from those on the fence about abolition is how we will deal with “murderers” and “rapists” (I use quotes not to diminish these actions, but so as to not define people by their behaviors). Making the case for rejecting our current system is the easy part of answering this question. Our country incarcerates millions of people, and yet violence in our society persists. Needless to say, the current model is not working. The much harder question is how we build systems to mitigate and end violence at all. In discussions of anti-carceral politics, the concepts restorative justice (RJ) and transformative justice (TJ) are frequently thrown around. Sometimes conflated and sometimes debated. Some theorists see them as essentially the same, some see them as being able to help the other.

I am of the mind that we need TJ, nothing less, and that RJ harbors some serious flaws. Nothing has made this stance firmer for me than my experience in the RJ process I went through.

At the end of 2018 I was sexually assaulted by a close friend while we were on a date. Two days after this, he went through my text messages with all of my other male friends. When I confronted him about the invasion of my privacy after only three days of us going out — not yet having processed that I was assaulted — and let him know I no longer wanted to be more than friends, he told me that had I not been so traumatized by men already, the way he crossed my boundaries wouldn’t have been as much of a problem.

As that night went on, and I reflected on all of our time together, I began to name the many ways he had knowingly crossed my sexual boundaries. Things that I had suppressed in the moment, too horrified to reconcile what was happening. In my fight, flight, freeze arsenal, my freeze response is by far the most developed. At this point in time, I was also far along in the development of a self image which told me that I deserved to be degraded. That I was unhinged, chaotic and promiscuous, and that whether somebody forced themselves on me or not, I would have pursued this kind of treatment on my own.

What made matters even worse, is that this friend and I began seeing each other shortly after he had acted as security for me at my workplace, a strip club, where I had also recently been sexually assaulted. This friend, let’s call him Ian, was one of the few people I found safety and security in during what was, up to that point, the darkest times of my life. I had been experiencing intense symptoms of PTSD, which he had seen first hand. Still, he sexually assaulted me, violated my privacy, and insulted me. Additionally, he had made numerous comments fetishizing me as a stripper in the three days that we had been “seeing” each other. Needless to say I was jarred, heartbroken, and angry, but mostly numb and confused.

My community in Portland is made up almost exclusively of people identifying as communists and abolitionists. At the time that this happened, me, Ian and a number of our friends were starting an organization together which aimed to bridge gaps between work being done by communists at our university and communists in the community. When one of my friends, who founded this group, learned of what Ian had done, they were livid, and decisive about how to proceed. “No! We’re not gonna let him do this!” They said. “He’s gonna be accountable for this.” So began my experience as a survivor in a RJ process.

Restorative Justice is a process where all parties affected by an injustice (the person who has done harm, the victim, and members of the community), come together to discuss those effects, and figure out how to repair the harm done.

Transformative Justice looks at the micro and macro social structures surrounding the injustice in order to make sense of it, and to attempt to transform the person who has done harm, and the community for the better.

The process was put together quickly. I was told I could have as much or as little involvement as I wanted. Other members of the group, drawing from a small amount of resources and insights from previous organizing experiences, drafted a political analysis of the situation, and a set of guidelines which Ian needed to agree to, or he would be expelled from the group. The political analysis communicated that the groups socialist feminist politics strictly viewed Ian’s behavior as antithetical to everything we stood for as we aimed to create a safe and empowering space for marginalized people. Simultaneously, the analysis stated that when dealing with harm, every person involved should be treated with humanity and dignity. From a TJ standpoint, this was a strong start.

The guidelines for Ian laid out a number of boundaries I had asserted would need to be laid out for the process to go forward, including not being able to come to group meetings for four weeks, be in the same social spaces as me for eight weeks, or make any personal contact with me for six months. Finally, Ian would be expected to meet with the “accountability subgroup” we had set up twice a week to discuss what had happened, continually work to understand the harm he needed to be accountable for, and do educational writing and reading on the political implications of his behavior. This information was presented to Ian alongside a letter I had written detailing what he had done, and why I believed it had happened. The following is an excerpt from that letter:

“I do not think [Ian] is a malicious person. I do not think he is a consciously abusive person. I think [Ian] acts impulsively and selfishly towards women and AFAB [Assigned Female at Birth] people he may be romantically involved with, and I believe that this behavior is deeply rooted in toxic masculinity he has yet to unpack...[Ian] reinforced, and acted out, sexual behaviors which he has been conditioned to believe are normal and healthy through socially constructed gender norms and stereotypes. I believe that he has done work to unlearn these norms and stereotypes only so far as to reject them in his revolutionary work. However, he has done nothing to analyze how these norms and stereotypes affect his own thoughts and behaviors.

[Ian] acted as a good friend to me before we began dating — this remains true to me despite the fact that I am now very skeptical of the motives behind his behavior during our friendship. While I do not believe our relationship will ever be fully repaired, I feel confidence in the fact that he can change, so that he may not engage in any of the previously described behaviors with people he is romantically or sexually involved with in the future. It is my hope that [Ian] will not be romantically or sexually involved with anyone until he finishes the outlined accountability process.”

Initially, I didn’t believe I could be involved in the process at all beyond this contribution. However, after over a month of hearing report backs from other members of the group, the work being done to address harm which had been done to me felt too out of my control for my own sanity. At this point, I decided I wanted to be at the table with Ian, discussing what had happened, how I had been harmed, what I needed, and what he could do better.

I am a bold, assertive and often abrasive person, but those first few meetings I attended, I could barely speak, let alone look at Ian. Anything I did say, I directed to others in the room. I felt deeply exposed, and weak, like those around me were not my comrades, but rather, an army I needed to save me from my mistakes. This dynamic continued on for the majority of the process. Ian had a difficult time confronting what had happened head on as well. He spoke with his head down, treading slowly through every word he said, always sounding like he was in physical pain. He was so clearly mired in shame which, though maybe appropriate, is never a helpful tool for owning one’s actions. We all struggled through these sessions, as we discussed with Ian what he was getting out of the readings, and listened to him read aloud written personal reflections on his actions. We listened, we nodded, we critiqued perceived gaps in his understanding, he accepted the critiques, we read some relevant theory, and came back the next week. The meetings went on like this for months, both me and Ian were losing steam. I could tell he was remorseful, but the process was not healing for me, and was most certainly not on track to “restore” any damage which had been caused by the harm done. There was something critical missing.

One of the biggest limitations of the process was the lack of clear goal setting, and though we often referred to this as an “accountability process” rather than a restorative justice process, we were flawed in implicitly attempting the same kind of backwards looking goals that are often seen in such processes. The presumption was always that at the end of the process, so long as Ian took accountability (what exactly that looked like, we didn’t know), for what he did, him and I would continue to coexist in the group together. We never questioned whether or not this was actually possible, and didn’t build out a strategy for how the harm done would affect our community in the extra-long term.

At the same time, while Ian was held to account week after week, interpersonal issues continued to arise within the group largely unchecked. This is not meant to slam the friends who were by my side through his process. It is a critique of a method of seeking justice which stops short of attempting to transform the environment, community and society in which the harm being addressed occurs. While acknowledging the interpersonal and environmental factors within our own community and organization which allowed Ian to do harm to me, we failed, again and again, to attack those issues as fervently as we attacked the harm he had done. To attack those issues as fervently would have been to take up a transformative justice model.

In Generation 5’s (an organization focused on ending child sexual abuse through TJ) Transformative Justice Handbook, its asserted that “a defining feature of TJ is its commitment to change conditions in order to prevent further and/or further harms.”

During the duration of the accountability process there were multiple concerns spoken privately, and publicly, about misogyny and gendered dynamics within the group. These were never thoroughly examined, always dealt with too quickly over the course of two or three meetings. We read theory which spoke to how racism, sexism, and misogyny influenced the harm that was done in a broad way, but we didn’t take the next step of actually using this knowledge to transform our community. Through acknowledging that the occurrence of the harm done to me was a collective failure, but not noting concerns of continued misogyny in the group as proof that we needed to completely uproot and transform how we went about organizing and being in community, we made space for the same kind of harm to continue to happen.

This is fundamentally where RJ stops short of assisting in abolitionist work. While a restorative justice process should be celebrated as a tool for taking the addressing of violence out of the criminal legal system, it fails in that it focuses on the individual. Not just the individual meaning the person who has caused harm, but what Angela Davis referred to in a recent DemocracyNow! Interview as the “abstract” individual. The phrase “individual” here refers to Ian as an individual, as well as the individual instance of harm, removed from a context in which other kinds of harm persisted in our community. “Neoliberalism assumes” she said “that the fundamental unit of society is the individual.” When sexual violence is dealt with in isolation, we are playing into neoliberal individualism. When we use transformative justice to transform the conditions violence occurs in, we are working towards abolition. “Abolition is not primarily a negative strategy,” Davis states in the same interview. “It’s about re-envisioning, building anew.”

So what would building anew have looked like here?

The first step would have been for members of the group to move beyond simply acknowledging our group’s collective failure, and actually engaging collectively in the attempts at the kind of transformation being expected from Ian. This would have looked like all members asking and answering questions such as

  • “Have I caused similar kinds of harm before?”

  • “How did I enable Ian to cause harm?”

  • “What can I do better?”

  • “Do I currently need to hold myself accountable for any harm I have caused.”

There is also a critical need to more specifically address issues of power when engaging in transformative justice. “Transformative approaches to justice” Generation 5’s TJ Handbook states, “ask us to consider power in every circumstance, be that among individuals, within a family, inside a community, or within a whole society.” Concerns about misogynistic behavior were primarily leveled at those who inarguably had the most power in the group — meaning those who acted as primary decision makers, as well as thought leaders. Here, we should have asked questions like

  • “Who is missing from this table with us?”

  • “Who has power in this group, and how are we going to actively redistribute that power?”

  • “Who makes decisions in this group?”

Eventually I left the process. I processed my trauma much faster than Ian worked through his shame, and before the group and I were able to achieve the unrealistic goal we had set before ourselves. “I’m done” I said to him, eight months after he assaulted me. “I have to be done.”

Blame for the stalling nature of the process was heavily placed on Ian, and I believe he is responsible as an individual, but as abolitionists we could have, and should have done better to know that when we see violence occur, a symptom of a white supremacist capitalist society, we cannot stop at addressing this individual event. We are called to transform our communities, to look out for each other, and to stand in the way of more injustices through collective reflection and transformation.

Olivia Pace is a Black queer woman, writer, educator and organizer born and raised in the Portland Metro area. She was one of the lead organizers of the Disarm PSU campaign at Portland State University, focused on taking guns out of the hands of campus cops. Currently she works as a writer, social media manager at Portland in Color, and organizes with the Portland Child Care Labor Alliance. She writes about racial justice, the intersection of chronic illness and climate change, and sexual violence. You can see her work at www.oliviapace.com, or find her on Instagram and Twitter @oliviapacepdx.

This piece was published by the Forgive Everyone Collective.

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