This is a write-up of the ‘Accountability processes’ session that happened at the conference.
Content note: abstract discussions of abuse, mental health difficulties and victim blaming (nothing specific mentioned)
This was a two-hour session that focussed on the history and practice of accountability processes in radical communities. It took place in a room that had been used earlier in the day for a ‘Victim-survivor led challenges to violence in our communities’ workshop and Empty Cages’ prison abolition workshop. In both of these sessions, the acute need for accountability processes (to render the criminal justice system irrelevant, to challenge and transform oppressive relationships, to maintain people’s safety and to build healthier communities, amongst many other things) was noted. It was clear that we were dealing with something of critical importance to anarchafeminism, and to other imaginations of a more just world.
Please see pages 11-12 here for good rough definitions of accountability processes, restorative justice and transformative justice. I use the most commonly recognised language around this issue, which is also discussed in the link, if anything is unclear.
We began with two speakers: Tanya gave a historical perspective, covering the need for safer spaces policies and accountability processes, tracking how they had emerged and suggesting some principles that underpinned their work (more on this). Romina, joining us from Los Angeles, then discussed transformative justice work in the USA, especially a recent inter-organisational conference held on transformative justice (more on this).
After a short listeners’ Q & A with Tanya and Romina, discussion opened up into the circle. Below are some points that I felt generated the most debate, or were mentioned several times. Please feel free to comment or e-mail to include points that I have missed. For people who would like to read more, there are links to resources below.
- Asking Questions: The importance of asking questions when accountability processes start. Each process will differ depending on the situation at hand, and perhaps the best way to ensure we do the best work around this is to equip ourselves with the right questions to ask of ourselves and others, rather than rigid ideas about what to do, and how to do it.
- Making Sure We Have Resources: Accountability processes require a lot of emotion, resources and time to be done well. People reflected on how to manage this strain: separating organisations to deal with accountability processes away from other work? Having a separate group to work with the perpetrator and another to work with the survivor? How does this then feed back into the community? Making sure we had worked out our practice around accountability before crisis hits? Questioning and rebuilding our ideas around safer spaces and accountability are often harmful in times of crisis: how do we build spaces ‘safe’ and ‘free’ enough to do this, so our work can improve, without causing harm?
- Survivor Led Except in Violence: Accountability processes are always, ideally, ‘survivor led’, but often when survivors are interested in pursuing violence as a response to abuse (verbal, physical violent confrontation or destroying property, for example), they are not supported. Is this hypocritical? How are we supposed to balance a blanket commitment to ‘survivor led’ justice if a certain survivors’ ideas about justice will always be exempt? Should survivors be supported to do what they feel is best, whatever that is? Is there more disapproval and criticism of survivors’ desire for revenge/violence than there is disapproval for perpetrators’ abuse? Should we be challenging this discourse? What about what other organisers are comfortable doing? Is survivors’ anger a productive force that we can mobilise around, rather than focussing on peaceful discussion that collapses survivors’ righteous anger?
- Accountable Accountability: Many people mentioned experiences of accountability processes falling apart, and organisations and communities fragmenting after accountability processes had been set up. Should we be building a Plan B- an accountability process for accountability processes? A backup plan? Should we anticipate problems in community dynamics at the start, and integrate measures to cope with these? How do we keep the processes transparent enough for perpetrator, survivor (whilst protecting anonymity if requested) and community? Should we keep checking in with all parties before new stages of the process take place? Especially when community members have mental health difficulties such as paranoia, should we have a clear process for transparency? Many accountability processes suggest ‘therapy’ for both perpetrator and survivor- but how do we build relationships with therapists who don’t subscribe to current individualised and often victim-blaming mainstream psychotherapy? Is it a priority for us to build critical mental health practitioners into the movement?
- Competing Claims of Abuse: There was recognition that we often assumed we were talking about sexual abuse, and often about a man sexually abusing a woman. We saw the conversation had to be broader to accommodate different experiences of abuse. What could people do about competing claims of abuse, especially when this did not cut so neatly along heteronormative power relations? How can accountability processes consider the mental health issues amongst those involved in a useful way (e.g. when community members are triggered by discussions of past experiences, when abuse may have become confused or magnified between people, or when a perpetrator suffering from paranoia is involved in a process where the survivor requests anonymity?) How do we come up with ways of working that are broad enough to hold the complexity of people’s relationships and experiences, whilst still taking a strong stance on abuse?
- Polarising Perpetrator vs Survivor: Our discussion used the words- perpetrator, survivor, abuse etc.- that are often used in discussions on this topic. There was disagreement about whether the polarised split between ‘perpetrators’ and ‘survivors’ was helpful: How can we recognise that we are all capable of transgressing boundaries and causing harm whilst avoiding the dangerous ‘blurring’ of perpetrator/survivor roles that happens in wider society? What does it mean for accountability processes when we recognise that abuse emerges from structural systems of domination, into which many of us were born and raised? What does this say about the people who are in charge of accountability? How do we stay humble enough to recognise that everyone has the capacity to abuse whilst challenging that very culture that sits in all of us? Does it help us to unpick the complexity of harm caused by highly charismatic, popular and manipulative people if we simply name them ‘perpetrators’? Can we deploy this polarising way of looking at things selectively, should we be doing it at all, should we always and only be doing it?
- Total Exclusion: Immediately excluding someone who has committed abuse from radical community spaces is often the first port of call for accountability processes, to protect the survivor and the community at large. Most people were glad of this, but there were questions: what does total exclusion mean for the perpetrator? Are they most likely to learn this way? ‘Kicking them out’ pushes the perpetrator onto other communities outside of our own- is this what we want to be doing? Leaving them to harm people outside of radical communities-who may be less well equipped with support and radical awareness around abuse? What has the organisation succeeded in doing if that is the result? Again, what happens with regards to exclusion when there are competing claims of abuse?
These are some rough jottings of the many questions the session opened up for us. There were also some reading mentioned in the session, with links here. Again, please feel free to suggest links to add.