i am publishing a book called we will not cancel us and other dreams of transformative justice which includes a deeply edited version of this piece, reflections on what the responses to the piece taught me, other writing on tj, and what is still mine/ours to learn.
i am leaving this essay up here as part of the learning journey – it isn’t the beginning or end of the conversation or the learning. we aren’t going to all agree on every aspect of this, but i believe it’s up to us to keep learning together, keep growing each other, keep opening the conversation.
Three pieces of information for those who see this and are moved to keep going.
One, the ‘we/who’ is movement workers, particularly those who identify as abolitionists, in Black and Brown centered organizing spaces.
Two, a trigger warning: in the piece below I speak of what I’m feeling and observing in this moment in terms of suicidal ideation, witch trials, and lynching.
Three, this piece is an invitation to more accountability, not less, to take each moment of conflict and harm as practice ground for abolition.
what do we do with unthinkable thoughts?
who are we in our unthinkable thinking moments?
how do we adapt together if the clues to our next pivot are unthinkable?
maybe sharing these unthinkable thoughts will help?
i’ll start with the scariest unthinkable thought for me, which is that maybe we are in a state of collective suicidal ideation – the state of thinking about, even planning, the end of us. i have thought this thought many times, for years.
i have ideated suicide in the past, thought it didn’t much matter if i was here or not, and so it didn’t much matter how i treated myself or others. when i was in that phase of ambiguous commitment to life, i took risks with my mind and body that i couldn’t imagine taking now. i practiced cynicism and hopelessness, as if they were the measures of humor, of intelligence. it was a brief phase of my life, but during that time i believed in nothing.
i tried to exit.
i then had to choose life from deep within me. that’s why i’m still here. i want to live. i want to want to live. i think everyone chooses to move towards life or away from it, though some don’t realize that they are making the choice. capitalism makes it hard to see your own direction.
as i have watched the world respond to the pandemic, the borders between nations shift meaning in my mind. i can see which countries choose life, and which don’t. which countries have a majority life-minded citizenship, which countries/regions elect leaders who care for them. which countries pivot at the highest governmental level to protect their people, to guide their people to protect themselves – places with a variety of economies and exposure have found ways to move towards life.
i wonder about the movements in those countries, what it might feel like to live and organize in a place that chooses life.
choosing life means being able to admit we are wrong when new information presents itself about the dangers around and amongst us.
choosing life means committing to the adaptations to stay alive, rather than the stubbornness to stay the same.
the u.s., as a nation, does not choose, or love, life. not yet, and possibly never before now.
other nations, many amongst the most developed in the world, initially shrugged at COVID-19. then they adapted.
the u.s. response has been more egregious than a shrug; it’s been a flagrant disregard, running towards a category five pandemic tornado. it’s meant that those of us who want to live are watching in horror as the mutating coronavirus fills in the pre-existing grooves of collective suicidal ideation and the resistance of those who love life – with climate deniers and corporate polluters on one side, environmental and climate justice movements on the other. white supremacists and patriarchs on one side, solidarity movements in race, ethnicity, class, gender, ability and sexuality arenas on the other.
we are a nation not divided but torn – pulled towards life and pulled towards death.
when i get that torn feeling within, which in recent years comes very rarely, in twinges and whisps, i now recognize it as the suicidal tendency in me. it’s not the truth, not the only truth, not my truth, not the choice i want to make. but the tendency is wiley, using the voices of people i love to make itself heard. i have to be vigilant, listen between the lines, ask: who would benefit from my absence? who benefits from my self-doubt?
our nation has a tendency towards its own destruction, a doubt of its right to exist, that is rooted in our foundation.
i think our movements struggle inside this larger national suicidal tendency – we want to grow, but at the same time some of us don’t believe we will all get there, or get anywhere better, in time. that we can’t, and won’t, put forth the effort.
maybe the idea of our future generations experiencing peace and abundance is not enough to keep us going.
maybe we just need some more immediate signs of life.
maybe we are terrified.
i, we, have to be able to discern what is me/us, and what is fear.
which leads to my next unthinkable thought: do i really know the difference between my discernment and my fear?
my dear friend Malkia teaches me that there is the fear intended to save your life, vs fear intended to end it. what i mean by discernment is the set of noticings, fears, wisdoms, deductions, and gut tremblings that want to save, or even just improve, my life, versus the fear that makes me unable to do anything, which makes me unable to draw on my life force to take action.
do i think i am being discerning when i am actually frozen in place, scared to change?
am i too scared of standing out from the crowd to pause and discern right action?
am i acting from terror?
am i able to discern a decision or action that makes sense?
i was in italy when the pandemic really became clear as a threat to my well-being. i went to one of the places i felt at home. and once i got there, i again found myself freezing, in denial of next moves, as everyone asked me where i was and when i was going home-home or elsewhere.
in my frozen state i would hear just a bit of the news, the new numbers of crisis, and shake my head at the idiots in office, and then numb back out. having quickly identified who i blamed, i was even less able to feel any agency in me. i froze and delayed and froze until i was overwhelmed by the inquiries.
then i had an excellent therapy session where i noticed:
oh. i am afraid.
i am afraid that the pandemic is on the rise everywhere and i am going to leave safety for a dangerous unknown.
i don’t know what to do!
as soon as i acknowledged i was afraid i was able to move into discernment. my fear became data – i am afraid because the numbers are clear that i am in a safer place than any of the locations i am considering going to. i should stay put, not because i am afraid, but because, as my fear is actually screaming on behalf of my informed intuition, this is the best place to be in this moment.
my fear made me freeze until i had to move. therapy helped me notice i was afraid, deepen my breath, and return to discernment.
i see the same vacillation between fear and discernment in our movements right now, with no therapist in sight.
we are afraid of being hurt, afraid because we have been hurt, afraid because we have caused hurt, afraid because we live in a world that wants to hurt us whether we have hurt others or not, just based on who we are, on any otherness from some long-ago determined norm. supremacy is our ongoing pandemic. it partners with every other sickness to tear us from life, or from lives worth living.
so we stay put and scream into the void, moving our rage across the internet like a tornado that, without discernment, sucks up all in its path for destruction.
our emotions and need for control are heightened during this pandemic – we are stuck in our houses or endangering ourselves to go out and work, terrified and angry at the loss of our plans and normalcy, terrified and angry at living under the oppressive rule of an administration that does not love us and that is racist and ignorant and violent. grieving our unnecessary dead, many of whom are dying alone, unheld by us. we are full of justified rage. and we want to release that rage. and one really fast and easy way to do this is what i experience as a salem witch trial, a false bid for justice, or the even faster method of lynching.
before i move on, i need to acknowledge that these are extreme terms, terms that refer to systems of death. i know that i am speaking of a social destruction, a significantly less extreme consequence – and i am trying to place my finger on a feeling of punitive justice unleashed in our movements.
in our movements, this feeling of punitive justice comes in the wake of call outs of leaders or those with some increased exposure or access. in the past week i have seen people called out for embodying white supremacy in the workplace, for causing repeated or one-time sexual harm, for physical, emotional or digital abuse, for appropriation of ideas and images, for patriarchy, for ableism, for being dishonest, for saying harmful things a decade ago, for doing things that were later understood as harm – for embodying all of the pain that supremacy holds. the call outs generally share one side of what’s happened and then call for immediate consequences. and within a day, the call out is everywhere, the cycle of blame and shame activated, and whoever was called out has begun being punished.
we are afraid, and we think it will assuage our fears and make us safer if we can clarify an enemy, a someone outside of ourselves who is to blame, who is guilty, who is the origin of harm. we can get spun into such frenzy in our fear that we don’t even realize we are deploying the master’s tools.
ah, audre, come in.
we’ve always known lynch mobs are a master’s tool. meaning: moving as an angry mob, sparked by fear (often unfounded or misguided) with the power to issue instant judgment and instant punishment. these are master’s tools.
we in movements for justice didn’t create lynch mobs. we didn’t create witch trials. we didn’t create this punitive system of justice. we didn’t create the state, we didn’t choose to be socialized within it. we want to dismantle these systems of mass harm, and i know that most of us have no intention of ever mimicking state processes of navigating justice.
the master’s tools feel good to use, groove in the hand easily from repeated use and training. but they are often blunt and senseless.
unless we have a true analysis of abolition and dismantling systems of oppression, we will not realize what’s in our hands, we will never put the master’s tools down and figure out what our tools are and can be.
oh – but you can’t say it’s a salem witch trial if it’s all Black and Brown and queer and trans people doing it…
oh – you can’t call it a lynching, because of the power dynamics! it’s a move against someone with more power.
but then – my third unthinkable thought – why does it feel like that? why do our movements more and more often feel like angry mobs moving against ourselves? and what is at stake because of it? why does it feel like someone pointing at someone else and saying: that person is harmful! and with no questions or process or time or breath, we are collectively punishing them?
sometimes we even do it with the language of transformative justice: claiming that we are going to give them room to grow. they need to disappear completely to be accountable. we are publicly shaming them so that they will learn to be better.
underneath this logic i hear: we are dunking her in the water to see if she drowns, because if she drowns then we know she wasn’t a witch. we are hanging him from the tree because then we can pretend we have exorcised ‘bad’ from our town. we are lynching to affirm our rightness.
which isn’t to say that some of the accused aren’t raging white supremacists in movement clothing. or abusers who have slipped through the fingers of accountability. or shady in some other way.
which isn’t to say that a public accounting of harm, and consequences, aren’t necessarily the correct move.
which isn’t to say we don’t believe survivors. because we must.
but how do we believe survivors and still be abolitionist? and still practice transformative justice?
to start with, i have been trying to discern when a call out feels powerful, like the necessary move, versus when it feels like the witch trial/lynch mob energy is leading.
it feels powerful when there have been private efforts for accountability.
it feels powerful when survivors are being supported.
it feels necessary when the accused has avoided accountability, particularly (but not exclusively) if they have continued to cause harm.
it feels necessary when the accused person has significantly more power than the accuser(s) and is using that power to avoid accountability.
it feels powerful when the demand is process and consequence based.
it feels like a lynch mob when there are no questions asked.
when the survivor’s healing takes a back seat.
when there is no attempt to have a private process.
when there is no time between accusation and the call for consequences. and when the only consequence is for the accused to cease to exist.
when the accused is from one or more oppressed identities.
when it feels performative.
when the person accused of causing harm does what the survivor/crowd demands, but we keep pulling up the rope.
no inquiry, no questions, no acceptance of accountability, no jury, no time for the learning and unlearning necessary for authentic change…just instant and often unsatisfactory consequences.
a moment on this: one of the main demands i see in call outs is for a public apology. to expect a coherent authentic apology from someone who has been forcibly removed from power or credibility feels like a set up. usually they issue some pr sounding thing and we use that paper as more fuel for the fire at their feet.
i have seen the convoluted denial-accountability-nonapology message from many an accused harm doer, especially when physical or sexual harm is involved. sometimes they are claiming innocence, sometimes they are admitting to some harm, rarely at the level of the accusation. sometimes they say they tried to have a process but it didn’t work, or they were denied. who knows what they mean by process, who knows if the accuser was ready for a process, who knows what actually happened between them, the relational context of the instance or pattern of harm, who knows?
the truth about sexual assault and rape and patriarchy and white supremacy and other abuses of power is that we are swimming in them, in a society that has long normalized them, and that they often play out intimately.
the truth is, sometimes it takes a long time for us to realize the harm that has happened to us.
and longer to realize we have caused harm to others.
the truth is, it isn’t unusual to only realize harm happened in hindsight, with more perspective and politicization.
but there’s more truth, too.
the additional truth is, right now we have the time.
the additional truth is, even though we want to help the survivor, we love obsessing over and punishing ‘villains’. we end up putting more of our collective attention on punishing those accused of causing harm than supporting and centering the healing of survivors.
the additional truth is, we want to distance ourselves from those who cause harm, and we are steeped in a punitive culture which, right now, is normalizing a methodology of ‘punish first, ask questions later’, which is a witch trial, lynching, master’s tool methodology. which, because we are in the age of social media, we now have a way to practice very publicly.
supremacy is the original pandemic, an infectious disease that quietly roots into each of us. we might have supremacy due to race, citizenship, gender, class, ableism, age, access, fame, or other areas where we feel justified to cause harm without consequence, sometimes without even realizing we’ve caused harm, because supremacy is a numbing and narrowing disease.
i want us to let go of the narrowness of innocence, widen our understanding of how harm moves through us. i want us to see individual acts of harm as symptoms of systemic harm, and to do what we can to dismantle the systems and get as many of us free as possible.
often a call out comes because the disease has reached an acute state in someone, is festering in hiding, is actively causing harm. i want us to see the difference between the human and the disease, to see what we are afraid of, in others and in ourselves, and discern a path that actually addresses the root of our justified fears.
this is not a case against call outs – there is absolutely a need for certain call outs – when power is greatly imbalanced and multiple efforts have been made to stop ongoing harm, when someone accused of harm won’t participate in community accountability processes, the call out is a way of pulling an emergency brake.
but it should be a last option. the consequences of being called out at this point are extremely dire and imprecise. the presence of infiltration in our movements is so documented and prevalent. call outs are an incredible modern tool for those who are not committed to movements to use against those having impact.
right now calling someone out online seems like first/only option for a lot of people.
i can’t help but wonder who benefits from movements that engage in public infighting, blame, shame and knee jerk call outs? i can’t help but see the state grinning, gathering all the data it needs, watching us weaken ourselves. meanwhile, the harm continues.
i don’t find it satisfying, and i don’t think it is transformative to publicly call people out for instant consequences with no attempt at a conversation, mediation, boundary setting or a community accountability process with a limited number of known participants.
it doesn’t make sense to say ‘believe all survivors’ if we don’t also remember that most of us are survivors, which includes most people who cause harm. what we mean is we are tired of being silenced, dismissed, powerless in our pain, hurt over and over. yes. but being loud is different from being whole, or even being heard, being cared for, being comforted, being healed. being loud is different from being just. being able to destroy is different from being able to generate a future where harm isn’t happening all around us.
we are terrified of how widespread and active harm is, and it makes us want to point the finger and quickly remove those we can identify as bad. we want to protect each other from those who cause harm.
many of us seem to worry that if we don’t immediately jump on whatever mob wagon has pulled up in our dms, that we will be next to be called out, or called a rape apologist or a white person whisperer or an internalized misogynist, or just disposed of for refusing to group think and then group act. online, we perform solidarity for strangers rather than engaging in hard conversations with comrades.
we are fearful of taking the time to be discerning, because then we may have to recognize that any of us could be seen as harmdoers. and when we are discerning, when we do step up to say wait, let’s get understanding here, we risk becoming the new target, viewed as another accomplice to harm instead of understood as a comrade in ending harm.
perhaps, most dangerously, we are, all together now, teetering on the edge of hopelessness. collective suicidal ideation, pandemic burnout, 45-in-office burnout, climate catastrophe burnout and other exhaustions have us spent and flailing, especially if we are caught in reactive loops (which include the culture of multiple daily call outs) instead of purposeful adaptations. some of us are losing hope, tossed by the tornado, ungrounded and uprooted by the pace of change, seeking something tangible we can do, control, hold, throw away.
the kind of callouts we are currently engaging in do not necessarily think about movements’ needs as a whole. movements need to grow and deepen, we need to ‘transform ourselves to transform the world’*, to ‘be transformed in the service of the work’**. movements need to become the practice ground for what we are healing towards, co-creating. movements are responsible for embodying what we are inviting our people into. we need the people within our movements, all socialized into and by unjust systems, to be on liberation paths. not already free, but practicing freedom every day. not already beyond harm, but accountable for doing our individual and internal work to end harm, which includes actively working to gain awareness of the ways we can and have harmed each other, and ending those cycles in ourselves and our communities.
knee jerk call outs say: those who cause harm cannot change. they must be eradicated. the bad things in the world cannot change, we must disappear the bad until there is only good left.
but one layer under that, what i hear is:
we cannot change.
we do not believe we can create compelling pathways from being harm doers to being healed, to growing.
we do not believe we can hold the complexity of a gray situation.
we do not believe in our own complexity.
we can only handle binary thinking: good/bad, innocent/guilty, angel/abuser, black/white, etc.
it is a different kind of suicide, to attack one part of ourselves at a time. cancer does this, i have seen it – oh it’s in the throat, now it’s in the lungs, now it’s in the bones. when we engage in knee jerk call outs and instant consequences with no process, we become a cancer unto ourselves, unto movements and communities. we become the toxicity we long to heal. we become a tool of harm when we are trying to be, and i think meant to be, a balm.
oh unthinkable thoughts. now that i have thought you, it becomes clear to me that all of you are rooted in a singular longing: i want us to want to live.
i want us to want to live in this world, in this time, together.
i want us to love this planet and this species, at this time.
i want us to see ourselves as larger than just individuals randomly pinging around in a world that will never care for us.
i want us to see ourselves as a murmuration of creatures who are, as far as we know right now, unique in all the universe. each cell, each individual body, itself a unique part of this unique complexity.
i want us not to waste the time we have together.
i want us to look at each other with the eyes of interdependence, such that when someone causes harm, we find the gentle parent inside of us who can use a voice of accountability, while also bringing curiosity – ‘why did you cause harm? do you know? do you know other options? apologize.’ that we can set boundaries that don’t require the disappearance of other survivors. that we can act towards accountability with the touch of love. that when someone falls behind, we can use a parent’s voice of discipline while also picking them up and carrying them for a while if needed.
i want us to adapt from systems of oppression and punishment to systems of uplifting and transforming.
i want us to notice that this is a moment when we need to choose life, not surrender to the incompetence and hopelessness of our national leadership.
i want us to be discerning.
i want our movement to feel like a vibrant, accountable space where causing harm does not mean you are excluded immediately and eternally from healing, justice, community or belonging.
i want us to grow lots and lots of skill at holding the processes by which we mend the wounds in our communities and ourselves.
i want satisfying consequences that actually end cycles of harm, generate safety and deepen movement.
i want us to hold Black humanity to the highest degree of protection, even when we have caused harm. i want us to see each other’s trauma-induced behavior as ancestral and impermanent, even as we hold each other accountable.
i want us to be particularly rigorous about holding complexity and accountability well for Black people in our movement communities who are already struggling to keep our heads above water and build trust and move towards life under the intersecting weights of white supremacy, racialized capitalism, police brutality, philanthropic competition culture, and lack of healing support.
i never want to see us initiate processes for Black accountability where those who are not invested in Black life can see it, store it, weaponize it. replace Black in that sentence with any other oppressed peoples and i still feel the same way. it is not strategic, and, again, it is rarely satisfying.
i want us to ask who benefits from our hopelessness, and to deny our oppressors the satisfaction of getting to see our pain. i want them to wonder how we foment such consistent and deep solidarity and unlearning. i want our infiltrators to be astounded into their own transformations, having failed to tear us apart.
i want us to acknowledge that the supremacy and suicidal ideation and hopelessness and harm are everywhere, and make moves that truly allow us to heal into wholeness.
because against all odds in space and time? we. are. winning.
we are winning in spite of the tsunami of pressures against us. we are moving towards life in spite of everything that wants us to give up.
we in movement must learn to choose life even in conflict, composting the bad behaviors while holding the beating hearts.
choosing life includes asking:
do i have the necessary information to form an opinion?
do i have the time to seek understanding?
what does the survivor need?
did a conversation/process already happen?
is a conversation/process possible?
how do we be abolitionist while gaining accountability here?
who benefits from me doubting that movement can hold this?
who could hold this well?
what will end the cycle of harm here?
we must learn to do this before there is no one left to call out, or call we, or call us.
thank you deeply to shira hassan and malkia devich cyril for loving feedback on this piece.
* grace lee Boggs
** mary hooks