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You Can’t End Violence With More Violence: Shifting From Incarceration to Accountability

A system based on punishment cannot transform harm.

Organizer CeCe McDonald speaks at the San Francisco LGBT Center. McDonald was incarcerated for actions she took to defend her survival. Prisons do not solve sexual and gender violence; they perpetuate it. (Photo: Pax Ahimsa Gethen / Flickr)

We’re now several months into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world. Today’s interview is the 83rd in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation with Mariame Kaba and Shira Hassan. Kaba is an organizer and educator whose work centers on criminalized survivors of violence and on ending youth incarceration. Hassan is the founder of Just Practice, a community project that focuses on accountability without involving police.

Sarah Jaffe: Sexual harassment and sexual assault are in the news because of a powerful famous man…. Do you feel like the public conversation around these people in the media, on social media, wherever you are hearing it, has progressed at all?

Mariame Kaba: The conversation is absolutely different from when I started doing work around sexual assault…. That was in the late 1980s/early 1990s. The focus at that point was really the question of date rape on campus and the conversation revolved mostly around … “How do we address people drinking and then assaulting people?”

I also came of age at a time before social media. The conversation was very much limited to having talks with your friends about this…. Beyond that, you were talking with folks in a support group setting, storytelling and divulging that you had been raped…. It didn’t feel like you had to premise your conversation around disclosing your own experience before you could actually speak to this in a real way. I, yes indeed, am a survivor of sexual assault and violence, but it just felt different at that time. It felt somehow more intimate and less tied to media and social media.

Shira Hassan: I think the conversation has definitely changed, especially the way we have the conversation much more publicly. It is a lot different than writing people’s names on the bathroom walls, which is what we were doing in the 1990s. Facebook has become the bathroom wall, in a way…. I think because it is a more democratized platform, to some degree, different people are in the conversation than used to be. I do think that, by and large, the people who are having the conversation are still the same, though.

I don’t actually feel overwhelmed by survivor stories. I feel overwhelmed by inaction around survivor stories. — Shira Hassan

I don’t see this conversation happening in the same way about young people in the sex trade, for example, or with a lot of the young people who I know, who are more street-based, where the idea of sexual harassment is something that people are thinking about and angry about and know what it is…. Gwyneth Paltrow is not commenting on their experiences. She is commenting on actresses in Hollywood. I don’t want to diminish or demean how important those experiences of violence are, but at the same time, it is a certain kind of survivor and a certain kind of violence that we are all talking about. I think that part is the same.

One of the things about this big public conversation is that, for me, it actually feels more overwhelming. What Mariame called this “culture of compulsory confession” feels smothering…. You have been doing work around this for a while and dealing directly with survivors. How do you fight that feeling of “Oh my god, this is never going to end”?

Hassan: There are a couple of things. There are stories that overwhelm me and stop me in my tracks, but they are also the stories of people that I love and there is a face to the story most of the time for me, so … I think the feeling of overwhelming has been something that I counter with action and I counter with healing. This idea of healing justice, where speaking out is part of that healing. I feel connected to that as an action, not so much connected to that as a burden. I feel like it is a blessing to be amongst survivor stories. I don’t actually feel overwhelmed by survivor stories. I feel overwhelmed by inaction around survivor stories.

Kaba: For me, it is the difference between the question of asking “What can I personally do?” versus what we can do. When I think of what I can do as an individual person, it feels more overwhelming. It is like, “Well, a lot of my friends are survivors. A lot of people I care [about] and love are survivors. I can’t personally take responsibility for … all of their lives and their pain, I can’t take all of that on.”

You can’t also just take on everybody’s joy, either. When I think about it in that kind of individualistic way, it could feel overwhelming, but I have worked towards a collective idea of healing and a collective idea of action and organizing. I don’t think that the issue we have right now is that we have too many organizers. I think we have too few organizers, and that can also feel super debilitating when it is a lot of handwringing or a lot of outrage … that doesn’t have any direction. I think that can feel overwhelming. I would say since 1988, since I have been in this field, what has kept me going is that collectivity. And seeking to actually understand and to heal and to be part of that healing process with other people.

Right now, we end up with this story of one survivor has to come forward and file charges with the police and then this one perpetrator will be held accountable and … that doesn’t work.

Kaba: And it doesn’t happen. I think that is another aspect of this, for people who are counting on a criminal punishment response to this…. It doesn’t know how to transform harm that occurs. It is a system that most people don’t access, most survivors still never access. For lots of reasons: because they don’t want to, because they have been traumatized in the past by the system, because they don’t want the person who harmed them necessarily caught up in the system. There are a million reasons. Because they don’t want to be raked over the coals themselves. Because they try to solve problems in community.

Our culture does not encourage people who cause harm to take responsibility. We have an adversarial model where the person who is actually placed on trial is the survivor. — Mariame Kaba

When people do access the system, they are screwed over by it, literally, in all different kinds of ways. They also then feel a sense of disempowerment. I can understand that if the way you think we are actually going to solve this problem is through that system, I can understand that sense of complete debilitating depression, because that system actually can’t do that.

Hassan: Not only can’t the system do it, but I think our belief that it can is the part that I think we feel most betrayed by most often. I think there are some of us who have let go of that betrayal because we have just stopped trying to get water from a stone. Frankly, the stone is being thrown at us. So, we are now trying to build shelter from the stone and talk to everyone who is coming inside the shelter about what we can do. That, for me, is perhaps why I feel less overwhelmed. It isn’t that I don’t feel like, “Wow, we have an unbelievable amount to do,” because I do feel like that. But I do feel like we have so many more things to try away from the system than with it. What we have begun to create is this shelter together, where we really can focus on who is inside this huddle and work with each person who is there in a more meaningful way to move forward.

In the wake of the Weinstein revelations, one of the things that some people have been talking about is the whisper network: The way that women warn each other about certain men in their political circles or in their work circles. And yet these feel inadequate too — they are not particularly accountable for the people making accusations, which is less a problem than the fact that they just end up assuming that it is still our job to avoid perpetrators.

Kaba: You can’t force somebody into being accountable for things they do. That is not possible. People have to take accountability for things that they actually do wrong. They have to … say, “This is wrong and I want to be part of making some sort of amends or repairing this or not doing it again.” The question is: “What in our culture allows people to do that? What are the structural things that exist? What in our culture encourages people who assault people and harm people to take responsibility?” What I see is almost nothing.

That means, for example, people continue to be rewarded when they do bad things to other people or take negative action against people. We are in a situation where people try to argue over semantics. Like, “Is this or is this not…?” We don’t have a sense that people are prepared to say, “There is a spectrum of sexual harm. Not everything is rape. And yet, everything that feels like a violation is harm.” We just don’t have that within the larger culture that allows for people to feel like they can take responsibility and that they can be accountable.

The other thing is, we do have the threat that if you do admit that you do this, you might be caught up in the criminal punishment system. You might see the inside of a jail. So, your inclination is to deny, deny, deny until the very end. There is just no incentive for you to “come clean” and be like, “I actually did this. Yes, I did rape this person. I did sexually assault them. I did harass them. I did molest them.” We are in this adversarial model where you don’t admit it, and the person who is actually being placed on trial is the survivor, to prove that you actually did this.

We have to make violence unthinkable in our culture. Within our current system, we are trying to end violence with more violence. — Mariame Kaba

I understand, within that, why people feel like they have to whisper and why survivors then have to take the weight of actually figuring out how to “bring somebody to accountability.” All the incentive structure is set up in such a way that … until we shift a lot of other things, I am not sure how we are going to be able to move from the particularly “women survivors” who have to do all the heavy lifting.

And of course, all survivors aren’t women.

Kaba: Exactly. This is … to me, the work that we have to do. It has to be to make community members understand what sexual harm looks like, what it feels like, why it is unacceptable. We have to make violence unthinkable in our culture. We have to make interpersonal violence unthinkable…. For that to happen, then that is actually an issue not around punishment, but about organizing. Most people don’t want to organize around these things. That, to me, is the nexus. That is the place that we have to work from if we are really going to transform this into something where it isn’t the survivors or the victims that have to carry the load all the time.

Hassan: I want to add one thing: where the history of those lists come from. Those kinds of lists got started with people in the sex trade, in particular trans women of color, who started creating bad date sheets. These were informal sheets, literally, that were written down and passed around through the community. We used to photocopy them, copy them down and hand them out with people’s physical descriptions. The rest of the world looks at people in the sex trade as completely disposable, but we borrow their tools all the time when we feel disposable.

I want to be sure that we recognize the history and legacy of the tools that are being used and how they are being used and why they are being used before we say that they are not working or important or that is all we can do, because the next thing just has to grow out of that. What is the next thing we are going to do with those lists? We went from the bathroom wall to Facebook. We went from photocopying the sheet with descriptions to passing it around online. We do have the power and capacity to think of “What next?” but we haven’t quite yet. In part, because we don’t have solidarity with each other and we don’t recognize that the spectrum of sexual violence is something that is happening to all of us because we live in [a] rape culture and all of this is going to keep happening to us until we can collectively figure out what we are doing here.

You have done work, also, around the way that survivors of this violence are often criminalized themselves. I am thinking about Black women and Black trans women like Cece McDonald and Marissa Alexander. Talk about that as an understanding that has to also come into these discussions of “What can we do?”

Kaba: In terms of Survived and Punished, we have come together nationally to put a spotlight on the fact that when you look at who is actually incarcerated and criminalized in the current criminal punishment system — in terms of women and gender nonconforming people, in particular — often, these are people who are survivors of sexual violence and domestic violence prior to their criminalization and prior to their incarceration. They have been violated in the first place. They end up criminalized within the system, often for defending themselves against violence or for criminalized survival actions like having self-medicated and used drugs in order to get over some of the stress that they have been put under, [or] being brought in under conspiracy charges for their abusive partner who coerced them into actions. Taking their kids and fleeing and then being charged with kidnapping. All sorts of survival actions.

We understand that the link between criminalization and domestic and sexual violence is inextricable and undeniable, and people find themselves caught up in the system and end up re-violated and re-traumatized within that very system. Then, you are in prison or in jail or an immigrant detention center…. People come in, they have to be patted down, they have strip searches, women are made to shower with male [correctional officers] watching them and leering. Sometimes people are raped in those particular institutions.

We have to be mindful of the fact that the very thing we say we want to end, violence, is being perpetrated by that very same system. We are trying to end violence with more violence. It just doesn’t make any sense. Our work has been to uplift particular cases of people who have been criminalized by the system and make sure to make those connections. It is not just that we are lifting up those cases as exceptional cases, as cases that prove that this “one good person” needs to be released or this one innocent person needs to be released. We are making a broader case that actually everybody should be free, because almost everybody within these systems has these histories that they bring with them and these institutions are re-traumatizing institutions. They make no one better. In fact, they make everybody worse.

The difference between punishment and consequences is that punishment often is not the same as transformation. — Shira Hassan

Recently, we organized to help free Bresha Meadows, a 14-year-old girl who killed her father in self-defense. We came together, initially, through the work that so many of us had been involved in in terms of freeing Marissa Alexander. We are part of a long tradition of defense campaigns for Joan Little and Cassandra Keaton and any number of other survivors of violence who have been criminalized for defending their lives or for actions they took in the attempt of surviving. We are trying to bring together many, many different kinds of people, groups, ideas, to leverage this in order to be able to free more people. These are freedom campaigns.

As Shira mentioned early on, who are we talking about as the survivors that we are actually uplifting? Who are the people? What is sexual violence? When we put people in prisons and in jails, often we are sentencing them to judicial rape because we know they are going to be assaulted when they go inside….

We have to complicate this conversation around sexual violence and see all the different ways that it is used as a form of social control across the board, with many different people from all different genders and all different races and all different social locations. If we understand the problem in that way, we have a better shot at actually uprooting all of the conditions that lead to this and all of the ways in which sexual violence reinforces other forms of violence. Our work over a couple of decades now has been devoted to complicating these narratives that are too easy, these really simple narratives around a perfect victim who is assaulted by an evil monster and that is the end of the story … [it] doesn’t take into consideration the spectrum of sexual violence, therefore minimizing certain people’s experiences and making others more valid.

The last thing I want to add here is my concern over not just the “perfect victim” narrative, but also this idea somehow that we all have the same experience because we have been raped and we all think the same way about how to address it, and that for all of us, being a rape survivor becomes your identity. We were raped. Something bad happened to us. We are trying to address that, but we are not taking on the survivor as a totalizing identity for everything we do in our lives and how that matters. I want more of those kinds of conversations to be happening in public, but somehow, we can’t have those. We can’t have complicated conversations about sexual violence because then you are accused of rape apologia or you are accused of coddling rapists. That is very, very limiting. It means that we are not going to be able to uproot and really solve the problem ultimately.

Hassan: What I want to make … clear is that community accountability and the work we are trying to do is not saying that people who cause sexual harm and intimate partner violence … are rapists … I just want to complicate the fact that even though we are talking about prison abolition because of the harm that it causes to our entire community and because of the legacy of slavery, we are absolutely talking about consequences for people and real consequences….

For example, I don’t know what is going to happen with Mr. Weinstein, but I know that he has enough money to make what he wants to happen a possibility. The consequences that are going to happen to him, they may never measure up to the harm that he created. Yet we see wide-scale harm happening for people who may ultimately want to be accountable. Sexual violence is very nuanced and the system that we have is not.

How are we going to create in our communities spaces that allow people real opportunity to heal? — Mariame Kaba

Thinking about this idea of prison as not a feminist place. That is one of Mariame’s famous quotes at this point: “Prison is not feminist.” It isn’t, because it recreates the same sexual violence and the same fear, the same kinds of oppression. It is the pin on the head of the racist and sexist system that we live in….

That does not mean, however, no consequences. It means real consequences. Consequences that really matter. It means transforming the conditions that exist in the first place for this to even have happened. It is really a critical point for people to think about … the difference between punishment and consequences, and that punishment often is actually not the same as transformation and … consequences and transformation are actually the long-term future we want to live in….

Kaba: I also want to talk a little bit about what is hopeful about what is happening in the world around these issues. Shira and I just spent three and a half days in Chicago with 50 people from around the country doing trainings and facilitating discussion and dialogue about how we do community accountability to address sexual harm and interpersonal violence. These folks came together from all around the country and took that much time out of their day because, I think, we understand this moment as … opportunity for something different. A lot of people are talking now, and there is much more awareness around the fact that the prison industrial complex has churned communities and people through a meat grinder, literally, and devastated people. Yet people don’t feel more safe. People don’t feel as though violence is “curbed” in any way.

Because of that, people are in this position of feeling like “We are willing to return to some of what we used to do” in terms of trying to solve issues within our communities, but to do that with a different intentionality, by not romanticizing community as though that is the panacea and it is going to automatically lead to these outcomes that we want. We trouble the idea of community. We think about the fact that we have actual skills that we need to develop to figure out how we intervene when violence occurs, either when violence occurs to us or when it occurs to people we love and care about or it occurs to strangers that are affiliated with our communities.

How do we reclaim our imagination from what the prison industrial complex has forced us into thinking are the only solutions that we have? — Shira Hassan

We have to build up the skills of being able to say, “What does it mean to actually center a survivor who is harmed? What does it mean to actually support people who have caused harm? What does it mean to take responsibility for saying ‘We refuse in our community to condone when this happens’?” One of the things that is so important is that harm causes wounds that necessitate healing. That is what so many people are looking for — a way to begin to heal. How are we going to create in our communities spaces that allow people real opportunity to heal?

Again, not necessarily through compulsory confession in a public way. But how do we hold that people who have been harmed deserve an opportunity to actually be able for that harm to be addressed in a real way? Often, that is all people want, is a real acknowledgement that “I was hurt. Somebody did it. I want them to know that they did it. I want to see that they have some remorse for having done it and I want them to start a process by which they will ensure to themselves, at least, and be accountable to their community for not doing it again. That is what I am trying to get as a survivor.” I think there is hope in that.

People are doing this work all around the country. We had 150 applications for 45 slots. People want to be able to engage this. I think maybe that is something that people who are listening will take some hope from and see that there is a way for them in their community to activate along the same lines. Maybe if more of us do this, maybe we will be talking in 20 years about … a landscape that is totally different, a way that people start taking accountability for actions that they do that are harmful to other people in a totally different way.

Hassan: I think about the Malcolm X quote all the time, “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six, that is not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the knife made.” What we are doing right now, that we are all actively committed to, is figuring out not only “How do we heal the wound?” but, “How do we transform the conditions that we are living in in the first place?” The premise of the community accountability weekend that we spent together was not only around skill transfer, but it was about reclaiming our imaginations. How do we reclaim our imagination from what the prison industrial complex has forced us into thinking are the only solutions that we have? How do we reclaim our imaginations from how capitalism and oppression has divided us?

We can spend three and a half days reclaiming our imaginations and practicing these skills together and figuring out “How do we actually transform the conditions that create the opportunity for that blow to come in the first place?” I am seeing that all the time. I am seeing that with my social work students, I am seeing that in these community accountability settings and the workshops that we are doing through Just Practice, and I am seeing it through conversations like this where we are not only thinking about, “How does Harvey Weinstein get held accountable?” but we are thinking about, “How do we transform this culture that we are living in? How do we hear and really hold survivors? How do we make sure that we all have a voice so that we can truly connect and be with each other to the end of this game, not just to the next incarceration or to the next lawsuit?”

How can people keep up with both of you?

Kaba: People can keep up with me on Twitter, where I am @prisonculture. They can read my blog

Hassan: You can subscribe to the mailing list for Just Practice on the website or

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

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