Responding to harm is complicated. Communities are complicated. In a dominant culture that insists that we be independent and individualists, where we believe some people are disposable and some people deserve violence, where efficiency matters so much and folks who aren't productive are seen as a drain, a burden....responding to harm often leads to further violence. Violence that replicates so many of the violences of oppression.
We are used to laws, codified rulesets, commandments to follow that provide us with a litmus test as to whether our actions are justified or not. Moral or not. For those of us that have been colonized, those rules often were created without us and enforced upon us. We find ourselves in conflict trying to find the liberation from suffering those rules seem to promise. We quiet our own intuition... we let the fear that has been nurtured within us by the forces that demand to control our lives lead us.
It can feel fundamentally terrifying, disorienting, and naive to believe that we are equipped to respond to harm without these codes of conduct. It is infuriating when we can no longer deny the violence inherent to law enforcement, when we are forced to confront the systemic violence of unjust laws. And a responsibility we have been told is too great for us to bear falls to us in communities where we cannot abide the violence of law enforcement, where the intervention of the State would augment and perpetuate the harm.
Over the last few months of community accountability work, one of the most common things that happens in intro to transformative justice workshops is the vulnerably specific "what-ifs" where folks want to know if they did the right thing when responding to harm.
Blame, innocence, right, wrong, justified...I'll leave these questions to the moral philosophers. What comes up for me in my body when I hear these words is a history of justified violence using language of "justice". I see a history of divine right and manifest destiny, and how flimsily morality shifts in practice when it profits the powerful. Power and control over my community do not interest me. Letting go of innocence, blame, justifications, right & wrong leaves a space for a question I feel like I do want to answer.
What do my actions do? What do I want to feel in community? What are mine and my community's values? I believe in the power of self-determination as a force for decolonizing and liberating ourselves in the spaces of our lives where we have the capacity to imagine and live in new ways.
To support my reflection and meditation on my actions when I'm trying my best to support folks involved in harm in my community I ask myself questions corresponding to 3 fundamental principles, my harm response test.
Is an action I'm taking a direct safety measure? How am I defining safety? How am I ensuring that I'm not calling the comfort of folks (particularly those with more privilege) safety? Whose safety is being centered here? Who is most impacted by this action? How have I communicated to them how this action relates to personal and community safety? Is the distinction between consequence and punishment being made if the person who caused harm is most affected by this action?
Does this action support survivor and/or community agency? Is this action meant to be helpful to the survivor? Did the survivor ask for this help? Am I assuming the survivor doesn't have capacity to do this for themselves? Did I ask the survivor what they felt they needed to feel supported? Am I judging how a survivor is processing? Is there a way to support the survivor in self-determination? Am I supporting accountability for myself, those who have experienced or caused harm, and bystanders in community?
Does this response support the integration of the experience into our collective history? Does this response support the survivor in their healing? Does this response support the collective in addressing harm while not disposing of its members? Does this response allow for congruence between our spoken principles and values and our actions?
If you haven't seen the Steven Universe Movie, and would like to avoid plot spoilers, stop here.
Lately Steven Universe has become a blessing on my life for a whole new reason. It has so much good representation, but one of the things that stood out to me was the ways in which Steven's healing powers are so interconnected with his empathy. And his empathy gives him a sense of intrinsic connection to all beings he comes into contact with. For this reason it seems that Steven is driven on a somatic level to bring those that have harmed him into integrity with themselves and with the collective.
In the SU movie after Steven's closest gem family are all poofed, Steven reaches out to his closest human family as a first responder. It was Greg's emotional support and the sense of close, trust and belonging that Steven seemed to crave after the devastating events of the beginning of the movie. He sought out co-regulation from his "powerless" human father. (*takes a break to go cry about how good Greg is*)
(*returns from incredibly gay cry*)
It's only after Spinel reforms that Steven remembers he has more Crystal Gem allies. Lapis, Bismuth, and Peridot are his second stop to respond to the crisis. We see them earlier in the movie performing the labor of creating the fundamental infrastructure for Little Homeworld. The are clearly instrumental in their community. The resources they offer as terraforming, science, and building gems is truly transformational, and their labor is helping to liberate gem kind on Earth. Amethyst even talks about how much she wishes she'd had resources like the ones Peridot, Lapis, and Bismuth are building right now.
All of those details make sense as traits for heroes in a movie. But then when these three resourceful and heroic gems meet Spinel who has been "rejuvenated" and can't even remember the violence of her fight with the Crystal Gems or her ongoing poisoning of the Earth with her injector, they all allude to how they ALL tried to kill Steven in the past. Lapis even jokes about it saying "I'm still on the fence." If this were a fragile reintegration joking about it would have been profoundly upsetting and disruptive. But their history of harm, their transformation, their role as members of the Crystal Gems, and valued, founding members of Little Homeworld have been integrated into their story. They aren't tiptoeing around it because integrity is the opposite of fragility.
Spinel is also a story of Steven believing in the inherent worth of everyone he encounters, but in the movie I loved seeing Bismuth, Lapis, and Peridot and how they have added their talents, resources, stories into the collective.
I highly recommend watching Steven Universe episodes where there is conflict between Steven and a gem through the lens of "safety, agency, and integrity". Steven doesn't tend to punish in response to harm, but he does bubble Bismuth in self-defence (safety), he does allow Lapis the space she needed (agency), and even supported Peridot's capacity to discover her ferrokinesis (integrity!). And all of them added valuable pieces to Steven's understanding of himself, of the history of his people, and help clarify his role and their roles in the principled family of liberators they were all building. My goal is loving liberation for myself and my community. This informs my responses to harm. What are your goals in community? How do you talk about these goals with your family, you community?