On Wednesday night, the Barnard Center for Research on Women presented “Transformative Justice in the Era of #DefundPolice: Lessons from the Past, Strategizing for the Future,” featuring transformative justice activists Mimi Kim and Shira Hassan.

The evening opened with remarks from Hope Dector, the creative director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women (BCRW). She presented the evening as a discussion to promote non-carceral responses for harm. The evening was presented as part of the Building Accountable Communities Project, created by Mariame Kaba, to discuss how to practice transformative justice (TJ) in real life. Dector thanked Kaba for her efforts in this regard and further acknowledged Dean Spade BC ’97, as well as the rest of the staff at BCRW for their efforts in organizing this event. Shira Hassan extended her thanks to the broader transformative justice community, stating that “you can’t practice TJ in a vacuum.” Mimi Kim agreed, adding that they usually have only five minutes to speak, and appreciated the opportunity to speak at length about this important topic.

Kim and Hassan began by defining transformative justice and restorative justice. Transformative justice, to them, is a way of interrupting and transforming violence while addressing the root causes, providing all those involved with the right to heal and confront systems that may be in their way. They added that TJ solutions necessarily happen outside the state, and address both the interpersonal problem and its root causes. Kim emphasized the ever-changing vocabulary around transformative justice, and that different people will use different definitions: she expressed her own concerns about some current justice language being overly embedded in the criminalization system. 

Restorative justice is, in some ways, a predecessor of transformative justice. RJ, as they called it, has a long lineage of Indigenous and BIPOC organizers, and one of their concerns included restoring people to their original forms after the harms done by colonialism. Restorative justice language was co-opted by the state in the 1970s, and many adopted transformative justice as a way to emphasize that these solutions happen outside of the state. According to Hassan, transformative justice cannot align with the state. 

Hassan and Kim then explained their backgrounds in restorative justice work. Kim is one of the co-founders of Incite! in 2000. She and the other founders were anti-violence activists who wanted to create a conference centered around communities of color, who were not leaders in these spaces, and who had differing concerns from the mainstream white feminist movement. More about Incite! can be found in the anthology The Revolution Will Not Be Funded

Hassan discussed how she was practicing transformative justice before she had the name for it. She was part of communities that couldn’t call the police (drug users, sex workers, and unhoused young people) where issues came up around sexual violence, intimate partner violence, and theft. There was great risk in calling 911 or any other agent of the state, so Hassan would help to hold interventions. In 2001, she joined the Young Women’s Empowerment Project, which helped support people involved in the street economy, and it was here that her path crossed with Incite!. Hassan related the death threats YWEP received, as well as those targeted at her specifically, from johns paying for sex work. Additionally, there were police officers staking out the YWEP premises, who would not say why they were outside the building, and also did not do anything about the death threats. Hassan had attended an Incite! conference, so Incite! staff came to the premises to help the YWEP staff safely leave the building and securely document what was happening. Hassan learned that this was called an intervention.

Both activists discussed the mistakes they have made during their careers. Hassan even said she “threatens” to do a workshop called “Every Mistake I Ever Made.” Hassan shared an intervention she handled poorly about 18 years ago: several people confronted someone at once, berating them with grievances and without offering them any solutions or space to process. Kim added that there are a lot of transformative justice naysayers because of these faulty interventions, but that more and more interventions are successful. Hassan and Kim mentioned the successful work of organizations like API-Chaya and Cat 911. On the topic of organizations, they noted that if organizations (particularly ones for sexual assault and domestic violence advocacy) want to practice transformative justice they need to be accountable for the harm that they have caused with carceral violence.

This discussion was recorded, and the recording is available on the BCRW page

Editor’s Note, 10/27 12:05 PM: We have corrected this article for the correct spelling of Hope Dector’s name.

Shira Hassan and Mimi Kim via BCRW