The current criminal legal system has consistently weaponized the role of “the community” in its proceedings – often claiming that decisions have been made to achieve justice for “the community” or to protect “community” safety. As increased awareness of the incarceration crisis across the country has changed some of the dynamics in our public discourse, similar patterns invoking “the community” have remained. Mainstream political candidates openly claim they are progressive and offer reformist reforms in the name of “the community.” The experiences of people of color, the poor, the LGBTQ community, and immigrants in the criminal legal system have of course been that these claims of action and reform in the name of “the community” are not reflective of their actual needs or priorities.
In contrast, all across the country, activists and organizers are building a grassroots movement that is seeking to realize a different vision of justice, one that is based on a radical repositioning of “the community” and its power. This is a fight based on survival but also one seeking to shift power from those who have historically held it to those who have been historically disempowered, under-resourced, targeted by the system, and most impacted by structural inequalities. Law professor Jocelyn Simonson has written previously on the place of “the people” in criminal procedure, reimagining a more inclusive role of the public in the criminal process. Similarly, as the movement to end incarceration continues to develop and gains momentum, the organizing that fuels it is actively contesting the place of “community.” This repositioning of community extends beyond the immediate actions in front of us; it situates the community as the drivers of what the ultimate realization of a new vision of justice, healing, and power will look like.
In this piece, we hope to describe some examples of the spectrum of organizing tactics and practices that are currently part of both the repositioning of community and the creation of pathways towards the transformative vision abolitionist organizers have set out. As two long-time community organizers who work with dozens of community-based organizations and hundreds of organizers and families through our work with Silicon Valley De-Bug, the Community Justice Exchange, the National Participatory Defense Network, and the National Bail Fund Network, we are privileged to be part of the daily work and also see a developing arc. When we, as organizers, refer to “the community,” we are referring to individuals and their families, neighborhood, and those with a common interest and/or shared identity who are all directly impacted by structural inequalities. We don’t assume that there are any definitive answers at this point, but instead that we are in the middle of a process of finding ways to take power and define what justice in the name of “community” actually means.
The constantly growing movement to end incarceration is a complex effort with no single defining campaign. It is hundreds of formal and informal organizational formations of different size and orientation tackling the numerous drivers of the carceral state. Depending on a community’s experiences and circumstances, the focus of organizing and campaign efforts vary: the money bail system and pretrial detention, the building of new jails and prisons, sentencing, probation and parole systems, privatization and user fees, juvenile detention, the state of public defense and representation, criminalized survivors, the expansion of surveillance and e-carceration, the restoration of voting rights, blocks to re-entry for returning citizens, the intersection of the criminal legal system and the immigration detention system, and on and on.
Much of the current organizing that is happening is experimentation, with tactics and strategies looking to redefine the community’s role and power in the system. However, these interventions still have to be understood as stop-gap measures – important and necessary, but only because of how things currently exist. They are part of the pathway to the future we seek to create. They are the start of how we reposition community, but they are not of themselves the ultimate goal.
We know that many arguing for “criminal justice reform” are often deeply tied to reformist reforms that just smooth out the wheels of injustice, arguing for “smarter,” “fairer,” and more efficient justice and focusing on changes that keep the system intact. To understand how organizers are taking a different approach, it is helpful to recall the writing of the philosopher André Gorz who specifically differentiated radical alternatives to reformist reforms, writing: “A non-reformist reform is determined not in terms of what can be, but what should be. And finally, it bases the possibility of attaining its objective on the implementation of fundamental political and economic changes. These changes can be sudden, just as they can be gradual. But in any case they assume a modification of the relations of power…”
The organizers and families that we work with across the country are trying to create changes which tangibly result in the freedom of those targeted by the system while simultaneously wresting power from the state. Organizing tactics and practices that contest power and the place of community may be the devices we use to win local and immediate struggles, but they are also the vehicles pushing us towards an answer to the question of what we will build after we win, how do we realize the larger vision of abolition.
There is a diverse spectrum of experimental organizing happening. None of it is the ultimate “solution” to incarceration but rather a means to get there. A small cross-section includes:
- Abolitionist community bail funds – All across the country, community bail funds pool money to free individuals they have no real connection to, in order to free them from pretrial detention. This tactic repositions the role of community, particularly around the concept of safety, when it is explicitly working in tension to the system, and not in cooperation with the system. (We make this distinction as there are certainly bail funds and bail out actions that are done without an abolitionist framework and instead cooperate directly with the system or are even an extension of the system itself.) Bail funds assert that the community is bearing witness and welcoming individuals home, with an emphasis on the presumption of innocence and the conviction that communities are safer when individuals are not in cages.
- Court-watching for accountability – The many different formations of court-watching which are taking on prosecutor accountability, the implementation of new court rules, and individual case support, all reposition where community witness and transparency lie and how system actors are responsive (or not) to the communities they purport to be acting on behalf of. This has been a particularly important tactical tool as newly elected prosecutors offer up reformist claims of major change but are only further entrenching the system and its positions of power.
- Participatory defense hubs – In the participatory defense organizing model, people facing charges, their families, and communities work to impact the outcome of cases while also transforming the landscape of power in the court system (The term “participatory” is often used to describe actions that involve active participation and collaboration from individuals and communities, but here we are specifically referring to the organizing practice with particular disciplines and principles started in San Jose, CA, by Silicon Valley De-Bug and now used in dozens of communities across the country.). What might have started out as individual-based tactical actions – creating social biography packets and videos, court-watching to map the court’s actions, memorializing investigation materials, intentionally working with a public defender, packing a courtroom with supporters – has grown into a model that we call a participatory defense hub. The hub is built upon a practice of a regular meeting that is interested in constantly creating leadership opportunities for those who first came to work on an individual case. The hub is focused on ensuring that participatory defense is not understood as a “service”, where families are “clients” to get help, but rather see families who come to meetings as the key agents of change. The hub values the horizontal sharing of power, putting a premium on the lived experience, and the relationships built through the process. The regular actions of a participatory defense hub reposition the community in the court room and in relation to the public defender, and importantly begin to change the power dynamic.
These different organizing tools and approaches are opening up a space to ask questions about how we are building new structures as we dismantle the current system and reposition the place of community.
Community bail funds have been a tactical tool for decades and are a response to a central driver of incarceration – wealth-based pretrial detention. Bail funds offer the immediate harm reduction of freeing people and can also be catalytic in how they reposition community in the narrative around the role of money bail. But they are not a long-term solution (or even a medium-term one) and instead are opening up core questions about the structures we want to build. How will we provide care and support for those in need in our community? How will we work through the very real questions of safety that come from inter-personal harm? How can we create and sustain ways for individuals and families to heal?
Silicon Valley De-Bug developed the participatory defense organizing framework to respond to the most urgent realities of needing to find ways to work collectively as a community to protect loved ones from being taken away. The participatory defense model started as employing a series of tactics to marshal community power and use it against a court system that had been essentially insulated from community voice. It resulted in transformative outcomes – cases dropped, sentences and deportations stopped, and the start of a new vision of what happens when the community is situated in a position of power in the legal system. However, the barometers of success are not only in the explicitly described “campaign wins” of the individual cases. Organizers building participatory defense hubs are preoccupied with another set of questions as well — Did those who were supposed to be stripped of agency in the face of challenging powerful institutions, actually become more powerful through the fight? Has the organizing engagement been transformative in people’s sense of themselves and the capacity of their community?
With any of these tactical organizing approaches, we see a danger of stopping short. We know that it is a long road to liberation. When we see tactical interventions begin to slowly shift power, and particularly in those moments when we all feel that very unfamiliar sensation of progress, it is common for the assumption to be that we have arrived. But this is just the start. For example, one of the greatest testaments of a participatory defense hub is when those who are part of the “core” regular participating group tell the story of how they first started coming because of their own case, and how they continue to come to support others in their community. In this structure, we have moved beyond reacting to just the moment and are also opening up longer term possibilities of change by creating a new and growing space for community power. The practice of the participatory defense hub then is a cumulative, building, approach.
The irony of this moment of new awareness around the impact of incarceration is that it is creating openings for tactical experimentation to happen, but runs the risk of stopping well short of building what is needed to actually end incarceration. The historical moment is accepting of a certain level of reform that refines, but does not dismantle the system. There is a water mark of what change is tolerable in the larger American imagination —it is manifested in moments like the First Step Act only challenging low-level drug charges. The shallow reformers disinterested in real transformative change asks bail funds to bail out those who they have carved out from “reform,” they ask participatory defense hubs to only stand with those who have obvious innocence claims, and they call on court-watching to only address the most egregious of judicial actions, rather than indicting the entire apparatus. As such, for these tactics to be engines of a truly transformative vision, we must resist the settling for what is currently politically palatable.
As we experiment with different organizing tactics and start to build out organizing practices that reposition where community power resides, we must also consider the arc of this transformation we are seeking. In their recent piece in this forum, Amna Akbar, Sameer Ashar, and Jocelyn Simonson note the power of social movement visions in pushing policy and politics left. Indeed, the visions organizers set forth along with the tactics to realize them are part of the larger transformation. However, we often get pushed to declare tactical victories as the end instead of the means to the end. The world we are building, the one without incarceration and with true com-munity power, will not contain the formations we had to try out to dismantle the system, but rather will be at the end of the path we built together.