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“The Fuel for Everything”: Acts of Care as Sources of Hope


Jocelyn Simonson (@j_simonson) is Professor at Brooklyn Law School.

This post introduces a symposium on Radical Acts of Justice: How Ordinary People Are Dismantling Mass Incarceration. Read the responses here.


In recent years, it has become commonplace among those critical of criminalization to refuse the term “criminal justice system” and refer instead to a “criminal legal system.” This terminological substitution reflects a growing belief that our formal systems of prosecution and adjudication advance not justice or democracy but in fact their precise opposites. Such clarity is a positive development. And yet, the product of this new terminology has not been the feeling of liberatory imagination that one might expect from repudiation of false consciousness. Rather, the moral and democratic failures of courts and the law can give rise to mounting despair. The possibility of “fixing” the problem — of aligning our formal systems of justice with our normative aspirations — at times appears almost inconceivable.

One of the arguments in my book, Radical Acts of Justice, is that we can locate at least some faith in justice and democracy by looking to concrete acts of collective care taking place all around us. It may be a neighborhood mutual aid group providing for its hungriest community members. It may be a state-wide abortion fund providing support and protection for people seeking care. Or it may be an expansive web of collectives working to protect a city’s natural resources in the face of a plan to tear them down and replace them with a new police training center. In each of these instances, the people involved provide mutual care and, in doing so, live out their understandings of justice. We can think of these understandings of justice as alternatives to the law, or as contestations over law’s nomos. In either case, they challenge the legal system’s normative authority, signaling an ideological battle between the status quo and the hopeful, radical imaginations of collectives on the ground.

Radical Acts of Justice focuses, in particular, on visions of justice that are taking shape in courthouses and city council chambers themselves. In cities like Dallas, Seattle, and Los Angeles, large coalitions are advancing “people’s budgets,” which prioritize what community members say makes them feel safe: healthcare, housing, education, and infrastructure. In places like Knoxville, Philadelphia, and more than fifty others, people directly affected by criminal cases are joining “participatory defense hubs,” where they meet regularly to support each other and to shift case outcomes, away from prison and toward family safety. In Baton Rouge, Baltimore, and at least thirty other places, courtwatching groups are bringing ordinary people into criminal courtrooms to observe and document the “justice” being administered in their names. And perhaps most prominently, in nearly 100 places around the country, community bail and bond funds are freeing people from pretrial and immigration detention on a daily basis. When these groups pay bail for a stranger, they send a powerful message to the court system: We are the community in whose name you have ordered detention, and we don’t agree with your vision of justice.

Organizers in these efforts see justice and safety not as abstract ideas handed down by judges, prosecutors, and police officers but as living ideals that we must, and can, create together. In researching and writing Radical Acts of Justice, I spoke to dozens of organizers around the countryAgain and again, they told me that they joined these efforts not because they wanted to create new political vistas, but because they wanted to help people in a tangible way. And yet, again and again, people engaging in these acts found that their understandings of justice and safety were shaken, and then rebuilt, by the work they did together. 

If this sounds like a rosy account of collective resistance, I do not mean to argue that the work is easy, or always leads to success in a traditional sense. Whether or not it feels successful, the work is invariably tiring, requiring time, labor, and money, any of which can dry up at any moment. And, as with all forms of resistance against the status quo, this work of collective care is constantly subject to backlash and retrenchment. Indeed, a number of bail funds have halted operations or switched gears in their organizing, for some or all of those reasons.

But I do mean to argue that, hard as the work is, these acts of collective resistance within our courthouses and legislative chambers represent necessary, powerful invocations of social, legal, and constitutional concepts that can undermine the system’s own invocations of those same ideas. From such “radical acts of justice,” we can draw out complex, grounded ideas about justice, safety, and fairness. These ideas only emerge through care, and they only come to seem possible through struggle. With a tactic like participatory defense, for example, Raj Jayadev of Silicon Valley De-Bug explained to me the feeling of engaging in collective resistance: “It gives you a sense of faith or confidence that your imagination can go into places that you weren’t initially conceiving. And get there.” 

These are not fleeting moments of faith. During one conversation that I had with Jayadev in the course of interviewing him for the book, he told me that just that morning, De-Bug’s participatory defense hub, the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project, had gathered in criminal court in San Jose. The group was supporting Barrett, a hub member and video artist who was living on an ankle monitor pending sentencing for a felony involving a car accident. The morning of the day that Jayadev and I spoke, Barrett was scheduled to appear in court and “step in” for a forty-five-day jail sentence. Weeks earlier, Barrett’s experienced attorney had told hub members that there was no chance of a sentence other than jail time; rather than advocate for an alternative to incarceration, the hub should prepare to support Barrett on the inside.

But De-Bug hub members had learned, over twenty years, that seasoned system players, even well-meaning defense attorneys, can often underestimate the power of the collective work of participatory defense. And so the hub pushed forward in Barrett’s case, creating a binder that included written testimony about Barrett’s community connections and letters from doctors stressing that Barrett had acute medical needs that would make jail an especially devastating place for him. The binder itself was a tangible reminder of Barrett’s place as one person within a broader community. It presented the complexities of a human being who pushed for social justice and supported others even as he himself needed support for various health needs, rather than a lone individual who had done something wrong. In the vision of the participatory defense hub, justice could only be found outside the criminal system, through further communal support. And yet, they had been told that this court would only see Barrett through the lens of criminalization, as a lone individual in need of punishment.

When the hub members arrived in court for Barrett’s sentencing, the judge and defense attorney had been in possession of the binder for a few weeks. It had clearly affected both of them. As Jayadev told me, “Just this morning . . . the defender changed his tone. Then made the argument. Then won the argument. And no more jail time.” Jayadev was not surprised, but he was elated. Barrett’s sentencing is just one relatively small case in over twenty years of organizing at Silicon Valley De-Bug. But each time that someone’s fate changes because of a communal act in a courtroom, the collective is newly energized. 

Again and again, people taking part in participatory defense hubs, bail funds, People’s Budgets, and other collective tactics of resistance find themselves in conflict with even the most well-meaning institutional actors. Sharlyn Grace, former executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, has reflected on how, when the bond fund first assembled a coalition to abolish money bond in Illinois, most advocates for bail reform scoffed at the idea of full abolition. The Coalition to End Money Bond pushed forward anyway. In the face of a civil rights lawsuit around money bail, they put pressure on local judges in Chicago to implement a new procedural rule, forbidding the setting of money bond beyond what someone could afford. To ensure the rule led to decarceration, they trained courtwatchers to document its effects. They pushed for, but did not get, a similar state court rule. All along, they continued to post bond for hundreds of people each year. And the coalition combined these tactics with lobbying days, litigation, and protests. At each moment, this constellation of groups worked to further public consciousness of how money bond was impacting their communities.

In 2021, only five years after the launch of the coalition, the Illinois state legislature passed a law eliminating money bail in the state. The law went into effect in late 2023. Grace has written of this turnaround, “If there is one overarching lesson in what we accomplished in Illinois, it is this: Attorneys and other professional advocates must take seriously the ‘unrealistic’ goals of organizers and work in partnership to achieve them.”

The day-to-day work of bail funds, courtwatching groups, and participatory defense hubs may seem small-scale in comparison to the daily grind of the criminal legal system. But small moments of resistance, repeated over and over, swell to something bigger. These tactics do not reform the courts or fix the system. They work within the courts, using the tools and language of the law to embody visions of justice rooted in collective care. In so doing, they show us how we might begin to envision a different set of rules and systems, a different relationship to the state, a different understanding of where to locate justice and safety—and how to work toward them together.

These practices of collective resistance are sometimes described as prefigurative because the actors involved are working communally to live out a vision of a society that does not yet exist. By acting out and experiencing alternative forms of justice, these groups show themselves and others that such forms are possible. Reflecting on the win in Barrett’s case, Jayadev told me, “That was the fuel for everything, this sense of hope, this sense of anything’s possible. [That’s] the only thing, the only way we move.”


Portions of this piece were adapted from Radical Acts of Justice: How Ordinary People are Dismantling Mass Incarceration.