Reflecting on the sexual misconduct allegations against Charlie Rose Tuesday morning on CBS, Gayle King voiced some thoughts that may be floating through many people’s minds these days: “I’m really struggling because how do you . . . what do you say when someone that you deeply care about has done something that is so horrible?” she asked. “How do you wrap your brain around that? I’m really grappling with that.”
Lost in the din of daily public allegations of sexual harassment and assault perpetrated by rich and powerful men is a growing conversation about what happens after the media moves on to something else. What happens to the communities these men are a part of? What becomes of the relationships they’re entwined in? What happens to the people they hurt? The most common consequence to the airing of misconduct allegations against most of these men is their immediate exile from their workplaces and, presumably, some of their professional and social networks.
Though many are calling this moment in our culture a “reckoning,” there’s little substantive discussion in the media about what justice for survivors of harassment and assault—and accountability for the perpetrators—might look like. And not just for the billionaire movie producers and celebrities and politicians, but for the everyday perpetrators of sexual violence: our bosses, colleagues, relatives, friends, and acquaintances. Eighty percent of sexual assaults are perpetrated by people we know, not random strangers; many women have no choice but to live side by side with the men who harass, assault, or rape them. We cannot and will not exile them all. We can’t and won’t put them all behind bars or sue them into destitution. And we cannot assume that those are the consequences the victims would even want, or that those are the consequences that would put an end to the rape culture permeating our society.
Which is why, perhaps, there’s now growing interest in models of addressing interpersonal violence that don’t rely on involving the legal system, corporate HR departments, or other formal institutions. Last Monday more than 100 students and community members packed an auditorium at Northwestern University to learn from educator and organizer Mariame Kaba about a method of grappling with sexual and other harm known as “community accountability.”
Kaba, who’s spent decades working with survivors and perpetrators of sexual and domestic violence, opened the talk by explaining that the event had been planned months ago. It wasn’t meant as a response to current revelations or the #MeToo campaign. The violence now being spotlighted by the media has permeated women’s lives forever; Kaba works with women whose stories aren’t deemed important enough to touch off a nationwide “reckoning”—some of whom are punished for taking action to protect themselves against sexual violence.
“I have no idea why you’re in the room, but what I hope you get out of the experience is a way of thinking about sexual violence and ending it that doesn’t rely on the death-making institutions of police and prisons and surveillance, which we’ve been using to supposedly eradicate rape,” she said. “People should know I’m an abolitionist,” she added, “I don’t believe the current system solves problems, I believe it creates more.” She stressed that she wasn’t there to evangelize or convert anyone to her way of thinking or dissuade anyone who feels the police can help from calling 911. She also said she wouldn’t entertain arguments in which someone was taking the position of devil’s advocate. “I’m not here to transform your mindset,” Kaba said. That was work we had to personally choose to do.
With that, she asked that her talk not be recorded or tweeted about in real time, that her photo not be taken, and that her words not be quoted by any members of the media who might be in attendance. “I don’t want my words circulating without proper context.”
With Kaba’s permission, I’m paraphrasing the main arguments in her lecture and explaining the “community accountability” model of justice as she presented it.
It was decades ago that anti-rape activists began to work on ways to remedy sexual violence against women without involving the legal system. The dehumanizing treatment many survivors faced from police, prosecutors, and judges when they decided to report being raped or assaulted spurred the vision behind community accountability as an alternative.
In 1977, Santa Cruz Women Against Rape penned an “open letter to the anti-rape movement,” warning that while growing awareness of sexual assault was good, it was also accompanied by an increased drive to involve the criminal justice system in solving the problem. This drive was spearheaded by social service organizations that relied on government funding to operate (unlike the early rape crisis centers that were sustained by radical feminist groups), and therefore either eschewed criticism of law enforcement authorities or were actively seeking greater collaboration with them.
“Attempts at ‘good relations’ with the criminal justice system have served to co-opt our movement, and have led to the belief (or hope) that the criminal justice system can solve the problem of rape,” they wrote. “Yet, the sexist and racist nature of the criminal justice system only makes the problem worse. . . . The criminal justice system has shown itself to be unresponsive and insensitive to the needs of women. The ordeal of reporting a rape and seeing it through trial is made painful and degrading. Even if the individuals involved try to be pleasant and helpful, the processes and structure of the entire system remain hostile and unsupportive to rape victims. This is largely because the women involved have no power in the process: it is the police that decide if she was ‘really raped’, the DA often decides that it isn’t a ‘good case’ so won’t prosecute, and juries hesitate to convict a rapist.”
The writers went on to argue that more convictions wouldn’t solve the root causes of sexual assault. “It is true that the conviction rate for rapists is very low. This is largely due to sexism and the sexist myths about rape in our culture. We abhor the reasons for this low conviction rate but that doesn’t mean that we should work for a high convictions rate. Those convicted of rape are most likely to be Third World and/or poor White men, as is true for convictions for nearly all other crimes. . . . Prisons themselves are incapable of changing rapists. Prison culture is much like that of the outside world, with all of the pressure intensified. Male sex roles, violence, and power relations which lead to rape in the first place, are strongly reinforced within prison. Rapists in prison don’t stop raping—they simply enforce their power over men weaker than themselves. Prisons don’t deal with the roots of the problem, they only add to the causes. Men getting out of prison have not learned new ways of relating to women and haven’t developed an analysis of why they rape or how to change. It is likely that they will rape again.”
This analysis continues to ring true 40 years later. According to the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics as well as non-government groups, rape and sexual assault are vastly underreported. And even when they are reported, very few alleged perpetrators are ultimately convicted of any crime. Rates of sexual assault in jail and prison (mostly perpetrated by staff ) are high, particularly against women and LGBTQ prisoners. And recidivism by people convicted of sexual offenses, while not as frequent as once purported, is still a reality.
Kaba encouraged the audience to think about sexual violence on a spectrum of harm, and that while not all of us will rape someone, all of us do harm other people—if not to their bodies, then at least to their feelings. The community accountability process is informed by this view and can offer a way to mitigate harm not just from the acts that society considers criminal, but from the kinds of acts that hurt us on a daily basis: the passive aggressive behavior of a colleague, the biting criticism of a parent, the shaming by siblings or spouses. Much like therapy, the community accountability process offers a framework to consider how that harm affects our lives and relationships, and also offers the person who harmed a chance to understand what they did to cause pain and own up to their actions. Ultimately, accountability can’t be imposed, Kaba explained—it must be chosen by the person who inflicted harm. That can’t happen if the person doesn’t own the fact that something he or she did, whether or not it was intentional, caused another person pain and suffering.
Part of what perpetuates rape culture, Kaba also noted, is that we currently offer no incentive to people to own their harmful actions. Sure, some people still do, but as we’ve seen in the cascade of scandals in the upper echelons of power, most of the accused will deny wrongdoing, presumably for fear of litigation, criminal prosecution, or further disgrace. We don’t work very hard to promote notions of justice that don’t revolve around punishment, so is it any wonder that the people who hurt others rarely own it? We’re not taught how to empathize with the mental reckoning of the people we deem to be villains, and so we don’t know much about how it might work or what we might do to prompt it.
And when we’re confronted with the reality that most “villains” aren’t John Wayne Gacy or Reginald McFadden or Danny Heinrich—that they might be men we admire and love—we find ourselves in Gayle King’s shoes. We’re at a loss as to what to think and do.
The community accountability process begins not by outsourcing the investigation of allegations and dispensing of punishment to representatives of the state, but by centering the person who was harmed. It can begin with just a couple of friends talking with the victim about the incident and how the person envisions justice. The process often requires someone taking on the role of a facilitator (in the way that a couples therapist might) to mediate between the party alleging harm, the alleged, and the wider community impacted. A facilitator doesn’t have to be a credentialed professional, but this person must understand that the process requires checking participants for oppressive acts so that the process itself doesn’t become a vehicle for further harm or mob justice.
For those interested in understanding the ins and outs of the process, Kaba pointed in the direction of an extremely thorough toolkit created by Creative Interventions of Oakland, California. There are also extensive community accountability resources curated by Incite, whose members have been pioneering this movement for decades. And in Chicago, various organizations previously profiled by the Reader already practice community accountability.
Kaba summarized the bedrock principles of the community accountability process: that it can be a pathway to justice for those who don’t feel safe involving police, that it should be a choice, that it’s not a cure-all, that it can help establish lines of communication between people, that it doesn’t require forgiveness, and that it can take a very long time (months, even years). That pace reflects a realistic timeframe in which people are capable of growth, change, and healing.
She concluded the talk with a quote from Rebecca Farr of Communities Against Rape and Abuse, which has also published a guide to community accountability:
“I am not proposing that sexual violence and domestic violence will no longer exist. I am proposing that we create a world where so many people are walking around with the skills and knowledge to support someone that there is no longer a need for anonymous hotlines. I am proposing that we break through the shame of survivors (a result of rape culture) and the victim-blaming ideology of all of us (also a result of rape culture), so that survivors can gain support from the people already in their lives. I am proposing that we create a society where community members care enough to hold an abuser accountable so that a survivor does not have to flee their home. I am proposing that all of the folks that have been disappointed by systems work together to create alternative systems. I am proposing that we organize.”