Peaceful protest. (via Rawpixel on iStock)

Last year, the U.S. experienced a reckoning with its protracted history of racial oppression when organizers, activists, and community members across the country (and world) took to the streets and proclaimed “Defund the Police,” making a call for investment in resources that support communities’ ability to thrive. This demand comes out of the movement to end policing and prisons, as the prison industrial complex does not adequately respond to or end instances of violence—including sexual abuse and domestic violence—but in fact, exacerbates these acts. Unfortunately, we currently live in a world where carceral feminism and the current alignment of white-led, mainstream advocacy groups with the state has led to a reliance on punitive measures, including mandatory reporting and increased sentencing, to address gender-based violence—namely sexual assault and domestic violence. But this approach does little to promote healing for survivors and communities, or accountability and healing for those who perpetrate violence and harm. Further, this approach fuels incarceration and does not fundamentally acknowledge or address systemic or institutional gender-based violence. As a result, these so-called“solutions” increase surveillance and policing of Black, Indigenous, and people of color; women; queer, trans, and gender nonconforming people; disabled people; and immigrants, and thus only serve to increase the violence that they, their families, and their communities are already experiencing. 

This came as no surprise to women of color in the 1970s who worked to end gender-based violence outside of the state. They knew state support was unreliable and that police and prisons engendered more harm and violence within their communities. In All Our Trials: Prisons, Policing, and the Feminist Fight to End Violence, Emily L. Thuma detailed their work and how they fought to end gender-based violence by centering anti-carcerality. She shows how—contrary to the contemporary carceral focus of the movements to end domestic violence and sexual assault—historically, this was not the right approach. 

Reproductive oppression is tied to other forms of violence, including capitalism and white supremacy. Perpetrators of abuse learn and mimic the harmful practices and behaviors of larger systems of oppression. Ultimately, the violence of our systems is transmitted to and reproduced in our most intimate interactions through gendered abuse and coercion. Investigating this mutually-reinforcing relationship between the macro and micro, as well as learning how to interrupt and transform these patterns, is critical to ending gender-based violence.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, “Abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.” In order to build life-affirming institutions, we must engage in a collective process to unpack the punitive approaches that we have internalized and ground ourselves in a different way of moving through harm and violence. For us at Healthy and Free Tennessee (HFTN), that holistic approach is transformative justice. Transformative justice is a liberatory response to harm and violence that is rooted in relationships and trust, and seeks “safety and accountability without relying on alienation, punishment, or state or systemic violence.” Transformative justice examines the conditions that allowed for harm and violence to occur in the first place (interrogating larger systems of oppression), and works to shift these conditions. 

HFTN is situated at the intersections of reproductive oppression and criminalization, and in pursuing our mission to promote sexual and reproductive health and freedom, our work has become increasingly aligned with abolition. Although our work is typically framed as simply expanding access to reproductive rights, we understand it to be much broader and deeply-rooted in the movement to end gender-based violence. We are a multiracial, women-led organization that centers the people who have been historically marginalized by oppressive systems in the U.S. We are also survivors of gender-based violence at all levels—interpersonal, institutional, and systemic—and continue to navigate the impact of this violence on our lives. 

We view transformative justice as essential to our work to transform and build new relations and institutions to support reproductive and sexual liberation. We don’t desire or advocate for carceral solutions to gender-based violence because we know they don’t bring the justice and transformation that our communities need and deserve. The carceral system is built on reproductive violence, and as a reproductive freedom organization that convenes groups across the state, we want to position ourselves at the forefront of transformative justice work being done in Tennessee. 

Since last fall, through our partnership with internationally-renowned writer, educator, and trainer Mia Mingus, we have been working to provide transformative justice trainings to Tennessee-based activists and organizers. Our goal is to develop their capacity to respond to harm and violence within social movements and their communities, so they can serve as transformative justice facilitators addressing harms within their local contexts through a transformative justice process, outside of the criminal legal system. These practitioners would also work to prevent instances of gendered violence by engaging their communities around transformative justice values and principles. The potential impact of this effort includes deeper and more trusting relationships within communities; the excavation, healing, and dismantling of violent systems that reproduce themselves through us; and movement toward a world where reliance on the carceral system to dole out punishment is obsolete, and we are instead equipped to respond to harm and violence with compassion and love. 

It’s essential that we reflect on how we’ve been socialized to traditionally approach harm, violence, and accountability. In order to tackle harms and violence on a larger scale, we must first begin with ourselves and build accountability models in our own communities. The goal is not only to respond to each instance of harm and violence, but to stop it from occurring in the first place. We know that this type of intervention is needed as we collectively wrestle with what it looks like to defund the police and invest in our communities. Transformative justice is an investment in uprooting the policing within us and between us, and a blueprint for how to build infrastructure for a new, humane institution in our state.

Briana Perry is a Southern, Black feminist who is organizing around reproductive freedom, abolition, and racial justice. She holds a B.A. in Sociology and Women's and Gender Studies and an M.Ed. in Learning,...