“Who keeps us safe? We keep us safe!”

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Interview with Melanie Brazzell
© Melanie Brazzell
© Melanie Brazzell

Migrazine: Melanie, you published the book “What really makes us safe? A Toolkit for Intersectional, Transformative Justice Beyond Prisons and Police” in 2018, which was originally a multimedia project of yours. Lawyers, activists, and organizations like “LesMigras” and “Women in Exile” participated in this project. What was your intention for this project and book?

My research on transformative justice grows out of my own engagement as a survivor in anti-violence work. The “What really makes us safe?” project had its roots in the Berlin Transformative Justice Kollektiv, a group I co-founded with some very lovely people to respond to sexual and partner violence in our communities. The collective also translated (both literally and figuratively) U.S. critiques of and alternatives to the carceral state into the German context, and hybridized them with local traditions of resistance to state and gendered violence.

We also held conversations with U.S. activists, sometimes hoping the “mothership” or the frontrunners of TJ had all the answers (spoiler - they didn’t). These conversations eventually snowballed into a Master’s research project and a number of interviews with activists and scholars. Because what I had learned burst the seams of the pages allowed for my thesis, I created a website to amplify the voices of my interviewees, archive their stories, and share my findings. So that was the first, U.S.-focused section of the project.

Part of coming into an honest relationship with transformative justice was reckoning with my identity as a white person working in a genealogy rooted in Black radical, queer/trans, and women of color feminist traditions. Keeping my eyes strained across the Atlantic and oriented to the U.S. kept me from seeing my own role in my Berlin communities. So the second phase of the project involved turning back to the Berlin context to bring what I’d learned into dialogue with German-based activists.

It started with a university seminar called “Feminism and the State: Carceral Feminisms and Transformative Alternatives”, where I invited a number of activists to guest lecture in the course. The class was book-ended by the mass sexual violence in Cologne’s main square on New Year Eve’s 2015 and, in the summer, the passage of carceral feminist laws regarding prostitution (Prostituiertensschutzgesetz) and sexual assault (Sexualstrafrecht-Reform). This made it clearer than ever that carceral feminist dynamics are transnational, and alive and well in Germany.

Together with several students, we organized a public panel with our guest lecturers. This evolved into a toolkit for analyzing state violence, its interactions with gendered violence (particularly for migrant and refugee women), and roots and seeds of transformative justice in the German context. My intention was to surface and document practices here in Germany that combine an analysis of state violence and interpersonal violence, of racism and sexism — and many more ism’s, that refuses to let racism and sexism be played out against each other and that are rooted in the experiences and political knowledge of queers and women of color. These practices may not use the terms “transformative justice” or “abolition” but I wanted to bring them together and suggest that paradigm as a potential “home” for them. 

These interventions were followed by a Lab for Alternatives to Police & Prisons, some workshops and articles, and the handbook I co-authored with the RESPONS Collective, “What to do in case of sexual violence? Handbook for Transformative Work with People Causing Violence” (“Was tun bei sexualisierter Gewalt? Handbuch für die Transformative Arbeit mit gewaltausübenden Personen”).

The collective wrapped up its work a few years ago, so the “What really makes us safe?” project has branched off on its own, and is now the house for a variety of projects I’m working on, including my dissertation research and work on comparing transformative justice transnationally with folks from the UK, Australia, the U.S., and Germany.

The book is a toolkit for the sexist and racist violence reproduced by the police and law system. “Community accountability is a key concept. What does “community accountability mean and why is it important in security context?

“Community accountability” was first coined and developed by INCITE!, a U.S. network of feminists of color, particularly by their member group Communities Against Rape and Abuse (CARA), whose groundbreaking article “Taking Risks” was translated into German by the Transformative Justice Kollektiv Berlin and then into Turkish by comrades in Turkey. INCITE! and CARA’s diagram explains four “zones” where community accountability takes place, ranging from the interpersonal to the structural: survivor safety and self-determination, perpetrator accountability and change, community values and practices, and changing political conditions that enable violence.

What is unique about community accountability is that it doesn’t reduce violence to a problem between just two people. Particularly sexual and partner violence often gets swept under the rug as a “personal problem” that other people who see it don’t want to get involved in. By contrast, community accountability recognizes that interpersonal violence is often an expression of the violent structures we live in. This isn’t an excuse that diminishes the personal accountability of those who cause harm, but an explanation that helps us better address the root causes of harm. The root isn’t that people are just monsters, but that systems of harm circulate in our society. In fact, one of CARA’s first principles is to maintain the humanity of everyone involved in a community accountability process. 

Community accountability also emphasizes that everyone in a community (a group of friends, religious group, house project, political organization, sports team) has a responsibility to address violence. We often want to give up that responsibility to the state or to professionals (therapists, advocates) because we feel unprepared, exhausted, or afraid of making mistakes. While liberation-oriented professionals have a role to play in a community accountability process, we have to recognize that each of us has a role to play, too. And community members can often be more effective at creating change than people who come in from outside a community.

How does this relate to the term “transformative justice”?

The term “transformative justice” was developed in particular by generationFIVE in their work to end child sexual abuse within five generations. It describes forms of justice not focused on punishment but transformation at individual, community, and structural levels. In Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and Ejeris Dixon’s recent book, Beyond Survival: Stories and Strategies from the Transformative Justice Movement (2020), there’s an interview with long-time practitioner Shira Hassan (of Just Practice) where she describes transformative justice as being broader than community accountability. Community accountability is a specific, often longer-term process for a case of harm, whereas transformative justice can be any number of efforts to create safety, reduce risk of harm, and change harmful behaviors outside of punishment and carceral systems. She lists things like community restraining orders, and sex workers documenting violent johns, and safety protocols at demos.

The word “transformative justice” has gone somewhat viral since the Black Lives Matter protests of 2014, and is now used more often than “community accountability.” Community accountability really came out of this context of work against sexual and partner violence, and transformative justice has expanded beyond that as a framework for addressing all kinds of interpersonal violence and conflict - elder abuse, youth conflict, etc - outside punishment and carceral systems. The term transformative justice” is also sometimes used by people working in the fields of restorative justice (known in Germany as Täter-Opfer-Ausgleich) and transitional justice (when nation-states rebuild after war and conflict), but I don’t think of their use of the word as being part of the same tradition. Transformative justice distinguishes itself from those fields by being rooted in social movements, working outside of state institutions, and grounded in a commitment to the abolition of police and prisons.

You are currently in California, and taking part in protests against Trump to maintain the integrity of the election. After the assassination of George Floyd and during related protests, a photo circulated in the media showing U.S. soldiers against Black Lives Matter protesters. How has the security discourse in public space — especially with Trump — changed?

The Movement for Black Lives is by all measures the largest1 social movement we’ve ever had in the U.S. and so it has dramatically shifted the landscape of the discussion on policing. We’ve seen police defunded in at least a dozen cities, though some of these struggles have hit bureaucratic hurdles related to budget number-crunching (and, in Minneapolis’ case, the city charter). The heart of the defund demand is to redistribute resources from state violence to social welfare systems — to housing for unhoused people, to mental health services and non-police support in cases of crisis, to healthcare for everyone, to education and jobs, and so on.

I believe there will still need to be some institution — ideally, many and community-controlled — for people to access when they experience harm, but does it need to be armed, does it need to be the police? Defunding has pushed transformative justice more into the limelight, pressuring experimental, small-scale alternatives to police to consider what it would look like to scale up and be accessible to more people.

At demonstrations, people have been chanting “Who keeps us safe?“ “We keep us safe!” So on a symbolic level, the very meaning of safety is open to discussion right now in a way that I believe is unprecedented. It goes deeper than protests in the ‘90s against, say, police brutality” because the conversation is openly abolitionist. It’s sick of reforms that only shift the money and the violence around, because activists have seen enough of that to know it’s a distraction. It’s about extinguishing policing at the root because police violence does not come from bad apples, but a rotten tree.

Unsurprisingly, Trump has recycled the classic Nixon playbook to criminalize Black and Brown uprisings as “urban unrest” and present himself as the law-and-order candidate. Biden has also tepidly adopted the anti-racist message of Black Lives Matter as a kind of neoliberal celebration of diversity, but has completely ignored the abolitionist push to transform and defund police. BLM originally formed under Obama and is likely to face similar neoliberal, elite Democratic politics under a Biden administration, so I’m curious what kind of traction the movement will get. In the meantime, the Trump-era has grown a crop of poisonous white supremacist fascists who have openly murdered several protestors. To those who want us to turn to the police to protect our demonstrations from fascist attacks, I will remind you that the members of those two worlds often overlap, sometimes significantly (including in Germany with NSU 2.0 for example).

Do we have answers to the question “What would really make us safe”? or solutions?

Great question! Gets right to the heart of things. One of my old roommates came to a book reading of mine, and afterward they sent me a photo in their typical deadpan, cheeky style. It had the book cover, with the title “What really makes us safe?” and underneath they had put a sticky note with the word “Nothing”. That was their answer. And I love the provocation of that. I think there’s some value to letting go of what Roxane Gay calls “the illusion of safety/the safety of illusion”2, particularly for white, class-privileged people like myself who have been raised up thinking about safety in the language of walls and borders and fences, of walling oneself off from vulnerability (to use Judith Butler’s language). Low-income communities and communities of color have long known and articulated that policing doesn’t keep them safe, but this reality is now piercing the veil for more class and race-privileged people in the U.S. (and hopefully Germany).

Sicherheit has many meanings in German, including the English words “safety” and “security”. And I’ve written about how negative “security”, which is about walling yourself off from vulnerability to avoid negative experiences, is a carceral model. And I compare this to positive “safety”, which is about having the collective resources and capacities and support to create what you want in this life. But I often think about another meaning of “Sicherheit” in German, which is “certainty.” I think if we give up the criminal legal system and carceral security, we have to give up certainty. We enter a zone of experimentation where we don’t have a ready-made script for what to do when things get hard or scary or painful. And our best guides in that space are queer communities, women of color, Black women, indigenous Two-spirit people, sex workers, undocumented immigrants, and refugees — people who’ve been living outside the promise of state security on the margins of society, sewing the seeds of new worlds of safety there.



Interview: Ezgi Erol

The interview was conducted during the last week of October via E-Mail.

Melanie Brazzellis a transformative justice researcher and practitioner, whose work is housed within the "What really makes us safe?" project. They are currently exploring participatory research as a social movement tool as a PhD student at University of California Santa Barbara.