Working with folks who have commited harm
Updated: Aug 5
D. Hunter writes about his experiences involved in community accountability processes within poor and working class communities. He is the author of two books Chav Solidarity about his life growing up poor and criminalised and Tracksuits, Traumas and Class Traitors about the ways in which marginalised communites carry out care and mutual aid.
Frank is 25 years old. He has cropped brown hair, a raven tattoo on his neck and a small scar below his bottom lip. He is staring at me with tears in his eyes, framed by Zoom, trying to explain the emotions he went through when first challenged about his behaviour towards a 15-year-old girl four years ago. He stammers as he says how he wanted to punch the person who made the challenge, how a knot appeared in his stomach, how he felt the hair on his arm tingle. I ask him what he feels now. He says he thinks it’s mostly grief. Shame and sorrow are part of the feeling, but there’s far less shame than there used to be. He says the grief is for causing such loss to the girl. He says he killed some of his own humanity when he raped her.
I’ve known Frank for two and a half years now. He’s one of a couple dozen men who I’ve met on a regular basis over the last four years or more. Each of them has been taking part in what can generally be termed community accountability processes. They are individuals who have committed severe interpersonal harm – usually of a physical and/or sexual nature, often more than once – who are now being held to account by their communities. Their communities have chosen not to go through the criminal justice system. Predominantly socially and economically marginalised, and often subject to persecution due to race, religion and nationality, they understand the criminal justice system to be inherently violent and capable of committing far greater harm to all involved. In the majority of community accountability processes, the voices and the wishes of the individual or individuals who have been harmed are placed at the centre of the process.
These processes begin in a variety of ways, sometimes with a beating, sometimes with a community meeting, but more often than not the individual or individuals who have been harmed reach out to people who they trust and have the respect of the wider community. In Frank’s situation, the girl went to her older sister, who in turn reached out to a friend called Yvonne. Yvonne is a community outlier; she has been accepted into some of the machinery of mainstream society, and in a community with below-average attainment in the education system, Yvonne is a postgraduate student at a nearby university who works for a local NGO. She is also the main coordinator for several projects within her community, including a hardship fund and a homework club. When the older sister reached out, Yvonne had been revising for her third-year exams. Her first response was that the situation could become very violent, very quickly: ‘I knew that the girl’s parents’ immediate response would be for retribution, and that from that point things would escalate, causing the community irrevocable harm.’ She brought together two or three members of the community who she considered to have both authority and calm heads. She explained the situation to them, emphasising that the girl who had been assaulted did not want Frank to be hurt or thrown out of the community. She did, however, want him to understand what he had done and the hurt he had caused. Yvonne had come across transformative justice and restorative justice practices in her studies, and began mapping out a version of these models that would be suitable for her community.
Several of the individuals I have worked with over the last few years, have themselves been subject to severe interpersonal harm. In Frank's case he was sexually assaulted in his early-teens by a trusted member of their community, but for the most part the men's actions are shaped by patriarchal notions of masculine power and control, and capitalist notions of ownership and domination. Many are without the skills to process emotions such as fear, loneliness and sorrow, and without these skills most emotions end up manifesting themselves as anger and rage. Community accountability processes often involve the learning of these skills, and most require these men and boys to take part in sessions in which they verbalise their thoughts and feelings prior, during and after they have committed the harms they are responsible for. This work requires time, energy and resources, three things which the communities themselves have in limited supply due to the economic and social difficulties in surviving as marginalised groups within the UK. In most cases this works in parallel with taking responsibility for their own actions (either publically or directly to those affected), and take action to address the harm they have done, either by their own (and their support groups) intitive or under direction from those most affected by the harm they have committed.
My role in all of this, or at least how I found myself within all this, is a little confusing. I was first asked to be involved in community accountability by a family I had known from other forms of community organising in Nottingham. I was asked to help the group of men who were working to, in their words, ‘keep the boy in check’. There were six men involved in this at the time, and they had been meeting every few days in the living room of their eldest collaborator, there they would sit and explain to the teenager (who was 18 at the time) how he had failed both as a man and as a member of their community, before asking him what he could do about it. None of those men involved felt this was particularly helpful, and one felt they needed some support. From their perspective the space they had created was one of hostility and defensiveness, as one explained to me ‘we weren’t so good at hiding our anger at him and that just got his back up’, he also explained to me that they needed someone posher and gayer, so they asked me. This situation went reasonably well, in the first session we encouraged each other to explain the anger and end the pretence that it wasn’t there, ‘I guess we’d thought that we weren’t allowed to say we was angry, and so held it back badly. Once we got it off our chests we didn’t feel it as much.’ one of the participants explained to me. ‘When we said all the things we had to say, it was easier for him to say the things he had to say, and I guess we got real honest with each other.’
When a similar process began, involving friends of this community in another city they reached out again and asked us to be involved. Before long I was working with four men and the processes surrounding them. Then I went on a book tour for my first book “Chav Solidarity”, and mentioned these processes and spoke about my own relationship with interpersonal and structural harm, about my own thoughts regarding the state in all its manifestations. From this new people from different communities got in touch. Yvonne was one of those people, she had been given my book by a friend, and came to a reading I gave in a city close to where she and her community lived. We spoke a little afterwards and she asked if I could possibly become involved in supporting Frank.
As was often the case in these community processes, it was women and non-binary folk who were doing the heavy emotional labour. They had formed a support group around the girl and her family, and another around Frank. How Frank was being treated was informed by the wishes and needs of the girl and her family, but not solely defined by them. There were 14 people taking part in the process over its 18 months, two of them were cis-men, and both left after a couple of months, although one rejoined since and continues to work with Frank to this day, long after the processes officially ended. When the assault was first reported, the first decision made was to ensure the young girl’s safety by exiling Frank from the community. Arrangements were made for him to stay with friends of the community in a town a couple of hours away, and explicit instructions were given that he had to keep returning back to the house immediately after finishing the work that had been arranged for him. Yvonne explains this not in terms of a punishment for Frank, but as an action needed due to lack of capacity and co-ordination within the community itself. Yvonne found herself in a position where she had to approach other members of the community, to explain what had happened and what she felt the best course of action was. The teenage girl and her parents articulated to Yvonne that they did not want the police to be involved, they and their community were steadfast that the police's response would cause further harm to all involved. Equally, they wanted to avoid a physically violent response, for several reasons, as Yvonne told me ‘The dad instinctively wanted to beat the shit out of Frank, but he was very clear that he needed to swallow that, as it would likely cause an escalation of violence between 2 families and likely have profound impact on the whole of the community. At the same time they were very aware that the Frank was deeply traumatized, both by the sexual abuse he had suffered and the fall out within the community since the abuse he went through had become public knowledge’. For her part Yvonne was determined that ‘we didn’t just puke out the same punitive bullshit that the cops and courts would.’ She was met with some resistance from some of the elders of the community, who felt that Frank should be publicly punished as they’d done in past situations, however Yvonne won them over by having one- to- one conversations, and ‘to be honest playing on their guilt about how the whole situation had gone with the man who’d abused Frank.’.
It was the legacy of the abuse Frank had experienced/survived which influenced much of the process, as Yvonne and others worked towards creating a method in which Frank could be held accountable in a way that transformed both him and the community. Frank had been abused for several years at the beginning of his adolescence, he had told a community elder. and the man who had abused him denied it and Frank had become known as a liar within the community. Five years later, the same man was caught assaulting a 12- year old- boy from outside of the community, he was arrested and given a custodial sentence. Many within the community felt that Frank had been severely wronged by those that hadn’t believed him, but many of the more powerful community elders maintained that Frank had been lying and that his abuser had been framed by the police. This led to 2 other young men from the community coming forward to say that the man had raped them years previously. Yvonne had followed all of this going on within her community whilst she progressed through the education system. By the time she started her undergraduate degree what had happened to Frank and the other two men had in her words ‘been swept under the rug, nobody was ready to do the amount of collective reflection that was required. To be honest, me and some of my friends felt like we had to do it for the whole of our community, so that we’d be better prepared for the next time something like it happened.’
In June of last year I got a text message from Frank at 4 in the morning. I'm lying in bed anyway as my partner sleeps next to me. Frank asks if I can call him, so I step out of our bedroom and call him. He’s drunk, something which goes against the accountability demands that have been made of him by the community. He wants to talk about his abuse, and the images it has left in his head, he says that he doesn’t think they’ll go away. He asks me about whether the images of my own abuse have ever left me, I ask him why he thinks I’m up at 4 in the morning. We sit in silence on the phone for a while, and then he says he’s sorry he’s drunk and he’s sorry he raped the girl. He tells me to make sure I let Yvonne and the others involved in the process know that he’s been drinking, and that he'll stop, that he’ll find a meeting to go to tomorrow, that he wants to keep up with the process. He asks me what I think caused the pandemic, we chat about that for a while.
My involvement with Frank’s accountability process ended in December of last year. To her huge credit Yvonne had been was able to create a support group for Frank made up of his community peers. She had led 6 cis-men in their late-20’s, none of whom had left school with any qualifications and all of whom had more than a working knowledge of the carceral system to first form a reading/discussion group which she facilitated, and then a support group around Frank. She called me to let me know that I wouldn’t be needed anymore, ‘it's our community, it's our work to do.’ Yvonne and her friends have sought to make both cultural and structural change within their community, in the full knowledge that the wider culture and political and economic structures are far from changing in ways that will benefit the community. They believe that any harm carried out within their community, by members of their community must be addressed, but that state institutions merely act with a violence that escalates the affects of the harm.
I still get the occasional text message from Frank, mostly about football, but sometimes to let me know that his counselling is going well, or that he had a good conversation with his support group, and at x-mas to tell me that he’d met a woman and he was thinking about asking her for a drink, but he was scared about how she’d react when he told her what he’d done. I texted back saying that she could reject him, but she might not. He concurred, reflecting ‘I think she will, but that’s okay. I think it’ll be good for me to hear that rejection.’.
Not all of the men I’ve worked with over these last few years are as reflective, and as willing to push themselves to change as Frank. Not all of them have the forces of nature that are Yvonne and her friends demanding change within their communities. At present I’m meeting with 4 men, and they have very different levels of commitment to change, and very different levels of community around them. For some folks, each of these men is an abusive piece of shit. For me however, it seems vital that our communities find ways to build responses to harm that do not reinforce nor reproduce the violence of the carceral system, and part of that is by supporting men who could easily be thought of as abusive pieces of shit. Whilst I did not seek out these men I am glad that they found me, that in some small way I’m able to contribute to the processes that are holding them accountable to their communities. That there are women like Yvonne within these communities should not be a surprise to anyone, and is instead something that all of us seeking abolitionist futures should be grateful for and we should rack our brains searching for ways in which we can support the work they are doing on the ground. I don’t pretend to be an expert in any of this, and welcome any conversations with others doing similar work wherever that might be so we can inform and improve one another's work, so feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to have those conversations.