We Have Always Known: Embodying Community Accountability – The Feminist Wire

We Have Always Known: Embodying Community Accountability

A review of Community Accountability: Emerging Movements to Transform Violence, a special issue of Social Justice: A Journal of Crime, Conflict & World Order (Vol 37, No. 4, 2011-2012)

We have always known.   We have known and have known better and have done worse.  We have known the choking pain of silence.  We have known denial and fear and we have not believed in each other.  We have known and we have laughed to distract our knowing.  Drank to dampen our knowing.  Eaten to muffle our knowing.  Starved to shake off our knowing.  Worked to unearn what we know.  But we have always known.

In our bodies, we know that we deserve each other–liberated, whole, cherished, complicated, and listening.  We deserve each other unafraid, unbruised, unchained.  We deserve each other strong and safe.  We deserve each other today.  Right now.  Ask your shoulder to consult your heart.  Ask your heart to check in with the pit of your stomach.   Your body will speak in consensus: We have always known.

Community Accountability: Emerging Movements to Transform Violence, a special issue of Social Justice: A Journal of Crime, Conflict & World Order  opens with those four words “We have always known,” charting the critique and rejection of state violence to correct, stop, or repair interpersonal acts of violence back to Ida B. Wells and earlier.  This special issue, in the genealogy of INCITE: Women of Color Against Violence’s role of intervening in, clarifying, and amplifying the contours of a women of color led movement to transform violence in ways that center the lives, wellness, and communities of women of color, checks in on more than a decade of work explicitly looking at the intersections of state violence and interpersonal violence by lifting up the work of those people who have been bringing this critique into practice experimentally and imperfectly into their daily lives, into their communities, into our very bodies.

I am one of the people that the women of color led movement to transform violence back into nourishing everyday love has hailed, transformed, and reclaimed.  Through my work with UBUNTU and the Durham Harm Free Zone, I am one of those messy, experimental collaborators seeking to create communion and accountability in the intersecting aspirational communities that shape my life. So I read this special issue with the laughter of recognition, the gratitude of affirmation, hunger to apply the lessons other comrades experimenting elsewhere have learned, and the critical eye that is the responsibility of those of us inciting the righteous future.

There is what internationally recognized Durham local author Zelda Lockhart would call food and medicine in these words. I appreciate Mimi Kim’s explication of the six components of the Creative Interventions Community Intervention model, that practiced creating processes to address violence collectively, and her specificity of the tools they use (from decision making processes to concrete tools like whiteboards and big paper) and especially her analysis of what went wrong, where and when systemic dynamics of power were reproduced, and the lessons learned.  I appreciate her honesty about the contradictions in this work where we need to create new authority but are lacking models for how authority can be created without force. I appreciate her details about what it means to aspire to do this work outside of the 501c3 model (like us!) and what it even means to publish about this work in a context where it is being co-opted to bolster the prison system.  Similarly, I appreciate Andrea Smith’s close look at the work to support survivor subjectivity in Native communities, some of which have longstanding practices of communal responses to violence that must be learned from and critiqued.  Esteban Lance Kelly provided useful backstory that I didn’t know, about Philly’s Pissed and Philly Stands Up that I never knew, even after collaborating with those groups.  Like Kim, Kelly gets specific about the specific phases of the accountability process that the group has arrived at through much experimentation and a long process, which is useful for groups seeking to create their own models of how to enact accountability in tangible terms in the face of violence WITHIN our movement groups and surrounding them.  Alisa Bierra’s anaylsis of the blogspheric and mass media conversation about race, nation, and domestic violence in the wake of Chris Brown’s abuse of Rihanna lifts up the intentional ways that young and otherwise disenfranchised thinkers are making intentional uses of accessible media, and Cathy Cohen’s highlight of the queerness of  the youth-led movement to end violence between and against youth in Chicago provides challenging insights and always crucial stakes of intergenerational movement building to love each other and save our lives.

What I find most powerful of all in this collection is its attention to the forms in which we will transform violence back in to love, silence back into presence, and our bodies back into interrupted channels of creativity, poetry, and conversation.  Mimi  Kim and Esteban Lance Kelly mention storytelling, poetry, and conversations as crucial tools in the organizing they describe, and the journal issue itself follows suit by featuring transformative poetry and visionary conversations in the text.  Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarsinha’s poem “The Best Daughter” models honesty in the tradition of Audre Lorde, June Jordan, and so many other women who did the work Lorde called “transforming silence into action and power” by actually putting words to the cycles of violence that we must address in order to create the world we deserve.  Piepzna-Samarsinha’s poem tells us better than any set of directives can tell us that the movement and the future we are creating requires profound bravery, specificity, self-reflection, and faith in our own words.

It is poetry and conversation that save my life everyday, and the conversation between Alisa Bierra, Aishah Shahidah Simmons, and Theryn Kigvamasud’Vashti is a life-saving conversation.  Describing the work of the film NO! and the work of the Black People Project at CARA, they not only teach readers about what it takes to create a truly community-accountable documentary about violence and offers ways that such films can be used to practically intervene in violence in our communities and create necessary contexts for survivors to speak up.  But they also draw in generations of ancestors’ legacies of survival through lynching, rape, sexual abuse, and other forms of state-cemented violence that impacts black communities.

And this is exactly what we need: models, lessons, forward-looking youth-led examples, and the strength of all our ancestors who survive in our work to heal ourselves and our communities.  Much gratitude to the collective that envisioned, supported, and created this important collection of work, for putting it together and making it publicly accessible. Read and download it for free here:

And then share it with your friends, your comrades, your students, your teachers, your family, everyone you organize with…everyone you love.

We have always known.  Let’s act like it.