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Accountability, Backbone, and Change: A Protocol for Community Care

From Grow Wild

***Content Warning: Abuse, Sexual Assault***

***Disclaimer: The work contained in this post is extremely difficult to undertake, and is not guaranteed to produce desired results. While I have found it helpful, and see a lot of potential in incorporating it, it’s not for everyone. And that’s perfectly ok! Starting out with this protocol on lesser offenses may make sense.***

Understanding that actions can never be taken back and that harm can never be undone, we must find strategies for stopping the cause of harm for good each time it happens in our communities. If we are gonna get serious about not relying on the kkkops and the state to use punitive action and force informed by the prison industrial complex to deal with it for us, we are going to need tools that are better than theirs. There’s been a lot of writings, workshops, and other work done on the left for decades on the topics of consent, rape culture, and accountability. Acknowledging that, can we agree on some shit though?

  1. The definition of accountability is still vague af.. What does it look like, feel like, sound like for a person to take responsibility for their actions? Certainly owning one’s actions is necessary, but is that enough to change behavior long-term and prevent it from ever happening again? Is that all that can be done for the survivor to move on with their own process of healing? Often, survivors won’t even get that. Reasons why can vary endlessly. From straight-up lack of care and compassion, poor or no of memory of the event, or fear of incurring harm upon themselves as a result of owning to harmful behavior. Self-victimization plays a role, especially as a result of white fragility or other forms of privilege. Take the below statistic, for example, that shows the vast majority of rapes committed by whites, even given the fact that whites receive far and way fewer convictions and lighter sentences than anyone else. Race_of_Perpetrators 122016It’s unsurprising that people with the most social privilege in society are the least equipped to deal with admitting their wrongdoings. A life of being given the benefit of the doubt does not support the deep and challenging work of taking an honest look at yourself, the effects of your actions, and digging in to find the cause and change the outcome of them. Yet, this is the work. A, B, and C of the aftermath: accountability, backbone, and resulting change of behavior is what we need. Asking or telling people to do things like “own your actions” or “apologize” or “be accountable” isn’t enough when we don’t know what that looks like, what is needed to do it successfully, have role models giving an example, etc.
  2. Every person and every situation is unique. Mix in some PTSD, narcissistic personality disorder, substance addiction, and other layers of cognitive function at play, as well as influences of intersectional social privilege and oppression, and it becomes almost impossible to know anything of relevance to the overall experience of abuse, sexual or otherwise. The document I am offering is only relevant in the types of situations where the people involved are more or less on the same plane of social strata, have no structural power of each other, and don’t rely on each other for basic needs to survive. Perhaps also without the ease of ability nor desire to remove themselves from the spaces they share with their abuser, whether that’s the town where they live, community spaces, mutual friends’ lives, etc. It’s relevant where the harm itself was severe enough to greatly impact the quality of life of the person who experienced it. Parts of the protocol may or may not apply to other less or more severe situations, or to other types of situations where one party experiences significant freedoms over the other, including for example citizenship, freedom from incarceration, race or gender privilege, physical or mental ability based privilege, and many other possibilities. This is not one-size-fits-all. We must support and encourage other survivors who choose to undertake writing a protocol for the “ABC”‘s of abuse that is suited to their specific situation as well!
  3. While my hope is that others find something nourishing or valuable in this, it is still based on my own experience. It’s prompted by an out-of-the-blue correspondence initiated by my abuser’s current partner. It was hard as hell to hear them out, and to get to the bottom of their intention of writing me. But what came out of it was their overall frustration of the lack of effective strategy for dealing with abuse in small communities. They gave me this question: thequestion I told them I needed to think on it. And since then, I’ve put in dozens of hours organizing my response. I’ve done my best to do it as thoroughly and straightforwardly as possible. Over the years, I’ve delved into the work that’s been done thus far on the subject by feminists, survivors, and indigenous community leaders. I’ve also put in literally hundreds of hours and personal resources towards trauma therapy for myself, over the course of a year and a half. I have been building my personal growth work and strategy toolkit. I was able to navigate this conversation, which honestly began in the most harmful way possible, without getting triggered. However, it was still harmful. More on that in Getting Closure Without Accountability.

I’m ready to share what I have come up with based on everything I have learned. I’m sure I will continue to learn, and this can’t possibly be the start nor end of something. My goal is both simple and serious: to heal from and prevent further harm. To deescalate harm whenever possible. To effectively support those who have been harmed as opposed to what often happens in small communities. I’ll name a few examples just to illustrate some all too common outcomes of the current status quo of accountability, and how they harm the survivor as well as the community as a whole:

  1. The survivor is either ignored or gas lit. Denial that the harm occurred. Sometimes the survivor loses friends, sometimes many friends, who would rather not engage or “pick sides”. This causes obvious harm to the person by lack of support in a period of grief or vulnerability. For the community, it creates deep rifts and polarizes people in a way that creates loss of relationships rather than deepening them. People watching this going down learn how risky it is to address harms, so it makes it that much harder to speak up. The harmful behavior is perpetuated.
  2. The survivor is blamed for the harm they experienced, or for other actions they have taken in an effort to distract or subtract from the harm they spoke up about. This is obviously severely harmful to the person already in the most vulnerable state, but it also has the rest of the effects as above for the community as a whole. Self-harm on the part of the survivor is another threat that comes up with this outcome.
  3. The survivor is not centered in the actions taken to achieve accountability. This is often well-intentioned but harmful just the same. When people take liberties sharing the person’s story without permission or add their own twists. When people commit acts of violence or sabotage against the abuser that was not the intention of the survivor. When people capitalize on the situation to visually position themselves as an “ally”. This not only escalates harm, it also can cause the abuser to take their behaviors elsewhere into a community where they are unknown, and where they have even less resources for doing the work necessary to change those behaviors for good. It can make the survivor feel grateful that people didn’t ignore them, but maybe a bit tokenized too. It can complicate the survivor’s feelings about their choice to speak up when it resulted in outcomes they did not want nor ask for.

None of these outcomes are mutually exclusive, nor limited to these possibilities, which tend to overlap more often than not. But it’s time to do better. We must.

Whether it’s to articulate your needs and requests, to demand better support, to be able to rest in the knowledge that the behavior won’t be repeated, or to just know that you aren’t alone in seeking accountability, there are many valuable outcomes that can come from an accountability process that works. This work is ever-evolving to meet the needs of a variety of people in a variety of situations. And we need to keep pushing it forward and adding what we learn to the pot, making it more accessible. I’ve attached some references of work that’s been done on this topic, but it often uses transphobic language, doesn’t include a lens of intersectionality, and almost none of them include actual tools to support people in creating lasting change in themselves. We don’t need another laundry list of do’s and don’ts. We need a systematic protocol that’s as flexible as it is grounded, as focused on outcomes as intentions, and easily called upon in situations of duress.

If you or your friend been called out/in for abusive behaviors, want to do better, but don’t know how, I hope that this document can give you a jumping-off point. And remember, the only acceptable apology is changed behavior. This is your responsibility. You won’t be offered empathy unless you are very lucky and the person you have harmed has enough emotional grit to offer it. It can be exhausting to offer empathy without receiving it in return, but again, this is the work.

If you have sustained harm from the abusive behavior of someone in your community, and want to have a template to use for asking for what you need to feel safe, recover, and stop the cycle of abuse, I hope that this may be of use to you.

Cheers to change.

Rox Roots