Raj Jayadev and Pilar Weiss –
The current criminal legal system has consistently weaponized the role of “the community” in its proceedings – often claiming that decisions have been made to achieve justice for “the community” or to protect “community” safety. As increased awareness of the incarceration crisis across the country has changed some of the dynamics in our public discourse, similar patterns invoking “the community” have remained. Mainstream political candidates openly claim they are progressive and offer reformist reforms in the name of “the community.” The experiences of people of color, the poor, the LGBTQ community, and immigrants in the criminal legal system have of course been that these claims of action and reform in the name of “the community” are not reflective of their actual needs or priorities.
In contrast, all across the country, activists and organizers are building a grassroots movement that is seeking to realize a different vision of justice, one that is based on a radical repositioning of “the community” and its power. This is a fight based on survival but also one seeking to shift power from those who have historically held it to those who have been historically disempowered, under-resourced, targeted by the system, and most impacted by structural inequalities. Law professor Jocelyn Simonson has written previously on the place of “the people” in criminal procedure, reimagining a more inclusive role of the public in the criminal process. Similarly, as the movement to end incarceration continues to develop and gains momentum, the organizing that fuels it is actively contesting the place of “community.” This repositioning of community extends beyond the immediate actions in front of us; it situates the community as the drivers of what the ultimate realization of a new vision of justice, healing, and power will look like.
In this piece, we hope to describe some examples of the spectrum of organizing tactics and practices that are currently part of both the repositioning of community and the creation of pathways towards the transformative vision abolitionist organizers have set out. As two long-time community organizers who work with dozens of community-based organizations and hundreds of organizers and families through our work with Silicon Valley De-Bug, the Community Justice Exchange, the National Participatory Defense Network, and the National Bail Fund Network, we are privileged to be part of the daily work and also see a developing arc. When we, as organizers, refer to “the community,” we are referring to individuals and their families, neighborhood, and those with a common interest and/or shared identity who are all directly impacted by structural inequalities. We don’t assume that there are any definitive answers at this point, but instead that we are in the middle of a process of finding ways to take power and define what justice in the name of “community” actually means.