How Should a Community Respond to Abuse?

How Should a Community Respond to Abuse?

So, what *should* a community do when one of their members has been accused of abuse?

At its conception, the community needs to make a choice: Is their policy “believe victims, eject abusers” ? That’s a valid approach. It means that people will lose out on a communal social resource for misunderstandings, co-dependent toxic dynamics, and the occasional lie, but it also means that anyone who reports abuse at the hands of another community member can feel sure that they’ll be believed and supported. Is their approach one of striving for justice, and finding the most “fair” solution for all community members? That’s also a valid approach. It means that victims know that they may need to jump through hoops to find their community a safe and welcoming space again, but it also means that your community isn’t a “one strike and you’re out” kind of place. It allows room for growth and change and mistakes and amends.

Once that’s been decided, it’s time to take action.

The first step is to remove the abuser from the community. They cannot, at this time, receive the benefits of a community where their victims are. A community’s first action needs to be protecting the people who have been harmed, and seeing your abuser every time you engage with a community is actively increasing harm.

Second step – you need some way to judge what kind of abuse occurred. This is honestly the hardest step. Because sometimes consent violations or abuse occur because of a toxic combination of personalities, or because of poor communication, or a lack of education. It is possible to unintentionally violate someone’s consent. That doesn’t mean that what they did was any less wrong, but it does mean that education is going to be more valuable than isolation or punitive justice. If someone behaved maliciously, this is the end of the road for them. They cannot re-engage with this community. But if someone committed abuse or consent violations or harassment because they didn’t realize their actions were wrong or harmful, there is further action that can be taken. Carefully.

Third step, what is the abuser’s response? Are they denying that they did wrong and making excuses? This is a mark of someone who’s going to abuse again, because they clearly don’t see their actions as harmful, or under their own control. Do they accept that they did wrong, and can clearly articulate that they erred? Are they actively looking for ways to educate themselves, and to repair the harm they’ve done (to their partner or to the community)?

Fourth step, work with the victim to see what they want and need to happen next. This is also a tough one – a community is for everyone, and if someone has committed abuse unintentionally and has experienced education, they don’t necessarily need to be isolated and barred from the community forever. But someone who has experienced abuse or consent violations also shouldn’t be forced to face their abuser every time they want to interact with this community. If we just say “well, she learned her lesson and feels really bad, she can come back to meetings,” we’re placing a victim’s emotions, experience, and needs last.

There’s an ideal goal in restorative justice where a middle party* will work with both people – with the abuser, to educate them and to give them opportunities to make amends, to improve the community, and to improve themselves. With the victim, to process their trauma, to give them space to heal, and to discover what of their needs their abuser could meet with restorative actions. The perfect solution in a perfect world is that the abuser would understand what they did wrong and use their unique position to improve the community. “Look at what a consent violation can look like. I had no idea, and then I hurt someone. Could you also find yourself in a situation like this? Let’s talk.” In this perfect world, the victim could communicate with their abuser, and have a productive and healing dialog. Both people are still able to be members in the community, without triggering trauma or ignoring feelings.

There are a few problems with the execution of this model, though. Restorative justice is hard to balance. How can you respect someone’s trauma and pain and need for space, while still acknowledging that a community is communally owned, and that all people deserve access to it? How can you ascertain that an abuser erred, that they are genuinely sorry and ready to change, and not just manipulating community members the same way they manipulated their victim?

Something I have seen too often is someone in feminist, consent-culture driven communities, using feminist buzzwords, and abusing their partners. When they’re called out on their behavior, they put on a show of shame and regret, say they’ve learned their lessons, and have no consequences for their actions. Their victims are told to get over it. How do we judge if someone will benefit from education or if they’re a manipulative monster?

We can’t. Or at least, we can’t with 100% certainty. We will never be able to. And the people making the judgement calls, if they’re someone from within that community, will always make some wrong calls. How did they feel about the abuser or victim before the abuse was reported? Are they a community leader, and if so, are they up for reelection anytime soon?

If abuse, harassment, rape, or consent violations are reported to community leadership, and they begin looking for receipts or making value judgements, they need to be comfortable with the fact that their public priorities are “finding out the truth and personally dispensing justice” and not “believing victims”. That’s just a choice they need to make. It’s not a right or a wrong choice, but community members deserve to know what’s going to happen if they report abuse.

One thing that I’ve seen in marginalized spaces: people stating that restorative justice needs to be initiated by the victim. That the victim needs to reach out to a community leader or neutral middle party, and request restorative justice as the method of dealing with the problem. People say this because community leaders try to be the ones mediating restorative justice, which is never going to be healthy for a community. The leaders can’t be the neutral middle group, because there will always ben personal biases to one or another person, even if they’re trying hard to be neutral.

But demanding that the victim always be the one to initiate restorative justice proceedings cannot always be the routine, for a few reasons. One, if a victim doesn’t know that restorative justice exists, they will not be able to request it. Two, they are possibly dealing with trauma and pain – it cannot be their responsibility to initiate difficult to handle proceedings; they don’t need that burden. Three, while it’s possible that a victim will say “my partner hurt me. It might have been an accident, but I need someone to mediate for us and to initiate restorative justice proceedings.”, it’s more likely that they will say “my partner hurt me. Screw them, I hope I never see them again.” And not initiate that kind of experience.

It is within a community’s purview to reach out to a victim and explain that they’re interested in initiating and mediating restorative justice, and to ask if the victim is interested in being a part of that. They can give a few reasons why they think that would be good for the community and for the victim (restorative justice involving the victim has the highest rate of victim satisfaction, out of all of the typical forms of justice work). But if the victim says “no, don’t involve me,” that is the end of that person’s involvement. You cannot involve them without their consent. Unless, of course, the person dispensing this restorative justice finds that the person who erred should be permitted back into the community, in which case the victim needs to be informed, and can make a choice to leave the community and express their anger publically.

Restorative justice is valuable. It allows to for people to make mistakes, to learn and grow. It means that when someone does something wrong, when they hurt other people, that they have the opportunity to make amends and make their community a better place. But it does mean that your priorities as a community are in justice, and not in safety. Because if a victim comes to community leadership and says “I was hurt, and I never want to see this person again,” and that’s not what happens, that person will never feel safe again. I’m not judging that decision, but you need to make it an active choice, and let your members know that, before it comes up.

* It’s tough to find a neutral middle party. If they’re community members, they will likely know people involved in any issues that come up, and have a personal bias. If they take classes in effective and ethical restorative justice, then the community has to acknowledge in advance that there may be consent violations within that community, which not many groups are willing to do. If there are many people in that middle party group, to try and combat biases, then confidentiality is out the window. If the neutral middle party are professionals, brought in from outside the community, then they need to be paid, which adds a conversation about community resources to the equation. For all of these reasons, and those listed above, it can be tough to be a community committed to intra-member justice.

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