Michelle C. Velasquez-Potts
The National Women’s Strike on March 9, 2020 in Mexico was comprised of thousands of women demanding an end to feminicide, or the murder and disappearance of women with impunity. They sought to demonstrate just how integral feminized labor is to the state, and that gendered laborers are necessary both inside and outside of the home, as they are responsible for the literal maintenance and reproduction of life.[i] Feminized bodies are ones that never cease to labor, exhausted by endless upkeep, and as COVID-19 reminds us, exhausted by the physical, emotional, and psychic endurance of abuse.
The ongoing feminicides throughout Latin America are but one example reminding us that to stay home isn’t necessarily to stay safe. Toward the end of March, when Colombia went into nationwide lockdown due to the pandemic, a man murdered his wife, her sister, and mother in Cartagena. Al Jazeera reported that calls to report violence against women “had surged 225 percent” in Colombia.[ii] But to draw oppositions between whether one is safer inside or outside the home isn’t the point, and more importantly won’t help us confront gender-based violence any more effectively. And as we’ve seen with the state’s unwillingness to release prisoners, prisons are also spaces of terror.[iii] Indeed, the spread and rates of contracting coronavirus are much higher in prisons, jails, and detention centers.[iv] And as organizations such as INCITE! and Critical Resistance have long argued, prisons themselves, as sites of rape and sexual assault, reproduce and make gender violence possible.[v] My own experience with intimate partner violence has led me to reflect on what safety might mean in the wake of COVID-19. It is my hope that sharing my own experience with abuse might offer insight into the interdependency between mutual aid, transformative justice, and abolitionist feminism.
Months after finally having left my abuser, I’d find myself sitting on my couch feeling extremely anxious and distracted. I’d wonder why I couldn’t focus, why I felt so nervous, like I was waiting for something or someone. Even though I had finally gotten my abuser out of my life, I was still waiting for them. Waiting for them to come home drunk and yell at me for hours, come home almost unconscious and pass out, not come home at all. My experience of abuse was organized around waiting. Waiting for something bad to happen and then waiting for the bad thing to be over. During the most violent episodes, I imagined my future stretched out in front me, and if I could only reach it, this would all somehow be over. A slow marathon to a place where I could rest before the violence started all over again. Inside my head, I’d repeat over and over, “it’s only time.” And it was only time, and it did eventually pass. But now those years of abuse live inside my body, propelling me to stare at doors and panic over late night phone calls or texts. Will it be them needing me to pick them up from a bar, from the hospital, or some random gas station? What will be demanded of me? What will happen if I can’t follow through? Now, I sometimes lie awake at night going through a mental list of everything I’ll take if and when I need to get away quickly. My efficiency and organization relax me, allowing me to fall asleep. Survival is predicated on strategy and endurance; it was in my experience, anyway. It still is.
It’s been several years now since I left. I live alone in a new city, and I stare at my door less. I think about the privilege of solitude often, especially in light of COVID-19. Since sheltering-in-place, I’ve thought every day about what it would be like to experience this pandemic with my ex-partner. I remember the terror, detachment, and desire to self-harm when they were particularly drunk or manic. I’ve been thinking about the surge in calls to domestic violence hotlines and chatlines, so many people who are too scared to stay inside with violent partners but also too scared to leave. For all its privilege, the home has more often than not been a source of pain and violence for women and the QTPOC community. To feel constantly unsafe is to necessarily accumulate trauma. COVID will only add to that trauma. Right now, I can only think of so many who are left to endure in the face of this pandemic, who’ve been enduring for some time now.
The work of transformative justice and prison abolition have made me ask the question: why must we endure? And that perhaps, to invoke the title of Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s new anthology, there is something beyond survival. Reading the work of activists, organizers, and cultural workers practicing transformative justice reminds me that we are already confronting violence in our communities in ways that are deeply receptive to how white supremacy and gendered/sexual violence create the conditions of possibility for more abuse. This isn’t to say these confrontations are easy. In my own experience, they were nearly impossible. Even in the midst of a BIQTPOC community doing this work, I found the idea of asking for help and mediation to be a terrifying possibility. I functioned on a logic that was predicated upon knowing I would never call the police, while also knowing I’d never ask for help from anyone else either. The shame and fear that exists in abusive relationships is only intensified by the ableist logic of self-sacrifice and endurance.
Throughout those years I had endless conversations about the power of interdependency. I was a caretaker to my chronically sick sibling and encouraged her to build a more expansive care network. I dedicated whole lessons in my classes to community accountability, all while becoming more and more detached from my own body, desensitized to my partner’s violence and truly believing that perhaps this is what I owed them, considering the amount of abuse they had experienced in their own life as a queer/trans person of color. My own experiences with structural violence and interpersonal harm, as a brown queer femme, ceased to hold significance. I ceased to hold significance. But of course, we’re all significant and deserve support and care in order to heal. My abuser deserves to heal.
After ending things with my partner, I stopped all communication, and even encouraged friends to prioritize them, to support them, invite them out instead of me. I’ve come to realize that this was more than compassion—I continued to prioritize them because I was scared of them. I thought that without support or distraction, all of their anger, feelings of abandonment, and mania would once again be directed at me. And of course, they needed and deserved support, but what they also needed was to be held accountable for the harm being inflicted. This, however, wasn’t possible at the time, as it took months for me to begin really telling my closest friends about the extent of what had been going on. I hid so much because I feared that if I told but didn’t leave, it would appear that I didn’t actually want help. Anyone who has been in an abusive relationship can tell you that leaving is never as easy as it seems, and is mitigated by so many factors. Staying can be strategic. Sometimes we stay because we want to live. Staying is a form of survival.
Staying, for me, was wrapped up in my own political commitments, which was also an extension of my care for them. In some ways, I felt that being honest about the severity of their alcoholism and abuse was to discard them in the same ways that the prison industrial complex discards poor communities of color and gender noncomforming people every day. I became unsure whether my own desire for safety was in fact a form of betrayal, making me no better than every other person and institution that had abandoned them throughout their life. That my right to safety was positioned over and over again as a manifestation of social privilege serves as a reminder of the ways that identity is so often weaponized against victims as a tactic to keep us silent, isolated, and guilty. I remain committed to living in a world without punishment, but I better understand now that accountability needn’t be punitive. Rather, accountability is an intense form of care. This, I think, is what makes transformative justice and prison abolition radical acts of love and interdependency.
In Beyond Survival, Mia Mingus writes about the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective’s move away from the term “community,” implementing instead the term “pod.”[vi] Within transformative justice work, the term describes “the relationship between people who would turn to each other for support around violent, harmful, and abusive experiences, whether as survivors, bystanders, or people who have harmed.”[vii] Whereas “community” can feel fraught, overly romanticized, or immaterial, “pods” refer to the actual people in your life that you’re already relying on, or could imagine relying on for support “in taking accountability for violence, harm, or abuse that you’ve done; if you’ve witness violence; or if someone you care about was being violent or being abused.”[viii] What I appreciate most about the idea of “pod building” is that it does away with the more romantic notions of community predicated upon shared identities and political analysis, and instead pushes us to focus more on relationship-building and trust with the few individuals we already turn to because they are reliable, and have good boundaries, among other skills—not necessarily because they are the person you are most intimate with, or even the person who mirrors your politics exactly. By focusing on the relationships with the people we trust, transformative justice helps build the skills to better understand different forms of violence, and how to better respond to them. This, Mingus writes, makes it more likely that “people in need of support will find it in their daily lives.”[ix]
In the time of COVID-19, and the new practices of social distance, the idea of “community” feels even more abstract. Now, pod building seems invaluable to how we navigate safety during a pandemic. In the abusive relationship that I endured, I never feared for my physical life, but I anticipated and dreaded the incessant abusive texts and phone calls, the yelling and intimidation, and them appearing at my house. I also feared them hurting themselves. Within a week of ending things, they appeared at my house drunk in the middle of the night, threatening to kill themselves. After asking repeatedly for them to go, my sister and I eventually decided to just leave. Decisions need to be made quickly and we do what we do in these moments to stay safe. I wonder, however, what else I might have done that night; what would have ensured not only my own safety, but theirs as well? Perhaps jumping in my car and leaving was the best decision. And transformative justice doesn’t portend to always offer the “correct” answer, either. But, if abuse leaves us in a perpetual state of suspense, waiting for something to happen, then practices such as building pods can help facilitate having a plan in the event that violence and harm is enacted against us, but also when we enact harm against others. All of us are capable of inflicting harm, and at one point or another have hurt people in our lives. It’s important for me to remember that my abuser is also a survivor of violence. The idea behind pods, then, is that everyone’s safety and needs are met.
Intimate partner violence, gender-based violence, and the prison industrial complex are not separate but closely connected, and we are all implicated by the harm they reproduce. Simply discarding those who harm us will not make us safer. And so, what does it mean to think and imagine safety right now in our immediate present, in the midst of a health pandemic and a call to end gender-based violence? How do we best enact care, show up, and check in with those who are most vulnerable? I don’t know what it means to heal right now, with so much precarity around us. But I recognize this moment as one igniting new approaches to mutual aid, prison abolition, and the centering of disabled communities.[x] All of this can only help us endure less and flourish more.
[i] Paulina Villegas, “In Mexico, Women Go on Strike to Protest Violence,” New York Times, March 9, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/09/world/americas/mexico-women-strike-protest.html.
[ii] Megan Janetsky, “Violence Against Women Up Amid Latin America COVI-19 Lockdowns,” Al Jazeera, April 20, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/violence-women-surges-latam-coronavirus-quarantines-200420020748668.html.
[iii] Critical Resistance, “Abolitionist Steps to Combat COVID-19 Behind Bars,” Portside, March 16, 2020, https://portside.org/2020-03-16/abolitionist-steps-combat-covid-19-behind-bars.
[iv] See Carrie Freshour and Brian Williams, “Abolition in the Time of Covid-19,” Antipode, April 9, 2020, https://antipodeonline.org/2020/04/09/abolition-in-the-time-of-covid-19/.
[v] See “The Critical Resistance INCITE! Statement on Gender Violence and the Prison Industrial Complex,” https://incite-national.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/CR-INCITE-statement-2008discussion.pdf.
[vi] Mia Mingus for the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, “Pods and Pod-Mapping Worksheet,” in Beyond Survival edited by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2020), 119-125.
[vii] Mingus, “Pods and Pod-Mapping Worksheet, 119.
[viii] Mingus, “Pods and Pod-Mapping Worksheet, 121.
[ix] Mingus, “Pods and Pod-Mapping Worksheet, 124.
[x] See Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and Elliot Fukui, “Moving at the Speed of Trust: Disability Justice and Transformative Justice,” April 10, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TwWdv_uBGNY&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR0bpJcsbdYjA8UhQjcRQXC3tHCcmXI_RCzOkboxJW0EE39R6IK9j3HNL18.