In my Criminal Law class, I’ve noticed how easy it is to equate guilt with punishment and punishment with accountability.
When we craft arguments for why someone should or should not be guilty, punishment is implicit and our conversations invariably transition into whether the defendant should be held accountable for their actions. But accountability, guilt and punishment are distinct concepts. Punishment can come without guilt, and accountability can exist freely without punishment.
We meld the three in conversation not because we don’t understand the distinction, but because our criminal justice system is designed to outsource all three. It is designed to allow "law-abiding citizens" to let the system — police, jails, courts, parole officers, immigration enforcement — handle the dirty work, only being called in for the occasional jury duty.
It distinguishes the community member from the criminal and ignores the role and responsibility we all have in the creation of harm.
As an Asian American abolitionist, untangling these tensions and ideas is necessary work, and right now it is especially difficult work.
As we approach the anniversary of the mass shooting at several Asian spas in Atlanta next month, Asian American communities, violence against Asian Americans — especially women — has become more salient.
In January, a Lunar New Year event hosted by the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum was Zoombombed with “horrific, violent, racially charged images and audio,” actress Olivia Munn said. Just last week in Chapel Hill, the UNC Asian American Center experienced a Zoombombing during one of its virtual events.
Compounding these virtual events are the killings of Michelle Go and Christina Yuna Lee. Go was pushed in front of a subway train. Lee was followed into her apartment and stabbed to death. A memorial erected to honor Lee’s life was vandalized.
These deaths are difficult to talk about. They were senseless and horrible, and they encapsulate how targeted Asian American women still are, nearly one year after the spa shootings in Atlanta. They’re also difficult to talk about because they were allegedly perpetrated by men reported to be homeless and suffering from mental illness.
These killings have exposed tension in how we talk about criminal justice and accountability. Right-wing news outlets have already latched onto the killings, using them to rail against bail reform measures and argue for increased policing and incarceration. Liberals have leaned into tackling the root causes of homelessness and mental health. But leftists have struggled to carve out a lane in this national conversation.
We’ve focused on mourning, we’ve called out the disproportionate violence of policing and noted that, while the systemic violence of homelessness must be addressed, by and large homeless and mentally ill people are not the perpetrators of violence — they are more often the victims of it.
Critiques alone won’t get us far. It’s time to expand the conversation and start envisioning what new, abolitionist systems of accountability look like. Right now, New York City is clearing homeless people from its subway system while overnight temperatures continue to dip below freezing. This is punishment without guilt. We need to show that we can create accountability without punishment.
We need to articulate a vision for what an abolitionist system of accountability looks like. This will not be easy; accountability is personal, cultural and specific, not easily created in a factory form. Writers like Mariame Kaba, Josie Duffy Rice, Connie Burk, adrienne maree brown, Kai Cheng Thom and Mia Mingus have grappled with this topic for years.
These writers offer another path forward through the lens of transformative justice. Thom writes that these are its central questions: "why has harm occurred? who is responsible, beyond the individual perpetrator — as in, how is community implicated? how can this harm be prevented in future?”
This frame is broad enough to address the collective responsibility to end homelessness and address mental health. It is specific enough to center those who have experienced the loss most closely. It is practical enough to think about actually ending violence rather than outsourcing to a violent police force. It is flexible enough to address the fear that many Asian American women have of future violence.
We will continue to see more and more violence if we rely on the same tired responses to violent crime. In order to move forward and create a world where Asian Americans are actually safer, we need a path forward that addresses all of the issues highlighted by these killings. Transformative justice models can help us chart that path.
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