Is Transformative Justice A Sunken Ship?

Estelle Ellison
6 min readJan 21, 2022


A reassessment of Transformative Justice movement work is long overdue. Like the rest of the world, this subsection of prison abolition finds itself in a new cultural context that’s resulted from new and historic conditions. Many public-facing prison abolitionist organizers packaged Transformative Justice as a viable alternative to police while a burning precinct served as the backdrop for these conversations.

Suddenly, the people who’d only just become aware of TJ overshadowed the people with actual roots in the work. By and large, those who brought this incredibly fragile and precarious work to a larger political stage tended not to be the people with backgrounds specializing in supporting survivors of Domestic Violence and Interpersonal Abuse. For the most part, those who had some background in this work were either not organizing accountability processes or their recent attempts at these processes were largely unsuccessful.

It is only natural that this unexpected development in American political discourse had lasting consequences. The popularization trend of prison abolition felt undeniable and overwhelming. Yet, there was no consensus on what should be done or could be done about what seemed to be an immense number of newly radicalized individuals.

Organizations that have subsisted off of a cycle of turnover and recruitment viewed this moment with full confidence that they would be synonymous with revolution, that they would lead the masses into an abolitionist future. Meanwhile, as many attempted (largely unsuccessfully) to call out individuals and leaders who had long gotten away with inflicting the same harms on the same communities, nearly every group, milieu, and administrative body struggled to retain the power they’ve enjoyed at the expense of others.

We saw people with everything to lose demonstrate just how counter-revolutionary co-optation can be. They exploited the vast number of people who simply had no way of getting up to speed on best practices for navigating high-risk interventions in harmful and violent conflicts within a few months (or even a few years). Compulsory forgiveness for abusers, the demonization of survivors, irresponsibly underresourced practitioners, overstated experience, unapologetic plagiarism, and shameless clout-chasing all created a terrifying caricature of Transformative Justice.

Opportunism is truly inextricable from co-optation, and this fact has made this level of mass deception especially effective. This fictional version of TJ has been easy to circulate, mimic, and dogmatically follow because it was introduced and amplified during a time when most people lacked the discernment to understand how self-serving and oppressive these bad faith imitations can be. In a cruel twist of fate, the opportunistic abuse apologists have gone all-in on this Frankenstein’s TJ.

Now, even liberals who are quite comfortable defending the carceral state have realized they need only hold up a mirror up to the most visible and reactionary self-branded abolitionists to clear their guilty conscience about the existence of the police. More importantly, the scale at which leftist groups and spaces have marched lockstep in defense of abusers is absolutely harrowing. The most severe consequences we’ve suffered from the co-optation of TJ have all very intentionally been made to be far less visible than those doing the co-optation. The knowledge of the nefarious ways that survivors are being disposed of as a result of this trend has been shouldered almost entirely by other survivors, many of whom are also Black and/or disabled. In this way, little has changed following the popularization of TJ.

It is important here to note that some of the damage being inflicted on survivors comes from a well-intentioned naivete about how abuse and oppressive interpersonal dynamics actually operate. While many of the architects of counter-campaigns and pre-emptive counter-accusations deliberately calculate the harms they defend, even more people perpetuate more harm in the face of abuse for less malicious reasons. This is not to say that non-malicious reasons are justified nor does it mean that they are inescapable. It simply means that their harms manifest differently.

Conflict avoidance that someone learned as a result of past traumas they experienced could be the reason why they end up favoring inaction when an intervention is desperately needed. Likewise, conflict proneness that helped someone cope with past traumas can lead them to be reckless when careful planning is needed. Again, these are not inevitable patterns of behavior. They are just simplified examples of how someone could act out of alignment with the values they believe themselves to hold about interpersonal violence.

Despite how much more understandable these examples of harm may be, we have to zoom out and face the fact these behavioral inclinations we may have are being leveraged by abuse apologists and opportunists alike who are determined to avoid meaningful accountability. Transformative Justice is not a safe word. It is an aspiration at best and snake oil at worst. The collection of strategies and information that we originally associated with TJ is not to be treated as a book of magic scrolls or infallible blueprints.

The decades of work we’ve inherited are intended to give us an idea of what to look out for should we decide to pursue the monumental undertaking that is care and safety for survivors, community accountability, and the transformation of abusive behavior. There are significant gaps in our understanding of how interventions were actually conducted beyond what all can legally be published. There are even fewer resources that depict anything that resembles a success story.

We lack the infrastructure for anyone to responsibly suggest that TJ represents some kind of simple and immediate answer to the ubiquity of systemic and interpersonal abuse we are struggling against today. Besides the violence TJ is intended to help confront, TJ work itself is deeply traumatic and rarely effective outside of the few individuals who sincerely practice self-accountability in the midst of a fascist tide. The beautification of Transformative Justice is ultimately intended for an audience that values respectability and has significant capital to contribute to a cause just for the sake of feeling good.

Those of us who are actually committed to anti-violence work out of necessity are not in need of dreamers. We are in need of committed care workers and interventionists who know what they’ve signed up for and are prepared not to flinch at the reality of abuse as it manifests in our respective communities. We need people who do not mind cleaning up after the mess of rampant abuse apologism that academics and celebrities have enabled. We need people who understand that creating safety from abuse will likely be uncomfortable, challenging, and oftentimes thankless in a world dominated by patriarchal violence.

If co-optation has irreparably damaged the usefulness of transformative justice as a term to the point that it is more often a dogwhistle for apologists than anything else, then we should be prepared to abandon ship in search of new revolutionary frameworks. The point is to make interventions against harm, not make excuses. If survivors have grown to distrust us based on the language we are using to communicate, we must at least be willing to accept that feedback and take stock of why that is. We can’t shame people into trusting that we can do what we say we are capable of. Instead of words and empty promises of justice, we need collective actions that yield results that speak for themselves. We need to demonstrate that we can stop violence and properly tend to wounds. Not normalize harm and label it “accountability.”

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Estelle Ellison

Time dissuades us from getting free... Black Trans Disabled Writer (She/They)