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  • “Something Else to Be”: A Chicana Survivor’s Journey from Vigilante Justice to Transformative Justice
  • Lena Palacios

Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they had set about creating something else to be.

—Toni Morrison, Sula (1974, 52)

Beingsomething elseis not a task restricted to the realm of personal identity but extended to social practice as well. I feel intense anger about the violence being inflicted on the bodies of indigenous women and women of color across Turtle Island and how violence, both symbolic and real, has impacted my own life. Rather than advocating for state-driven, pro-criminalization strategies to address gendered and sexualized violence (like carceral feminists are prone to do) or seeking retribution through engaging in vigilante violence or through recognition from both the nation-states of white settler societies in order to address this pain and suffering, I use anger to build communities where interpersonal, intimate, and sexual violence becomes unthinkable and where the carceral state no longer exists either in our minds or in our hearts. Growing up in the shadow of the prison, I have been taught to equate justice with vengeance and punishment with accountability. Driven by a principled sense of mortal urgency, I attempt to bear witness to my experience in order to unpack how the cultural and institutional site of the prison is “not some [End Page 93] building ‘over there’ but a set of relationships that undermine rather than stabilize everyday lives everywhere” (Gilmore 2007, 242). The following personal narrative explores the development of my own “sixth sense” about the immoral affective heart of the carceral state, which, in turn, reveals my analysis of the moral affective heart of what I call transformative justice feminist praxis.

First, transformative justice feminist praxis is grounded in both the theoretical insights that indigenous and race-radical women of color feminists have historically advanced about state repression and the role of anti-radical, liberal, and neoliberal tendencies (James 1996). Indigenous and race-radical feminisms explicitly challenge liberalism as expressed by dominant liberal feminism and official liberal multiculturalism that have explained (away) the racialized and gendered violence inherent in carceral states. Unlike liberal feminism that accepts the legitimacy of corporate state institutional and police power but posits the need for humanistic legal reform, race-radical feminism explicitly challenges the carceral, settler state itself, not just by protesting its violent excesses—solitary confinement, prison exploitation, and torture—but by connecting grounded political theory for radical transformation with political action to abolish all forms of subjection. Importantly, the interlocking forms of violence targeting indigenous and racialized girls and women in white settler societies is an issue that has rarely been analyzed in dominant, hegemonic feminist explorations of women and violence or heteropatriarchal explorations of prisons and policing. Indigenous and race-radical feminists, however, have historically engaged in a sustained critique of such framings that evacuate carceral violence from any critical analysis of or activist engagement with gendered violence (INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence 2012). Our proto-feminist ancestors have been organizing within and across movements to defend themselves against both sexual and state violence since “Columbus sailed the ocean blue” in 1492. The historical legacies and activist genealogies of indigenous and race-radical women feminists guide me and other feminist anti-violence activists in strengthening contemporary movements—informed by transformative justice praxis—capable of dismantling both race-based and gender-based violence sustained and perpetuated by the carceral state.

Secondly, a transformative justice feminist praxis is driven by the formation of radical, oppositional models of justice, redress, and response—namely the creation of transformative systems of accountability. Transformative justice seeks to develop strategies to address intimate, interpersonal, community, and structural violence from a political organizing and movement-building perspective in order to move beyond state-imposed, institutionalized criminal legal and punishment systems and professionalized social services. By developing community responses for support, intervention, healing, and accountability that do not rely on the state, these grassroots movements are building capacity to address multiple forms of structural and institutional violence. Collectives led [End Page 94] by victims of both...


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pp. 93-108
Launched on MUSE
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