June 18, 2024 • Pinko #3

What We're After is a Different Type of Justice

In 2021, the Pinko collective conducted oral history interviews with transformative justice practitioners and veterans of the New Communist Movement to investigate the possible links between militant organizational forms and the political origins of the concept of accountability, both as a specific practice and as a looser discourse circulating on the left. While certain links were already clear—the women’s movement against intimate partner violence was one obvious origin, as was the movement for prison abolition—we were curious about some of the particular inheritances which it still bore as somewhat obscure signs.The results of this investigation were published in 2023 in a book, After Accountability, released in limited edition copublication by ourselves and Wendy’s Subway, a reading space and independent publisher which had awarded us a residency to conduct this investigation. The text will be also republished by Haymarket Books in 2025. The following is an excerpt of one of the interviews, between Pinko collective member Max Fox and the Critical Resistance member Kim Diehl.

Kim Diehl: The abolitionist community when I came along twenty years ago was a very small number of people forming the basis for what are now lines of thought around transformative justice and accountability and shutting down the prison-industrial complex. It’s a spider web, I would say, sort of blossoming or getting formed in a more structured way compared to twenty years ago, where there is actually funding and multiple layers of movement involvement. It wasn’t only academics talking about it. It was influenced by formerly incarcerated folks, people who had been doing a lot of Black nationalist work, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, so many different convergences.

Max Fox: This was around the millennium, right?

Yeah, in 1988 there was the first conference looking at ending the prison-industrial complex.


Yeah, that was Critical Resistance and the organization was born out of that. And then, in 2000 or so, I was doing some investigative journalism for community organizing and labor organizing, looking at the new rights of prison labor, convict labor, private prisons, how they are really coming out of the South. That got me connected with the folks who formed Critical Resistance.

How did you get there? What was your background that brought you to where you were in 1998?

I was at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in ’95, a junior, and there were housekeepers and groundskeepers that were organizing a union. I helped do student solidarity work. The issues that the housekeepers were fighting for were better pay, better working conditions. They did not want to be contracted out. They didn’t want to be privatized. So that was the fight. I was like, what is this “privatized” thing? That got me connected with some organizers in the South who did some community research to plant some seeds around what was happening. In the early 2000s is when some of these private companies, like the Hospital Corporation of America, had the same model for privatizing public hospitals that they had to privatize prisons. They call them Corrections Corporation of America. There’s HCA, CCA. They came out of Nashville. Same exact people, same players, and they basically created the blueprint for privatization of public services. Wackenhut for private security, Maximus for social services, Lockheed Martin were [all] starting to really look at other ways to make money from the federal government. They started privatizing child support enforcement. They were horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible employers. Lockheed Martin fucking doing child support enforcement.


Yeah. So I got my hands deep into the privatization of public services for a good while, and then I also became a member of Freedom Road. It was [through] the folks out of Black Workers for Justice. That was a formation that Freedom Road and folks from the New Communist Movement had created. And I also did some queer organizing in the South, but I did that just for a little while. It was not something that I felt really spoke to me as far as a job, to be a professional Queer. After I worked at SONG [Southerners On New Ground], I ended up going to work for a union because of a friend. I had been involved in organizing, but I didn’t know beyond how to make a flyer. And especially with a monster union like SEIU [Service Employees International Union]. But I did have a very, very rigorous training; it was hard and my ego was bruised often, but I did learn the craft of communications and I got to actually go to California for a janitor strike in 2006 or 2007. Their contract was up. They went on strike. It was the really radical janitors with black and white strike flags. I’d never seen militancy like that, ever. It was a week filled with rolling strikes throughout Silicon Valley in the Bay. So a lot of my experiences have been around labor organizing and then with Critical Resistance, the organization that I helped form in like 2000. Actually, we don’t have to write this, but I had mad crushes on people, you know…

That’s how it goes.

Beautiful, fucking brilliant people. I was like, You want me to come to a meeting? OK, yes. I will get my flirt on. But mostly I just sucked in all of the knowledge and training of our movement, and that’s what it is all about. Having this big old crush on Ruthie Gilmore. I could just sit side by side with Ruthie Gilmore and be like, whatever Ruthie says I’m down with. Rose Braz, she’s passed on, big ol’ crush on Rose. But they took me seriously and I took them seriously. That was just being in spaces where there was this real intersectionality that was built out of relationships. Rose, who was one of the founders of Critical Resistance, was going to Fresno and organizing and really talking to the people and building relationships and saying, I know y’all are really concerned about the pesticides and what’s happening in their communities, did you know that there’s also the prison that wants to buy land here and imagine what that... And the same thing when you organize Critical Resistance conferences. We had one in the South and went door-knocking in Tremé, and I just followed the lead of folks, and just did what folks asked of me. If it was to make peanut butter jelly sandwiches, cool, if it was to flyer, great, if it was to take the microphone away... That’s how I basically was formed as an abolitionist, being around those folks. I don’t really have much campaign experience as far as stopping a prison or the gang injunctions that have happened here in New York; I haven’t really done much chapter-based organizing, which is how Critical Resistance was organized. I’ve done all of my work as a national member through different committees that are very behind the scenes, helping to create the structure, a relatively nonhierarchical structure as much as possible.

For these chapters?

For the staff, I’d organize them. Some chapters had organizers, paid organizers. So it would be like, what’s the relationship between the national staff and, of course, the people who are in the local chapters? And how do we build accountability? There weren’t any easy answers and there were some really hard decisions and hard struggles, and then even within the staff... But that’s where I would say a lot of the work I’ve done around accountability and developing principles around internal accountability and how to have processes for resolving disputes has really been done. I’ve done it enough to know that I don’t know shit (laughs). I have so much mad respect for real conflict resolution facilitators. You know, I can facilitate, but I don’t have anywhere near the skills to do a hardcore facilitation if there has been physical, interpersonal harm. There are principles, but shit goes down around, like theft or personal violation and harm like that. I realize my place in the movement around abolition too is that I’m a family member of somebody inside. My brother did time a couple of times, but I haven’t myself ever faced the type of harm where, if we’re talking about sexual assault, physical violence, things like that, war… the role I have is to be a co-conspirator. And how do I hold that space and listen to the folks who have worked through being violated and harmed? How they would want justice, but in the parameters of… ? How do we not rely on policing, punishment, and shame to be how we respond? Because justice has to be something other than that. It’s the only way we can survive as humans.

I’ve had exchanges with comrades about abolition and they’re like, Well, my daughter was assaulted and mugged and we can’t move the masses by saying “defund the police.” We have to be able to have police, because my daughter was assaulted. And that’s not something I want to say, OK, and have an exchange over email about. In a lot of ways, he’s right; where we’re at is not in a place where any of us have the skills yet to imagine something else, and I don’t necessarily think treading on his pain is helpful. To say, No, you’re wrong. But I do want to have those conversations in especially red circles, where folks are not as familiar with abolition at all or policing—especially with labor. How do you reconcile the fact that AFSCME, the union, has its finger on the pulse of cops? And they are at the helm of creating some of the worst lynching laws. So that’s the accountability I want to wrestle with. Especially in the South, where Black folks are at the head of so many schools and principals and are hardcore about corporal punishment. Black-led school districts in Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi.

You said that basically you learned abolition from your participation [in Critical Resistance], right? So that wasn’t a component of the political education you’d received prior?

No, it wasn’t, absolutely not. It was in conjunction. It was an interesting merging; some overlap might have been because Malcolm X Grassroots Movement [MXGM] was doing a lot around CopWatch and things like that.

And you had a relationship with them?

They were probably the biggest Black radical org [of that period], so they really led our leaders on questioning the police in a different way than Black revolutionaries from a trade union background have, which is where my political education really came from. I would say the bridge would be the writings and publications and influence MXGM had on me, and then also Critical Resistance. And a lot of it was sort of parallel at the same time. But I’m looking back and they just didn’t merge. It still is different circles, like Black trade-unionist threads are definitely not in circles looking at violence and alternatives to punishment.

Why do you think that is? That’s interesting.

Part of it speaks to how the movement around abolition was either academic bourgeoisie and the lumpenproletariat—so people who were, you know, really on the margins, not able to work, underground—and Black trade unionists, working-class, folks with jobs organizing in their shops and the public sector. I think, too, that a lot of the people who were doing work around violence against women were women and trade unionists were men. And these were women looking at healing justice as an intersection, asking how do we define a society that provides resources to people so that we don’t have to steal and we have what we need in order to have mental health resources and schools, housing, food. And on the other side, it was like, fighting for schools, housing, food. It was very much around patriarchy. Even though there were folks that were formerly incarcerated, there were a lot of dudes leading that along with a lot of women, so there was a struggle for sure. But folks that come out of prison, formerly incarcerated, don’t have a whole lot of structural power. Cultural power, yes. But trade unionists dudes, they come with big boots.

You said one of the things you did with Critical Resistance was help set up these accountability processes and structures. But you were learning from the other people there about specifically abolitionist or TJ principles as you’re developing them. I’m curious, at the time, were you thinking, I can apply this prior model, here’s some formal thing that’ll work? Was it just experimentation?

I took the lead from folks who knew. Then we tested it. So it was more of the implementation, putting it into a committee, seeing how it worked. Test, go back, test, go back, and reflect and refine. And over twenty years, it’s evolved. There is a living document that’s on Critical Resistance[‘s website], accountability and harm principles, that folks applying for the job have as principles. So it was an iterative process. At the same time, what was happening when Critical Resistance was formed, was that just a few years later INCITE!, Women of Color Against Violence, was also formed. That formation really helped us as far as developing our line and thinking around accountability and harm internally. So it was a convergence of several different things. But yeah, INCITE! was a huge influence, because folks in Critical Resistance were involved with INCITE!. Like I said, with the spider web, I was in the part of the web where I was taking that and trying to bureaucratize it in a way to structure and systematize.

Would you say that was your trade union formation coming to be useful?

Definitely. I love systems and structures; also, doing communications for a living, there have to be areas of work in the production schedule so that we all kind of have a trajectory we’re going towards. It’s like a daisy chain, all these little soft points. That’s how I think I’ve had to lend a hand to this work, trying to systematize it somewhat, but using the series that I was taught. A lot of Mao. Mao is a great thinker as far as systematizing and how to test, take from the masses, test. Unity, struggle, unity. Lots of that (laughs).

Can you say a little bit more about where the Mao is in these systems you set up? What’s an example?

There’s a couple. Here’s the big one. When Critical Resistance was being formed, everyone wanted to be a chapter and there was this incredible burst of energy. It was a very charismatic moment everywhere, from Australia to Scotland, all throughout the South especially; there were formations of people who wanted to start a chapter. And we needed to figure out what the criteria of a chapter was. The main premise was that it had to be centered on folks who were directly impacted: people had to be formerly incarcerated or have family members who were. And then, the other was that the work couldn’t help to prop up the prison-industrial complex, because there were some groups that were like, we’re lefty priests and clergy who don’t believe in prisons, but we have prison ministries. Can we bring Critical Resistance for the ministries? And it was [a question of] how to look at contradiction — Mao.There probably would be too much of a bourgeois influence to have priests come into a prison, or religious people come into a prison, and be talking about abolition. The abolition had to come from the people or in partnership with the people who were directly impacted. So that was one.

It wasn’t easy because we were pretty liberal about who could be in a chapter and there were some messy places. And that was where we had to put accountability into action. How do you measure accountability to the people? You don’t get to have a block party that has Critical Resistance logos everywhere, but call the cops to protect the block party. And we had to do that around conferences. We would do trainings at conferences around, How do we keep ourselves safe? How do we actually put it into action, or what are the protocols? How do you call in people if you’ve been harmed, who are the people that protect us? And we did actually have some Black nationalist groups at times come. They were trained, former Black Panthers who knew self-defense. So we would have those types of resources from the people to help teach us about self-defense and to be the people who did that self-defense. That was a huge learning for me. Normally for organizing, we have to have permits and have the police do the escorting. And in this case, it really is not part of our principles.

Internally, having staff conflict, folks who just don’t show up or are untimely, it’s about building processes where folks can feel heard but then at the same time might be able to say: That’s bullshit. And when there aren’t processes there, we pretend that what we’re witnessing isn’t happening, especially if it is somebody who was formerly incarcerated, or hasn’t had traditional work necessarily. To be able to give the space to let folks do what they need to do, and be free and be flexible, but then at the same time we’re also accountable to this chapter and what the chapter’s wanting and having those really hard conversations. It’s exhausting. So I get why in corporate culture you have “one strike you’re out.” That shit is so tiring. It’s not easy work.

And those experiences ended up somehow crystallized in the formal procedures you used in the documents.

Yeah. And there was fallout, because folks are good organizers (laughs). They organize the community, and there’s lots of community demand to keep this person or people. It’s been twenty years, so there’s plenty of people. In accountability procedures, you can’t necessarily guarantee that there will be a tidy ending at all. But is there mending? Not healing, but is there mending? And can we at least part ways for a little while? And then the same with the staff person I was talking about before, who was just not showing up and it didn’t work. There was a whole community of folks in that city that really loved this dude because he had done amazing work in his lifetime with the people in his community, he’d really done transformative work, especially around young folks not being involved in gangs and really organizing them to get politicized—some fucking badass shit. And yet in this particular role, it was obvious that this wasn’t his jam. But he organized a lot of people and we don’t have a chapter there either, so there are no good happy endings. But there is a principle, you know.

So at some point, there comes this choice—

Yeah, the common good over the personality. And the organization’s still here ten years, twenty years later; an abolitionist organization is still here and thriving and has helped create a movement around abolition. I don’t necessarily think that when people say they’re abolitionists, they really are. That’s a process, and it’s like, you can’t be an abolitionist but then be really happy that the cop that killed George Floyd is going to prison. That’s not abolition. It’s not. What we’re after is a different type of justice, but it’s still a dream to see a conversation happening in the United States. A mass-scale looking at the role of the police. Because I didn’t think in my lifetime we would be questioning, “what does it take for us to be safe?” That was the question that we all seeded with, what’s good for these instances? What do you think you need to be safe? And that question is actually happening. And in some ways, it’s almost because the police are killing us. Ida B. Wells wasn’t having to ask people if the police keep us safe, because there was like a clear understanding. So I’m not saying this is going to lead to our liberation, because in so many ways we’ve been so fucking brainwashed to think that police are keeping us safe when in reality Paul Robeson, Ida B. Wells, they all knew that their job was to protect property and white people, you know.

What are some things that happened with CR and the specific attempts at doing accountability or transformative justice that offer a relevant lesson from the experience you have?

I think it’s really about collectively deconditioning ourselves around the carceral state and all the ways we are shaped by it. That’s an ongoing process. It’s something that I have to undo every day. For example, I like true crime. It’s my guilty pleasure. And I also understand that its role is to glorify the police and to keep people thinking that there are inherently bad, mentally ill people who can’t control themselves and that they have to be caged. And I consume that media knowing full well what its purpose is, but in community, I can also see how others are upset with it, and check in with it and ask how I can dismantle it. I know that this is a whole form of entertainment that many of us consume; I can really relate to people on that level where we get to check each other. So there’s just a collective knowing that we have to do this all the time, and we have to make compromises. And being able to make principled compromises to call the police or to report something, you know, it’s got to be a real communal decision around how we handle the police and policing. It’s not up to me. The folks who are directly harmed need to be involved in passing through their stages of anger and grief and rage at being held, and also having a process to be able to see the fullness of what accountability can be. So if I were talking to someone who was just getting involved with abolition, it’s like, where do you feel resentment and what do you want to do with your resentment? Are you fueled by anger and emotions? Because abolition is not about “I’m pissed off and I want to see justice these ways.” It’s a politics. And we don’t give a fuck about what you feel. It’s about a long-term rebuilding of society that isn’t about individual emotion, but about really looking at and imagining ways that we could start to identify the behaviors in folks early and figure out how to manage them or all of the things, the factors, that go into what makes somebody decide they want to rape someone or be a serial rapist? None of that is ever researched. None of that is ever talked about. None of that is a real, actual science, you know? And then as far as all the rest of what we call “crime,” it’s economic factors. So how do we actually look at that? What are the factors that went into this person actually going into stealing those shoes or that car or that truck? Because pretty much 99 %of the time it’s about capitalism. People feel like they either deserve it and they’re going to get it because they deserve it, or they really need it because they’re hungry and they need a place to live and will do whatever it takes to survive. Those are the big picture questions. It’s not about emotions.

We’ve been interested in this question of failure and how accountability processes often, like you said… it’s a messy ending, at best. Sometimes people think that that discredits the attempt, and sometimes people think it doesn’t. How do you think about failure in this context?

I think it’s easy to say we failed if it’s not grounded in what it is long-term we’re trying to build. Everything’s a failure if we think about it hard enough. It’s our role as folks who are not capitalist and following a design of rugged individualism to always put it back to the common good and measure our decisions against that and really figure out: Is the common good being defined by someone who is, in this moment, very hurt or harmed and we’re trying to make them feel better? Or is the common good about this longer term thing that we really believe we’re building? And it’s not any easier; I’d say it’s very difficult. What I want to figure out in movement spaces is how we build those skills—have a facilitation skill, a communication skill… How can we be able to talk about, like, I’m really pissed off, but maybe in a week I’m not going to be as pissed off. So can we have this meeting later. Or, how do we stop ourselves from retaliating to feel better? That is not justice—making sure that Max, you got to say that’s really a great retort to someone. And you were right. But that’s not fucking justice. That’s not liberation. And it’s the people who have been systemically wronged who have to have their voices heard, you know?

That’s all I would say for folks: how do we hold ourselves in a space that’s really about the common good and community, and how do we have the self-awareness and then the willingness to fail and be vulnerable and to be like, Max, I feel like I was a real asshole at the meeting, did I come off too snippy? How do you handle these situations? This ongoing conversation is a really important part of abolitionism. Like, I’m just a worker among workers. Yeah, I have some unique shit, I’m a badass. I’m also a very flawed human being. I don’t see a lot of things. So that’s what I love about having my experience with Critical Resistance. I got to see some things that I never would have seen from my upbringing, you know, being twenty something, my upbringing in central Florida. Abolitionism is a whole new world.

See new things in terms of holding yourself in a space, or?

Things like how community decisions are made, like how we have several days together where we have built-in mechanisms so there’s full participation of folks who are cast aside, you know, folks who have been really brutalized by capitalism in the United States. There is a whole unseen world, the prison system that a lot of us don’t ever interact with. And for folks coming out of it into this world and then trying to find a political home, it’s extremely difficult. Especially with folks who are civilians who don’t have a record. So what I’ve seen with my work at Critical Resistance is a real centering of people who have both feet inside and outside, who are on probation and not far from being on probation. It’s got people inside, always. It’s a precarious life. And it’s very cruel. Folks bring that back with them. So how do we build? I’ve seen folks learn how to really express themselves in front of a group and be able to talk about what’s going on in their communities. And do it in a way where they really show how much they love their community and it’s not people talking about them, which is what I think the majority of what we deal with looks like. So that’s what I mean. Like growing up a middle-class biracial kid in central Florida, a college education, and yeah, my brother was inside, but I never felt like I was necessarily close to doing time. So, I’m learning how to be in a space where I step back, I’m not the expert.

But like you’re saying, to be a co-conspirator at some level, you still need to be able to be part of that community that is holding these conversations.

Yeah, definitely. In some ways we’re doing it well, in some ways not so much. Some chapters have folks who were formerly incarcerated and there’s some that are not really.

That’s what you mean by not doing that well?

Yeah, as far as maintaining relationships, memberships. It’s mixed. But what a privilege to be around to keep trying to do it better each time and to have… Emotions get raw in organizing spaces because so much is on the line. I’ve always felt like at CR there were people who knew how to handle really tough stuff, and later I was able to handle really tough stuff, and if we didn’t know, we knew where to turn. I just feel like that’s a beautiful, soft pillow to land on with transformative justice. You know, we have certainly stubbed our toe. But we kind of know what to do. I think that’s part of how we’ve been able to stay around this long. On the accountability level.

And that’s the accountability, you mean?

Yeah, to be able to have folks… Right now, I know that there are struggles on staff. This is an ongoing thing, where there’s someone on staff who feels like they aren’t being seen, their expertise isn’t being seen, for example, and they’re struggling with meeting chapter goals or having members come—just like any kind of organizer struggle. And the resentment gets created based on the stories we tell ourselves when things aren’t necessarily going our way—that we’re right, and we start othering, we start really believing that the situation is much bigger and broader than what it really is. But this is not indigenous to CR. This is a lot of us as young organizers being like, I know how to organize this chapter. I don’t need to check in. I don’t need a supervisor or mentor or check-in person. And so we play with it. Volunteers check in with stuff. I’ve made the rounds with someone who has weekly check-ins with a staff person as a volunteer, so it kind of depersonalizes the dynamic. And the new person kind of airs out their grievances so that I can actually help coach them into a place of honesty.

Not to push too hard on it, but do you find that these Maoist things are still useful to you and the daily work?

Always. I am always calculating the balance of forces in all kinds of realms of making decisions based on those, or at least helping groups make decisions based on the balance of forces, and definitely exploring contradiction. There was a contradiction just the other day—I can’t remember. I’m always digging up old Mao quotes and shit, from Mao on contradictions. And also this is where I do think that some of the shit pops up between Black trade unions and transformative organizing: Mao’s stance on matters like metaphysics. Mao would find some of our woo-woo stuff touchy-feely, like generative somatics, for example—I haven’t done it, but you know, that realm is metaphysics. It’s not based on concrete conditions. So, you see both sides, but I do check myself, like, would Mao consider this metaphysical or is this like a real condition that I’m actually assessing? Those are the three that I kind of bump up against a lot in movement work. Making organizing decisions based on our projections on things, but not the concrete. Interpersonal conflict/self-criticism…. That’s a big one. Yeah, we definitely practice self-crit in Critical Resistance. We do it every day. I just think it’s a good way of life, you know? In movements, yes, but just it’s a good way of life, a good way of living—not trying to seek out vengeance in justice and making myself have to be right all the fucking time, you know? I learned a whole lot more just listening and stepping back than I have writing the angry email and having to lash out, even though I’ve definitely done that. But, you know, I’ve had really good elders and good movement folks would be like, What are you trying to build? And I feel like that’s what we need a lot more, just having that call-in out of love, like, what are trying to build? A whole mountain where you’re right? OK, cool, I’ll go visit sometime. ⊱