Heal from the roots – restorative justice for Sasha and Richard

In early November, an act of transphobic violence in Oakland set off a chain of public outcry, solidarity, and criminal prosecution. The victim, an 18-year-old high school student, was discharged from the hospital at the end of November, while their attacker has been charged with multiple felony counts and faces a long prison term if convicted. Now that the dust has settled, it’s time to think about the role not just of gender, but of race and the prison-industrial complex, as well as alternative responses to community violence.

On November 4th, Sasha Fleischman was sleeping on the AC Transit bus when Richard Thomas, a 16-year-old Oakland High School student, allegedly set their skirt on fire. Sasha, who identifies outside the gender binary and uses plural pronouns (they, them, their), spent most of November in the hospital, undergoing extensive skin grafts, and has a long recovery period ahead; an online fundraising page has already raised over $31,000 to help cover the costs.

For better and for worse, Sasha’s story has attracted some attention outside the Bay Area–even internationally. For better, because it’s important that people realize shit like this happens even in “progressive” enclaves like Oakland, and because people across the world (more than 700 of them so far) have shown support for Sasha on their fundraising page in the form of donations and kind comments. Sasha’s story has brought attention–some of it positive–to the experiences and struggles of folks who live outside the gender binary.

For worse, media coverage has been predictably abysmal. Most outlets have used the wrong pronouns for Sasha, repeated their legal name while casting their chosen name or pronoun in quotation marks, or referred to them as a “skirt-wearing teen,” as if their attire were the problem. Some reporters have just been lazy and obstinate, identifying Sasha as a gender, quoting their friends as saying Sasha uses plural pronouns–and then continuing to use male pronouns in the very next sentence. NBC Bay Area even went as far as to describe the pronoun they as “a purposely confusing word to show others what it feels like to be confused by gender,” casting all folks who use plural pronouns as conspiring to confound the cisgender public.

Even more frustratingly, the coverage doesn’t seem to be reaching those who need to know most: other high school students. I work as a sexual health counselor at a school not far from Sasha’s. I’m queer and out at work, and I often get to talk with queer, trans, and gender-variant students about their experiences, their challenges, and their relationships in this heteronormative, gender-enforcing world. Some students at the school know Sasha, or know Sasha’s friends, and I worry about how stories like Sasha’s affect their sense of safety in the community, on campus, and even at home.

But most students seem not to have heard about Sasha. When some of my queer coworkers and I teamed up with the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) last week to commemorate the national Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR), an annual memorial for trans and gender-variant folks who have been lost over the past year (many of them murdered), few students stopped at our table, where Sasha’s picture was displayed prominently along with the names and photos of others who have been attacked or killed. Most staff and faculty passed by in silence, too.

Fortunately, those who did stop by long enough to see Sasha’s portrait and hear their story expressed sorrow and regret at what happened to Sasha. Some of them even signed the GSA’s trans ally pledge or wrote Sasha a “Get Well” card. For this lunch period at least, the mood was one of support, solidarity, and healing for Sasha. Joining them in solidarity were Sasha’s classmates, teachers, parents, and friends, who had worn skirts to school and marched through East Oakland a week previously.

Outside the schools, however, the response has been different: an all-too-familiar combination of vilifcation and state power. The suspect, who is black, has been charged with two felonies, aggravated mayhem and assault, each with multiple hate crime enhancements, because Richard allegedly admitted he is “homophobic.” The District Attorney, Nancy O’Malley, has decided to charge him as an adult, despite a public plea from Sasha and their family to try Richard as a juvenile in family court. If convicted of both, he could face 25 years to life in prison. This is the dark elephant in the room of Sasha’s story: a “progressive” community’s willingness to throw away another black sixteen year old’s life.

The media coverage on the Left has been complicit in this project, despite its good intentions. Documentarian Jason Cohen, for example, writing for the Huffington Post’s Gay Voices column, compares the attack on Sasha to that of a gay teenager, Matthew Boger, who was beaten by neo-Nazis in Hollywood in 1980 (How Hate Happens). Cohen tells us how one of Boger’s attackers, Tim Zaal, who was 17 at the time, later realized the harm he’d caused and went on to join Boger in giving presentations on tolerance, “embark[ing] on a difficult journey of reconciliation and forgiveness.” For Cohen, Zaal’s story shows how hate is learned, and can be unlearned, and encourages us to think about the “deep-rooted factors” that could have led Richard to set Sasha on fire, such as, Cohen speculates, the lack of LGBT adults in Richard’s life. And yet Cohen mentions the numerous charges against Richard without for even a moment questioning his presumably lengthy incarceration.

The coverage on the Left, then, seems to recite the DA’s proclamations about the horrific nature of the crime–and it was horrific indeed–but predictably fails to question the prison-industrial complex’s (PIC) role as protector and its monopoly on the allocation of “justice.” It fails to critique, in other words, how the effort to drum up public awareness and outrage about the attack coincides with the state violence of locking up another black teenager, at a time, according to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, when black youth are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth charged with the same crimes (And Justice for Some). At a time when, as litigator Michelle Alexander writes, more African-Americans are incarcerated than were enslaved before the Civil War (The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness). Yes, queer, trans, and gender-variant folks ought to be cautiously optimistic that the police and the community are taking gender-based violence seriously, rather than ignoring it, trivializing it, or blaming the victim. But this shouldn’t make us think that the cops are on our side (or that if they were, our work would be done) or prevent us from thinking critically about systemic racism. Such a complacent narrative will never explain, much less hold anyone accountable for, the death of Kayla Moore, a black transwoman who died while in Berkeley Police custody last February.

This narrative also shouldn’t prevent us from proposing radical alternatives to hate crimes laws and mass incarceration. Faced with this terrible act of violence, we ought to think restoratively. This means that we question the standard American criminal justice process, which Oakland-based restorative justice activist Fania Davis describes in Tikkun magazine as “retributive”:

“The only way to pay back the debt and re-balance the scales is to be given your just deserts…Pain, suffering, isolation, deprivation, even death are often viewed as the only way to make right the wrong, the only way to pay back the debt and the only way to re-balance the scales…Instead of the person harmed who retaliates, it is our justice system that strikes back on the victim’s behalf (What’s Love Got to Do with It?).

The retributive way of administering “justice” is so deeply engrained in American culture that even those like Jason Cohen, who want “reconciliation and forgiveness” for Richard and Sasha, cannot question it. Falling into the same trap, the editorial board of the SF Examiner declares that “we all need to focus on healing and learning,” while maintaining that “there is no doubt that there needs to be punishment for the sixteen year-old [Richard]” (Sasha Fleicshman Sets Example). Like Cohen, another way does not occur to them. But another way is possible: restorative justice holds that locking people in cages only increases the original wrong. Rather than focus on allocating individual blame and punishment, restorative justice seeks to repair harms for the victim, offender, and community alike, reconciling conflict instead of deepening it. It allows us to see how transphobic violence in the community and state violence behind bars share a common nexus. Restorative justice asks:

1) Who was harmed?
3) What are the needs and responsibilities of all affected?
5) How do all affected parties together address needs and repair harms?
With these guiding questions, restorative justice programs attempt to bring together victims, offenders, and volunteers from the affected community to find fair, non-Statist, mutually acceptable ways of repairing the harm. This can take many forms: victim-offender mediation, family group conferences, or peacemaking circles (What’s Love Got to Do with It?). In West Oakland middle schools, restorative justice programs have been hugely successful: in 2007, an initiative started by Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth eliminated expulsions and fights, and reduced suspension rates by 75%, enormous achievements that retributive justice could never have reached. The model has proven effective outside the schools as well, from juvenile sexual assault cases to robberies.

The tragic irony here is that the same queer/trans folks who are tacitly, if not enthusiastically, supporting the use of hate crimes laws in the name of justice for Sasha, have they themselves so often been the target of this same legislation, often for just trying to defend against repression. The fact that hate crimes laws disproptionately affect queers, trans/gender-variant folks, low-income folks, people of color, and especially those who inhabit many of these identities, has been so well documented that even liberal left groups like the ACLU now oppose hate crime sentencing enhancements.* And yet, instead of seeing common cause with Richard, those who reflexively seek retributive justice for Richard threaten to pit queers against people of color, letting the state play the role of mediator. Fortunately, the community has resisted this cynical move, and students of color at Richard’s school and beyond have written letters of condolence and support to Sasha.

By all means, yes, let’s call Sasha’s attack the tragic act of violence that it was, and hold Richard accountable. We can be angry and scared and sad about what happened–these are all valid feelings, and I’ve been feeling them, too. But let’s hold ourselves accountable as well, and in doing so, attempt to hold the state accountable too. Let’s not confront one axis of oppression only to join with the state in reinforcing another one. Transphobic violence and ubiquitous, racist incarceration are both problems, and a 25-year sentence for Richard does nothing to solve the former while exacerbating the latter. A restorative approach challenges the state’s monopoly on “justice,” while offering an opportunity for mutual understanding and healing for Sasha and Richard.

* Abolitionist group Black and Pink has compiled radical queer critiques of hate crimes laws into a succinct document that you can view on their website: blackandpink.org

Read a Book You Little Rugrat: Slingshot Reviews 'Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison-Industrial Complex'

My favorite thing about edited anthologies is that I can never finish long books. Essays, I can do. My second-favorite thing is that readers usually get a wider range of perspectives and, in the best case, a variety of writing styles. Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) delivers both, offering theory, personal narrative, interviews, policy papers, legal analysis, and even a manifesto from writers representing a full spectrum of gender identities, with complex and varied relationships to the PIC and to the academy. These writers bring queer and trans struggles together with prison abolition movements in an unprecedented way. Even the cover is telling of the book’s radical commitments. The front image, a photo of burning cop cars from the 1979 White Night Riots (which began after Dan White was acquitted in the murder of gay SF Supervisor Harvey Milk) says a lot — Captive Genders isn’t a dry slog of politically disinvested theory, and that the book is as attuned to its genealogy as it is to radical programs for the future.

As for the long title, I get the impresson that Smith and Stanley chose their words carefully here. The book’s stated focus is on trans embodiment — not trans identity or trans people. On the one hand, ’embodiment’ is an apt lens for examining gender in spaces where the body is heavily policed and disciplined, as Lori Girshick documents in her groundbreaking study of gendered dress code and behavior enforcement in women’s prisons (cleverly titled Out of Compliance). All prisoners at Central California Women’s Prison, for example, are forbidden to wear boxer shorts, regardless of gender identity. Julia C. Oparah covers similar ground in her essay Maroon Abolitionism, focusing on the intersection of race and gender enforcement in the penal system while linking this critique to the metaphorical cages that confine all of us. These approaches also help avoid some of the usual concerns with identity politics (who gets to count as trans, whose rights we’re fighting for, etc.). On the other hand, I was disappointed not to find any discussion of why the editors chose embodiment as their theoretical angle, especially since the term has a legacy in feminist theory going back at least to Simone de Beauvoir.

My favorite parts of the volume shed light on some lesser-known moments in queer and trans resistance. In “Street Power” and the Claiming of Public Space, Jennifer Worly tells the little-known history of Vanguard, a group that sprang up in San Francisco’s Tenderloin in the 1960s. Pulling together Vanguard flyers and newsletters, as well as some firsthand accounts from folks in the scene, Worly shows how Vanguard centered their work around young sex workers and other economic and social outcasts to fight privatization, homelessness, social isolation, and police brutality – unlike the assimilationist homophile movement that was already active in San Francisco in the 1960s. I enjoyed reading about Vanguard’s actions, like their symbolic ‘sweep’ of the Tenderloin that reappropriated the terms of gentrification and so-called ‘urban renewal,’ and the riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, a diner that had hired private security to harass young queens and hustlers. Though the Compton’s Cafeteria riot took place in 1966, it’s often overshadowed by the better known 1969 Stonewall uprising, so it’s nice to see it getting some attention here. Worly even makes this all relevant to the contemporary scene, in a neat critique of liberal sexual politics:

“Vanguard’s foregrounding of the queer youth or adolescent challenged…the very cliche often used to apeal to American ‘live and let live’ ideals: that the law should not interfere with what ‘two consenting adults do in the privacy of their own home.’ Vanguard’s street-sweep illustrates the woeful inadequacy of this cliché as an appeal for the rights of queer and trans youth, who might be consenting but are not adults, who in many cases had been expelled from the protections of ‘the home,’ and its aegis of privacy, and who, as street-based sex workers, depended for their very survival upon queer modes of accessing public – not private – spaces for specifically sexual purposes.”

The same could be said for the current obsession with marriage as the lodestar of gay liberation.

Nadia Guidotto adds another valuable contribution (Looking Back) to the less-told history of queer resistance in her account of the 1981 Toronto bathhouse raids and the riot that followed. The violent response to the raids, she argues, brought gay men together with women feminists, people of color involved in anti-police-brutality work, and others who were fighting against the state regulation of their bodies and sexuality. This kind of coalition building is as necessary today as it was then – especially for the project of prison abolition.

Two pieces that stand out, especially when read together, focus on queer immigration: glimpses of the production of normative queer subjects in the asylum process (How to Make Prisons Disappear) and HIV/AIDS-related abuses in Immigration and Customs Enforcement prisons (Regulatory Sites). Other highlights of the volume include a much-needed critique of sex offender registries (Awful Acts and the Trouble with Normal) and a lucid, almost surrealist personal essay (Hotel Hell) that meanders from the nitty-gritty regulation of life in a residential hotel to a heartfelt call for folks to consider how their tactics make their bodies vulnerable to the PIC.

If you asked me to find some weak points in the book, I might complain a bit about the seemingly excessive interpretive liberties Stephen Dillon takes in his account of imprisoned queer writing (The Only Freedom I Can See). Really though, my only complaint is that with such a wide variety of perspectives and styles, the collection ought to be organized a bit more linearly, and better curated, with something like an editor’s note at the beginning of each piece. I guess what I’m saying is I just want Eric Stanley and Nat Smith to hold my hand as I read their book – which I suppose is pretty queer.

Organizing the third sector

Nonprofits are the Third Sector because they are neither private for-profit corporations nor public agencies. Instead, nonprofits occupy the nebulous space of a private agency often operating with a large share of public funding in government grants and contracts. Many governments have followed suit with their corporate counterparts in decreasing payrolls, partially because of shrinking revenues and partially because of an unshakable faith in free markets being more efficient in delivering services.

This faith in the free market has given rise to the Third Sector and to large nonprofits such as Larkin Street Youth Services (LSYS) among many others. Many of the jobs in the nonprofit service sector used to be occupied by public sector employees. However, following the trend of trade union workers in the private sector having their jobs moved overseas, governments have found it increasingly more cost-effective to outsource the work of unionized public workers to privatized nonprofits, in which workers are often non-union with lower wages, less benefits, and more lax workplace regulations. The Third Sector has burgeoned in the shadow of retrenched governments, creating more incentive for governments to contract more social services out to this Third Sector.

If we are to stem the tide of ever-dwindling public resources in social services, public health, and education, then organizing the Third Sector is crucial to reversing the privatization of our service economy. If workers in the Third Sector have access to competitive wages, decent benefits, and better, more regulated working conditions, then governments would have less incentive to privatize those services in the first place, because they would not be considerably cheaper. Ultimately, organizing broadly across the Third Sector could create greater opportunities to demand more resources for all collectively. We could also forge strong alliances with our counterparts in the public sector who face severe pressures when there are at-will workers in the Third Sector “supposedly” able to do their jobs at a fraction of the cost. I say “supposedly” because it is ultimately our clients who get hurt by lack of resources, burnt out workers, and high turnover, all problems felt commonly throughout the Third Sector because a fraction of the cost often means a fraction of the care.

Unionization Efforts at LSYS

I have been a worker at Larkin Street Youth Services (LSYS) for two and a half years, originally as an Outreach Counselor and transferring later to the Education Department as a GED Instructor. When I started in fall 2010 at LSYS, I found myself embroiled in the tail-end of a failed unionization effort.

LSYS has greatly expanded in the last decade without much careful attention given to the wages, benefits, and working conditions of a growing workforce. For example, in 2011, despite multiple supplications to institute a Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA) in response to years of stagnant wages and benefits, the agency ignored such requests and instead eliminated the best healthcare plan in terms of cost and coverage, only later increasing the base salary of all the counselors by $2,000, forcing workers to choose between more income or better health benefits. The pay increase did not affect education and employment specialists or case managers, and no plan has ever been detailed to raises the wages of all workers, let alone restore health benefits. Staffing ratios have also suffered severely as services have expanded. In the case of my old program, Outreach, as well as the Drop-In Center, both programs have actually had permanent staff positions cut in the past year alone, while a new Director position has been created. Perhaps most importantly, even though the legal rights of Third Sector workers are better protected in San Francisco than other parts of the country, being an at-will employee is still a highly vulnerable position. One can be disciplined or fired at almost any time for any reason with no due process. This is a grave concern of many workers, myself included, who have witnessed coworkers written up or fired for taking sick leave or not reporting even the most mundane details about clients. A union at LSYS would give us all a contract with due process protections, meaning management would have to establish just cause for terminations, and we would all be able to collectively bargain for better conditions for all of us and our clients.

Workers attempted to unionize at LSYS back in 2010. However, when I started working there, the unionizing attempt was already faltering. A coworker of mine put it best in describing our current efforts, “This time it really feels like we’re organizing. Last time, it just felt like protesting.” I would argue that this perception is largely due to the fact that this time around we built a strong foundation, whereas previously we were intently focused on forming a union, this time we have really focused on building worker power and solidarity, the union being the vehicle, not the driver, of change.

The following is a very broad roadmap toward building that solidarity with some specific examples ,where possible, from our campaign at LSYS.

“Learning” the Organization

The nice thing about nonprofits, even the larger ones like LSYS, is that these organizations still have a relatively small workforce. At LSYS, for example, at any given time, there are approximately 140 permanent staff and around 30-40 relief staff. The first and most essential step in organizing the Third Sector is to know everyone, front-line and management. Learn workers’ names and job titles, how long they have been with the agency, that which they like and do not like about their jobs, to whom they report and who reports to them, and whom they trust (more on this later).

On my very first day at LSYS, I asked for an Organizational Chart because I wanted to know how the hierarchy worked and who fell within which Divisions. The Employee Manual said that we would receive one in the New Hire Orientation, but it was not in my packet, so I requested one and had it sent via e-mail the next day. I read the full 30-page Employee Manual in the first week and the full 130-page Policies and Procedures Manual within the first six months. When our healthcare options were drastically cut in 2011, I pored over the premiums, deductibles, and coverage to contest the “sales pitch” made for our high-deductible HRA plan. When a new Employee Manual was issued in 2012, I read the whole thing in full while highlighting, compared it with the old manual, and then requested a meeting with our Chief Operations Officer to ask pointed questions about changes in language and omissions of certain sections. The new manual omitted any mention of the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance, which allows members of the public to access and review much of our budget. I was later able to point out this omission to other workers and to back up the veracity of any budgetary claims I made with, “Well, go see for yourself, if you don’t believe me.”

“Learning the organization” is the groundwork for mobilizing the workers because, as an organizer, one needs to be fully conversant in all the roles and responsibilities, all the policies, and all the changes in the organization, especially in a volatile workplace where turnover is often high and policies are arbitrary and subject to change quickly. Eventually, one must also become conversant in explaining the unionizing process, but to lay the groundwork for organizing the workers, one must learn how the organization ticks and which people make its heart beat.

Establishing Trust

Furthermore, putting confidentiality and discretion at the center of every interaction is important in creating a culture of mutual aid and protection. In the beginning of the campaign, a lot of folks would ask me who else was involved, and I would say frankly that we want to protect people, so I cannot give out names without their permission, but I would be able to indicate in rough numbers how many workers were involved as organizers. This level of confidentiality was less for the protection of workers already joining the ranks of organizing but more for demonstrating to newcomers that we were doing everything that we could to protect each other and avoid unwanted scrutiny from management.

Build a Diverse Base

The Third Sector functions off the labor of people from a lot of mixed backgrounds. Since getting a job in the Third Sector is considerably easier than surmounting higher barriers to employment in the public sector with its more stringent regulations for civil service, nonprofit work tends to attract everyone from younger, white college graduates as a stepping stone to long-term careers, to single parents putting themselves through college or graduate school while supporting a family, to slightly older workers of color who wish to give back to their communities, and to LGBT workers who can be safely and comfortably out in the very socially liberal atmosphere of the Third Sector. The Third Sector is often a very diverse workforce, representing varied class, age, racial, and sexual interests.

When beginning to assess other workers and building an organizing committee, do your best to build a diverse base and speak to the diversity of interests among the staff. At a place like LSYS, which has so many jobsites, we were also particularly focused on getting a diversity of people from different sites who would have different contacts. Having so many sites is at once a curse and a blessing because it means that we had to build an organizing committee among folks who would not normally interact very frequently, but the result was that we began to work better with people whom we would rarely see or talk to, and we started to learned more about the issues confronting staff at different sites, sometimes staffing levels, other times, purely low pay, and often, disciplinary fears. In attempting to build a diverse committee within the agency, we were able as organizers to speak to the myriad concerns that workers from remote corners of the agency had.

One cannot just grab anybody indiscriminately as an organizer though. LSYS has a very high turnover rate, approximately 60% last year in recent estimates from our HR Director. Therefore, the workers who have been around a little longer and who have learned how to advocate for themselves and youth strongly are the ideal candidates as organizers. We attempted to pick leaders throughout the agency who are strong youth advocates, strong worker advocates, and who had worked in different departments throughout the agency, a common occurrence at LSYS for myself and others on the organizing committee.

After the Foundation is Set

The foundation outlined above is just a foundation. The tactics deployed in any campaign must be unique to the agency, but workers in the Third Sector often share these common themes above: a more highly diversified workforce, a service sector reliant on trust to operate effectively, and often-changing workers and policies, which need to be actively learned. The next step is to actually garner union representation, but in my opinion, unionization is the result of strong worker solidarity, never the cause.