Bernard E. Harcourt | Introduction to Coöperism 3/13 on Radical Acts of Justice

By Bernard E. Harcourt


“When people join together to contest ideas of justice and safety through tactics that include bail funds, People’s Budgets, courtwatching, and participatory defense, they open up for debate the contours of ideas that we usually take for granted… They redefine the concept of justice itself: perhaps justice is when the state provides communities with what they need to support each other and keep each other safe. Perhaps safety means freedom, not incarceration.”

     – Jocelyn Simonson, Radical Acts of Justice (New York: New Press, 2023)[1]

In her brilliant and meticulous, thoroughly documented book, Radical Acts of Justice: How Ordinary People Are Dismantling Mass Incarceration, the critical theorist and practitioner Professor Jocelyn Simonson shows us how people join together today to form powerful coalitions to resist and challenge injustice in courthouses throughout the country and, together, to build a new and more just society.

People coming together to pool their monies and pay off other people’s bail. People coming together to watch other people’s trials and bear witness to their ordeals. People joining together to mount defenses and protest detention, imprisonment, punishment – and to call for the end of pretrial detention.

Simonson’s remarkable book highlights all the ways that collectivities are coming together today to transform our societal practices of punishment and uplift a new vision of a just society.

In this session Coöperism 3/13, we will together explore forms of cooperation within one of the most critical contemporary spaces: the criminal legal processes. We used to refer to this field as the “criminal justice system,” but those terms, we now know, are oxymorons. The criminal legal field is not one of “justice,” any more than it is a single, integrated “system.” It is instead a quagmire of tortuous legal processes that, for most people, amount to the equivalent of a medieval ordeal.

It is within those critical spaces of the criminal legal ordeals that we will be focusing our discussion of cooperation this week, and asking, very specifically:

What does “cooperation” look like in the criminal legal field?

To what extent do these radical acts of justice draw on cooperation?

And vice versa, to what extent do these radical acts of justice create cooperation?

Moreover, how do we nurture, foster, and augment cooperation in the space of these criminal legal ordeals?

Together with two inspiring, accomplished, and brilliant organizers and social justice advocates, Osyrus Bolly and Tracy McCarter, we will explore at Coöperism 3/13 how practices of cooperation and mutual aid infuse, produce, and result from these transformative practices in the context of the criminal legal process.

* * *

The Chicago Community Bond Fund. The Philadelphia Bail Fund. The Philadelphia Community Bail Fund. The Bronx Freedom Fund. The Lorena Borjas Community Fund in Queens. The Massachusetts Bail Fund. The Brooklyn Community Bail Fund. The National Bail Fund Network. Black Mama’s Bail Outs. The National Bailout Collective. Around the country, people have been coming together to support people caught in the criminal legal juggernaut.

Over the past decade, as Jocelyn Simonson documents in her book, bail funds have mushroomed. And these involve substantial sums of money, as Simonson documents. In Minneapolis, after the murder of George Floyd, the Minneapolis Freedom Fund received more than 900,000 donations, amounting to more than $31 million in the first week of June 2020. It rose to $100 million by the end of the year.[2] All that money would then be used to pay off bail for countless numbers of people—some as small as $25 that a person may not have, and some as large as $100,000 on a single person’s bail, as in the case of a young Black woman in Massachusetts accused of abandoning her newborn baby.[3]

Meanwhile, other people are coming together to witness, document, and contest courtroom practices. Court Watch Baton Rouge. Court Watch NOLA. Court Watch NYC. Philadelphia Bail Watch. Court Watch MA. The Fund for Modern Courts in New York State. The court monitoring project of the prison reform organizing project in New York City, founded by among others, Zohra Ahmed.[4] Again, around the country, these groups are transforming the criminal process.

Court Watch New York City not only provides eyes and ears in courtrooms to make a record of what is taking place, but also engages prosecutors on social media and then issues reports, like the one titled “Broken Promises,” that take to task Brooklyn and Manhattan District Attorneys for not living up to their promises.[5] They push for accountability and transparency, and mobilize the community.

The participatory defense techniques that Simonson describes in Chapter 4 of her book involve group efforts to bring the collectivity to bear on individual cases. A group might come together to examine discovery documents or to create a video that provides socio-biographical background about an individual accused of a crime.[6] By coming together as a group, people intervene collectively to bring to bear the community’s power on individual cases.

There are now groups around the country that do this. The Community Defense of East Tennessee. The Silicon Valley De-bug. The national collective Survived & Punished, co-founded by Mariame Kaba, with its New York chapter. As Simonson documents, there is now a national network of groups that challenge criminalization and engage in collective defense campaigns with survivors of domestic violence.

It is in this context that Jocelyn Simonson writes about Tracy McCarter’s ordeal and the emergence of the #StandWithTracy social movement.[7] Tracy McCarter—who will be joining us at Coöperism 3/13—worked as a nurse at Weill Cornell and was a Master’s student in nursing at Columbia University when she was arrested and accused of second degree murder in the death of her estranged husband. Arraigned on March 3, 2020, Tracy McCarter would spend seven months incarcerated at Rikers Island. In the courtroom the night of her arraignment, there sat a person from Court Watch NYC, who then reached out to an organizer-member of Survived & Punished, which then reached out to Tracy McCarter to ask if she was interested in working with them. They eventually worked together and formed a community defense team, to mount a defense campaign and a social media campaign, including the movement #StandWithTracy, that ultimately led DA Alvin Bragg’s office to dismiss the most serious charges. Ultimately, in December 2022, the case was dismissed, though in a controversial ruling, in which the state judge continued to raise questions about Tracy McCarter’s case.

In her book, Jocelyn Simonson describes these bail funds (Chapter 2), court watching groups (Chapter 3), and participatory and collective defense teams (Chapter 4), and then, beyond the courthouse, the ways that collectivities challenge how justice is defined in local, county, and state budgets (Chapter 5). Simonson documents how these struggles are redefining our understanding of justice and safety; and how people unite in collective acts of mutual aid and support to bring about collective responses to injustice and mass incarceration. Simonson shows us the urgency of it all in these critical times and the critical mass of organizing that’s taking place today.

In her inspiring Afterword, Jocelyn Simonson writes that “This is a book about the transformation of collective thought through collective action, told through the experiences of individuals.”[8]

Simonson’s own personal journey—from public defender to advocate of these forms of collective action to abolitionist—is a testament to that idea. It is a glorious reflection of how cooperation can transform people.

That will be the focus of our public seminar: to ask precisely the question how cooperation can transform political action and people’s hearts? What is the role for cooperation in these collective acts of justice? How do those acts create cooperation, and how does cooperation nurture these acts? What is it about working together that produces this unique form of power, what one might call coöpower? What is the form of coöpower that is at the heart of these collective actions for justice? These are some of the questions we hope to explore.

Welcome to Coöperism 3/13!


[1] Jocelyn Simonson, Radical Acts of Justice (New York: New Press, 2023), p. xiii.

[2] Simonson, Radical Acts of Justice, p. 43.

[3] Simonson, Radical Acts of Justice, p. 49.

[4] Simonson, Radical Acts of Justice, p. 76.

[5] Simonson, Radical Acts of Justice, p. 77.

[6] Simonson, Radical Acts of Justice, p. 95.

[7] Simonson, Radical Acts of Justice, p. 117-126.

[8] Simonson, Radical Acts of Justice, p. 179.