Jocelyn Simonson | Living Out Cooperative Ideas of Justice and Safety

By Jocelyn Simonson

In his essay for our upcoming seminar, Bernard Harcourt lays out a series of provocative questions linking cooperation democracy and the generation of coöpower with what I call “radical acts of justice” in criminal court. Radical acts of justice happen when people come together to intervene in individual cases in criminal court, or other sites of state violence, while making public claims on the meanings of justice and safety. Community bail funds, for example, take the act of freeing someone from a cage and turn it into a larger example of how people can collectively live out an idea of public safety that contrasts with the one provided by the so-called “justice system.” With that act, a bail fund tells the court system: we are the community, and we don’t think what you were doing was just. We think justice looks different. We think it looks like us. Through this and other tactics that engage with the state—courtwatching, participatory and collective defense, and people’s budgets—groups are able to combine material aid with ideological struggle by become living proof that the state does not have the sole claim on the definition of justice.

But how can these acts be forms of cooperation, and of cooperation democracy? In Cooperation, Harcourt underscores the importance to cooperation democracy of ongoing experiments in responding to harm outside of the carceral state. He writes of these abolitionist experiments as examples of cooperation at work: “Challenging the link between crime and punishment pushes us to realize the larger implications of a world of mutual respect and cooperation, one that would fundamentally change the way we think about harm, victimization, crime, and how to address deviations from the norms. An ethic of care and cooperation would displace the punitive paradigm. It would render obsolete the notion of enforcing the criminal law.”[1]

Like mutual aid projects and transformative justice experiments outside of the state, the collective organizing tactics that I write about also challenge the link between crime and punishment. They do so not by providing collective care outside of the state, but rather by providing collective care using the very tools of the state: posting bail, attending a court proceeding, participating in a sentencing hearing. For that reason, these tactics are not inherently forms of cooperation—they run the risk of veering toward reformism, or, more basically, of failing to generate true collective participation. They are tactics, not strategies.

But at their most powerful, and most radical, these forms of collective action do push us toward the kinds of collective care that can displace the punitive paradigm. And that is because these forms of participation require generating new ways of relating to each other in the face of criminalization. We must, sometimes, step into a space of domination in order to help each other; but we must also, when doing so, refuse to cede ground to the state’s own idea of how the world must work and how justice must be “served.”

This can come from a collective act as simple as packing a courtroom. I saw this firsthand in the prosecution of criminalized survivor Tracy McCarter. At each court date, supported of McCarter from Survived & Punished NY and elsewhere filled the Manhattan courtroom, often wearing matching red shirts. These shirts had a picture of McCarter on them, as well as the phrases “Stand with Tracy” and “Free Them All.” The shirts were a vibrant red, creating a striking visual within an old and wooden space. And through their twin phrases, the shirts connected the prosecution of one criminalized survivor with the prosecution of all criminalized survivors—indeed, with all people. This is part of the power of abolitionist defense campaigns by groups like Survived and Punished—to connect the criminalization of one to the oppression of all. In McCarter’s case, the relentless collective advocacy on behalf of McCarter combined with the collective care shown by all members of her defense campaign—not just for McCarter, but for each other—brought out the dehumanizing nature of a process that allowed McCarter’s case to drag on for more than two years before its dismissal in December 2022.

Even when McCarter’s case was dismissed, Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Diane Kiesel felt compelled to write an eleven-page opinion explaining that she wished she was not dismissing the case, going so far as to quote Thomas Jefferson in her own explanation of how criminal prosecutions and trials further justice. Kiesel’s full sentence is worth repeating: “The law must not apportion justice according to the size of one’s advocacy group or the savviness of a media campaign, but afford ‘[e]qual and exact justice to all [people], of whatever state or persuasion.’ (First Inaugural Address, Thomas Jefferson, March 4, 1801).”[2] Under the cover of Jefferson’s language of justice, Judge Kiesel lays it out for us: the legitimacy of her criminal courtroom cannot handle being filled with people in red shirts supporting the accused, especially when done in a clear and public effort to connect a single case to that of other criminalized survivors. Kiesel’s criminal courtroom needed empty seats in the audience section in order to dole out its punishment. At the very least, it needed quiet reverence, it needed clothing in dull or generic hues. Kiesel’s criminal courtroom needed a total lack of cooperation and collective care. So that, when Kiesel’s courtroom became filled with people in red shirts—when it was no longer the judge’s courtroom alone—the state’s concept of justice necessarily lost strength along with the judge’s power.

Packing a courtroom is not necessarily radical; nor is it necessarily cooperative. But when a group of people come together to observe a courtroom collectively, bound by a dedication to each other, a respect for the humanity of those being accused and punished, and a promise to learn from their participation—and to teach others!, then I believe it has the potential to become a form of cooperation democracy, even if only temporarily. And part of the way we know that power has shifted, at least in some way, is by tracking the state’s resistance to the collective work at every moment, whether it is through the dicta of excessive judicial opinions or, more frighteningly, the actual prosecution of people for engaging in collective care.

Tracy McCarter’s criminal case is finally over, and we are lucky that she will be joining us for our 13/13 seminar, and can share with us some of the insight that she gained through her ordeal and through the collective thinking and action she took part in. I know she agrees that justice should not be an abstract idea handed down to us by judges, prosecutors, and police officers. Instead, it is a living ideal that we must, and can, create together.


[1] Bernard Harcourt, Cooperation: A Political, Economic, and Social Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 2023, p.161.

[2] Decision and Order, People v. Tracy McCarter, Ind. No. 746/2020 (N.Y. Supreme Ct., Dec. 2, 2022)