By Reakash Walters
A Thoughtful Exposé of the Power of Community Organizing
In her book Radical Acts of Justice Jocelyn Simonson argues that collective, community-based tactics, including bail funds, court watching, people’s budgets, and participatory and collective defence are on the rise and are shifting power. She argues that these community efforts are effective strategies to undermine the force and effect of mass criminalization and incarceration within Black, racialized, and other marginalized communities.
At the book launch at Greenlight Bookstore with Amna A. Akbar on August 16, I asked Professor Simonson what work she was hoping the book would do in the world. As part of her answer, she noted that while she hoped that lawyers, law professors and law students read her book, she was most intent on ensuring the book was accessible for the everyday people she wrote about. I think Simonson was successful in this aim.
With regards to her methodology, Professor Simonson relies on descriptive and exploratory research practices. The book reads as a reporting of past and existing community-based projects as a result of her interviews and observations. She often introduces us to the various community-based tactics through case-studies she explores through storytelling. She does not attempt to provide any definitive answers as to what is the “best” or “most effective” strategy for resisting mass-incarceration. Instead, she offers readers information to increase their understanding of both the ongoing challenges facing over-policed communities and the creative solutions that arise out of collective struggle.
The book is divided into six sections (1) Justice, Safety and the People; (2) Community Bail Funds; (3) Court watching (4) Participatory Defence; (5) People’s Budgets; and (6) Practicing Justice and Safety. I will offer a short review of each section below in preparation for our seminar Coöperism 3/13.
1. Justice, Safety and the People
In this first section, Simonson introduces what she views as the fundamental contradiction of the existing criminal legal system: “the People” are comprised not of those who live in community with those charged with crimes, but of justice system actors. Throughout the book, Simonson mentions on several occasions that before her career in academia, she spent five years as a public defender with the Bronx Defenders. In this section she argues that although we have become acculturated to prosecutors and elected officials representing the view of “the People” it is time to displace this ideological language. She writes that “the words and principles we use to frame our criminal laws and procedures in turn shape the cultures of our precincts, courthouses, prisons and other sites of interaction between state actors and the public” (p 5). The collective interventions that Professor Simonson describes in her book use the language and logics of the criminal legal system against itself to challenge and upend existing power structures.
2. Community Bail Funds
In this section, Simonson explains the significance of money bail or bond. She notes that studies reveal that money bail has little or no positive effect on the likelihood that an individual with return to court to avoid being re-arrested. Further, people held in jail pretrial are more likely to be sentenced to prison and often serve longer prison sentences than those who are released on bail. When bail funds interrupt this process and pay bail for accused persons, individuals are better able to fight their case. One case study centred on an accused named Derek. After the Philadelphia Bail Fund paid his bail, he was able to find an apartment, care for his sick mother, and secure employment while he awaited his trial date. Some bail fund programs offer additional services to folks by offering rides to court, reminder phone calls, drug treatment, job referrals, and leadership training. In 2015 and 2016 the Bronx Freedom Fund, Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, and Massachusetts Bail Fund all reported over 90 percent of the people they posted bail for returned to court. While these efforts can transform the lives of affected folks, Simonson also notes that some bail fund organizers can feel as though they are part of making the system more efficient rather than dismantling it. Simonson writes that “The challenge, along any dimension of legitimation, becomes to maintain a stance of collective contestation that forces questions about the system, that builds power toward other conceptions of justice and safety” (p 39).
3. Court Watching
Here, Simonson details the efforts of court watching coalitions in New York, Baton Rouge, Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and several counties in Massachusetts. These organizations train and organize volunteers to sit regularly in criminal courtrooms, document their observations, and report to the public what they witnessed in court. She writes that the goal of these groups is to “reclaim courtroom spaces as part of an effort to understand the practices there, document those practices, and, ultimately, push back against their very existence” (p 60). I found Professor Simonson’s description of everyday people entering courtrooms in matching T-shirts to disrupt the routine of in-justice-as-usual deeply compelling. As a result, I collaborated with another law student, Jane Spencer, to secure funding and institutional support through the Davis Polk Leadership Initiative to start a court watching collective. We intend to cultivate a culture of “sousveillance” or “watching from below” in the Morningside Heights & Harlem community.
4. Participatory Defence
This section opens with an exhilarating account of how a woman named Mfalme-Shu’la become involved in a participatory defence project in Knoxville that started in a church basement. After being initially rebuffed by an accused person’s lawyer, the Knoxville PD pressed on with their work and were an important reason why the case against a man named Eddie was dismissed. One element of this section I thought was important was the inclusion of the stories of rifts and disagreements that arose within the PD organizing space. This is a topic that has come up in past Coöperism 13/13 discussions; namely, the fact that interpersonal conflict is an inevitable part of community organizing and cooperation projects. Simonson noted that in response to conflicts over a shared vision, the Community Defense of East Tennessee developed seven principles of Unity with a focus on centering families and recognizing the dangers of white supremacy. Before moving to New York City, I was involved in developing a Participatory Defence collective in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The abolitionist participatory defence project I was involved in experienced existential challenges, largely because members could not articulate a shared vision, and this lack of vision led to enduring disagreement about strategy. I think the importance of cultivating collective principles cannot be overstated.
5. People’s Budgets
In this chapter, Simonson describes the ways in which community organizations like the Philadelphia Bail Fund and Survived and Punished NY continue the legacy of movements by tracking and critiquing the way the criminal legal system spends its money. She writes that when a collective makes demands to their government about budgets, it allows organizers to expand their demands from narrow requests rooted squarely in the criminal legal system to broader structural interventions that addresses where the state invests money in the first place. Notably, People’s Budgets like the ones created in Nashville are informed by “People’s Assemblies.” At these assemblies, community members gather to debate and discuss pressing local issues. In Nashville, participants overwhelmingly indicated their desire to see the state invest less to criminal system processes and more into affordable housing, infrastructure, non-police violence prevention, property tax relief, and other similar public services.
6. Practicing Justice and Safety
In this final chapter, Simonson details legislative and judicial backlash to some of the community-based resistance projects described in the book. In Kentucky, state legislatures described bail funds as “cartels” that free people against the system’s will. Debates over the uses and threats of bail funds and other community-based projects force the debate over the meaning of public safety into the public sphere. Simonson orients the reader towards a definition of justice that is less punitive and more transformative. It is a version of justice that is patient and generous in its attempts to heal the harms that beget harms because the goal is to prevent future harms. In this way, Simonson closes the book where she opened it, with an invitation for readers to consider what “safety” means to each of us and to reflect on how we are implicated in it.