From the Community | Developing a Transformative Justice in Response to Racism on Campus

Opinion by Tyler Bonnen
Sept. 19, 2021, 10:43 p.m.

A Stanford undergraduate recently posted a series of images on social media containing explicit endorsements of anti-Black racism, slavery, and depictions of violence against other students. There were immediate calls to expel Chaze Vinci to protect the Black community on campus. 

As a black graduate student I understand the hurt, fear, and outrage that has surfaced in response to Chaze Vinci’s behavior online. It has affected me in ways I won’t put to words. I also recognize the very real threat of violence that these posts make legible. But I’m troubled by how our need for safety has been framed; I’m cautious about the safety strategy that is taking shape. 

Chaze Vinci’s arrest record has been widely used to substantiate the danger he poses to our community. In a petition to have him removed from campus, for example, which has almost 15 thousand signatures, screenshots of his arrest record are positioned next to his social media posts. Similarly, references to his arrest record were included within Stanford’s most recent update about Vinci’s status within the institution. 

Appealing to “criminal” behavior is a widely accepted expression of the threat someone poses, and is often taken as grounds for removal from a community. This logic is at the foundation of our judicial systems within the United States and has been used, disproportionately, as a pretense for state-sanctioned violence against Black communities. Historically and presently. Drawing on Vinci’s arrest record to substantiate a threat against Black communities is a reversal of sorts, one that appeals to—and, consequently, legitimizes—the very same logic that is used to keep Black people out of employment, education, and civic life.

Maybe this language was necessary to convince Stanford that our concerns were real. While the administration bloviates about their progressive social values via email, they have done little to earn the trust of Black students on campus. In fact, they have demonstrated a familiar indifference to anti-Black racism. Anticipating an inadequate administrative response, I can imagine how students would advocate for their safety, first, by employing the most legible narrative available in that moment (i.e. criminality), and second, by channeling this need through conventional administrative responses (i.e. expulsion). Indeed, unlike previous incidents of anti-Black racism on campus, here the University’s response was swift, announcing that Vinci would not be returning to campus this quarter within days.  

But this approach will fail us. Not simply because we’re appealing to the same logic used in service of anti-Black racism. But because these strategies are, in their very design, incapable of addressing the nature of interpersonal harm, much less anti-Black racism. 

Violence unfolds across multiple timescales; the transient episodes that take place between individuals, the rhythmic imposition of social norms, the glacial construction of economies. Yet so many of our legal and emotional frameworks for conceiving of and responding to violence are fixated on the momentary interactions between individuals. By failing to recognize, much less address the conditions that give rise to violence, our systems for accountability are not able to create the conditions necessary for safety. Instead, we seek accountability in terms of punishment, safety in terms of exclusion—that is, removing members of our community that might cause harm. 

Condemned by both liberal and conservative communities on campus, marred by his criminal record, it will be relatively easy to exile Vinci. It may even be necessary. But, at the very least, we have to consider how removing someone from our community forces them into other places, with other people; do we have any responsibility to mitigate the harm that might come to these off-campus communities? We might believe that people who have harmed others deserve opportunities for healing as well; what role might accountability play in this process? Critically, while it might be a necessary form of short-term harm reduction, removing Chaze Vinci from campus will do nothing to address the structural dimensions of racism, either on or off campus. And simply demanding VInci be expelled encourages Stanford towards a performative justice, enabling the institution to continue skating over its role in creating the conditions where racism, sexism, et al. flourish on campus.

We need systems of accountability that recognize the relationship between individual behaviors and social conditions, and then work to transform them. Not as a means to avoid individual accountability, but to reconceptualize it. Because, so often, the harms that take place between individuals reveal broader patterns of institutional violence, economic coercion, and social conditioning. And so to create environments that foster safety within our communities, we must learn how to dismantle the cultures and institutions that engender violence.

These ideas have long been operationalized through prison abolition and transformative justice frameworks. In my time here, I’ve met many people across this university committed to these principles. Each of us, in our own ways, are actively working to understand how we can embody these ideals in our day-to-day lives. In doing so, we are confronted with a simple lesson in many forms: intellectually understanding these ideas doesn’t mean we know how to bring them into the world. Because, yes, learning to outmaneuver the prevailing conceptual and administrative frameworks is a formidable task. But also because the most intimate aspects of our personal lives—our emotional experiences, our desires, fears—have been entrained by deeply unjust institutional practices. This includes the ways that we respond to harm, yearn for safety, how we react when we learn we’ve hurt someone. Speaking to members of the Stanford community about Chaze VInci, I hear an underlying tension between our political analysis and our emotional needs. It’s a difficult feeling to grapple with, especially without a strategy for how we might align the two.

How might we respond to Chaze VInci’s behaviors within a transformative justice framework? It’s easy to hope for neat solutions to this question—industrial-scale strategies for how we should respond to violence, or protect people who have been hurt. But that isn’t how developing a transformative justice works, nor should it. As broad as these ideas might seem, transformative justice requires an intimate understanding of the individuals and communities involved, the harm that has been done, and the resources we have access to in our response. In fact, adhering to simple heuristics can perpetuate the harm taking place in our communities. Sometimes, well-meaning communities underestimate the challenges that emerge in caring for people who have been harmed. Sometimes the systems that take shape are brittle and can easily be exploited, providing cover for individuals to avoid accountability. 

It is not necessary that the University—as a set of policies and administrative practices—participate in developing transformative justice practices on campus. If nothing else, the work of abolitionist organizers in this country is a testament to the possibility of developing community-based responses to violence even in the face of brutal, totalizing institutions. But there is a world where the University commits itself to this project. This could create new possibilities for how we design systems of safety and accountability on campus, synergizing personal, community, and institutional mechanisms for accountability and care. But including the University in this process also comes with its own concerns. Not least because Stanford is responsible for so many of the inequalities and injustices that take shape on campus (e.g. treatment of subcontracted workers, or policies around sexual assault). 

Recognizing the need to reimagine safety within our community, as well as the enormous challenges inherent to this task, we might want to establish partnerships with existing organizations and individuals who have been developing transformative justice frameworks in their own communities. There is a constellation of organizations that have been doing this work (e.g. The Kindred Collective, Project NIA, Safe Outside the System, Sylvia Rivera Law Project) as well as organizers, storytellers, artists, and healers within them (e.g. Cara Page, Mariame Kaba, Ejeris Dixon, Dean Spade). Reaching out to organizations and organizers like these could provide us with invaluable expertise as we work towards reimagining our administrative and community response to harm. Not for one-time discussions or lectures, but for sustained engagement as we assess, re-imagine, implement, and evaluate transformative justice frameworks within our university setting. Just as importantly, establishing these long-term relationships would give us an opportunity to materially support organizations and individuals that are doing transformative work in their own communities.

In the midst of a pandemic, following a tide of uprisings in response to state-sanctioned violence against Black communities, we are preparing to resume our in-person lives on campus. This is a moment for us to reevaluate what it means for us to be together. To redefine our intentions for the communities we want to create. Not only in terms of how we respond to harm, but how we cultivate our relationships in the moments, months, and years that follow.

Contact Tyler Bonnen at opinions 'at'

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