This is the third in a series of interviews exploring health, care, and radical movements. The first, an interview with the Rock Dove Collective, is available on Organizing Upgrade and the second, is with the Rosehips Medic Collective.
An internationally renowned collective, Philly Stands Up is engaging in some of the most innovative work around sexual and gender-based assault, intimate partner violence, and sexual consent in North America. Utilizing a transformative justice framework, the group supports survivors through working primarily with those who have perpetrated assault or abuse. Transformative justice recognizes the interrelatedness of systems of oppression at the root of harm, how harm affects all individuals involved – including the larger community – and that these understandings must inform processes aiming to bring about just responses to acts of harm. Cognizant of the potential for the perpetuation of harm caused by turning to the criminal justice system or pushing people out of town, Philly Stands Up works directly with the person who has caused harm through community-based systems of accountability. In addition to coordinating local accountability processes, the group has published several pamphlets, conducted workshops across North America, and is actively involved in a growing network of groups utilizing transformative justice frameworks in their communities. Responding to the growing interest in accountability processes among radical and sister communities, this interview draws out the collective’s history, core principles, and lessons learned through its organizing work. More information about Philly Stands Up can be found at: www.phillystandsup.com
Can you briefly discuss when, how, and the reasoning behind forming the collective?
About seven and a half years ago, there was a music festival in West Philadelphia where there were several instances of sexual abuse. Several different men sexually assaulted several different women. People were really pissed. Out of this, what was called a “women’s group” formed to support the survivors and to get together and support each other. In tandem, a group of men formed with the purpose of saying, “This not acceptable. We also want to support these women who are abused. And we don’t want this to be happening in our community.”
But even after this festival was over and a lot of these people had left West Philly, the groups realized that sexual assault was not uncommon in their communities. This was really grounded in a mostly white, straight, punk community. The “women’s group” eventually turned into Philly’s Pissed, which is a group working to advocate for and support survivors. The “men’s group” eventually turned into the Philly Stands Up collective to have hard conversations with and to deal with people who perpetrate harm.
Several months into the existence of these groups a member of Philly Stands Up was called out for sexual assault. These were all open meetings. Fifteen, twenty, thirty people would show up at a meeting until someone stated to a collective member, “you were called out for abuse.” And everyone was like, “That’s bullshit. You’re in Philly Stands Up. You’re not sexually assaulting people. That’s bullshit. That’s a total lie. We have your back, man. We believe you.” A couple of people in Philly Stands Up said, “Actually, the whole point of this group is to believe survivors and to recognize that no matter how often your politics are about this or anything else, it’s still possible to sexually assault people. We actually think it’s not going to work for us to pretend like this didn’t happen or to ignore it. We really want to deal with this.” So the meeting ends. It’s contentious. And then, the next meeting, only two people showed up out of thirty. So there was a clear split in Philly Stands Up. The remaining members said, “This is bullshit. We are going to take this seriously and be real about what we say we’re doing.” And then the group rebuilt from that.
Around that time, both groups got a little bit of a gender analysis. Philly’s Pissed became not just a women’s group and it was recognizing that people of all genders can and are sexually assaulted and that all people can support them. It’s not just men who perpetrate sexual assaults and it’s not just this gender of men who can work with and hold people who perpetrate assault accountable. It was still pretty punk and pretty white, but it began to have different genders and queer folks. A couple of years went on and Philly Stands Up became a closed collective with anywhere between six and nine people in it.
Over the course of the last three years, Philly Stands Up really started zooming out of just doing rogue service provision toward bigger political analyses around transformative justice movements, prison abolition, and gender and racial justice. Currently, we are a collective of six and we are all queer, with all different genders, in terms of like life-as-gender-ness and trans-ness. We have parents in our collective. Half of the collective is made up of folks of color. We still kind of have a foot in the punk community door, but we are involved in other communities too.
Can you describe Transformative Justice and how it differs from punitive or restorative justice? How does transformative justice inform the work of Philly Stands Up?
To start, we’ll say a word about punitive and restorative justice. Punitive justice, of course, is the type of system we live under now— that’s law and order—where actions which are breaking the law have consequences of punishment in terms of fines and incarceration, sexual offender lists, and these sorts of things. It’s about punishing for breaking the law. Restorative justice, hinging on the word “restore,” recognizes that punitive justice is insufficient and that when harm is done it affects the entire community. It affects bystanders, it affects family, it affects communities. So restorative justice’s project is to restore a relationship to the way it was before harm was done. It works hard to include community in that and to do that in a wide variety of different ways. Restorative justice, as we know it, has extremely strong and crucial roots in indigenous communities and practices.
Transformative justice wants to kind of wrap restorative justice in a hug and then run faster with it. It recognizes that at the roots of every act of harm, violence, or abuse are other systems of oppression: racism, classism, trans- and homophobia, ableism, misogyny. So transformative justice has sort of a bigger project, which is to try and address the harm that’s been done, but to do so by also addressing these sort of bigger systems of harm that are at play. Since transformative justice believes that other types of oppression are at the root of the harm caused, it doesn’t actually want to restore things to the way they were; it wants to transform relationships and to acknowledge and work with what’s happened with the harm and move all those relationships—the person who has caused harm, the person or people who have survived it, the bystanders, the community—further along to make actual concrete changes and shifts in their behavior and their analysis and their understanding of relationships and privilege and community, to make big, meaningful changes that are also addressing those roots of violence and harm.
What are Philly Stands Up’s major purposes and strategies for attaining its goals? What specific activities have the collective been engaged in to work towards these goals?
The core thing is that we’re an organization that supports survivors by working with people who perpetrate harm. That’s what a lot of people know us for. We want to intervene and radically change the analysis and behavior of those who perpetrate abuse, so that it doesn’t happen again and so those people can take on responsibility to recognize, curb, and challenge abusive and harmful behavior around them.
Surrounding this intervention is our desire to offer a viable alternative to calling the cops and our commitment to abolishing the prison industrial complex. Inextricably linked to this is our commitment to achieving a totally different world, one that realizes racial justice, queer liberation, the love and empowerment of all bodies, ages, abilities, and then to end capitalism.
In additional to accountability processes we also host workshops, public and peer education. We try and keep our feet anchored, as much as possible, in Philadelphia, even though we know we have work and reputation that takes us all over the place, which is exciting. It is really important to us that we do local movement building and put the majority of our time and effort and energy into our community in Philly. We are supporters of the Decarcerate PA coalition that’s working to challenge the prison expansion project that’s happening in Pennsylvania and are in the process of doing some work with The Attic Youth Center, which is the queer drop-in center in Philadelphia. Even though we do a really different type of work, Philly Stands Up also has a relationship with JUNTOS, which is an organization in Philly that’s all about immigration solidarity. We also have a relationship with Women Organized Against Rape.[i]
Additionally, we are involved in transformative justice movement building in the US and Canada. As an example, we hosted a four-day transformative justice action camp on confronting sexual assault. It brought together twenty-five of some of the hardest working, most amazing and intelligent folks working with transformative justice and sexual assault all together in Philadelphia. We had folks from Creative Interventions, Generation FIVE, The Revolution Starts at Home, The Challenging Male Supremacy Project, UBUNTU, Decarcerate Monroe County (Indiana), Support New York, The Audre Lorde Safe OUTside the System Project, The Chrysalis Collective, and many more.[ii] It was an amazing weekend in that we worked on sharing our strategies, strengthening and challenging our own analysis around transformative justice, and really trying to make this more of a network because this work can be really isolating, painful and challenging. Hopefully, within the next year, a comprehensive book will come out of all of the work that was done at that action camp.
Currently we are also participating in a six-month long Books Through Bars project, in which folks who are incarcerated and in solitary confinement receive readings we’ve put together about transformative justice and sexual assault. They do the readings, write ideas and reflections, and then they send them back to Books Through Bars. Then Books Through Bars makes copies of everything everyone had to say and includes each others’ responses in the next month’s readings. It’s not just folks who are incarcerated that are participating but it puts primacy on those folks. Additionally, in couple months, we’re very lucky and privileged to be going to Southern California to host workshops at the La Jolla Indian Reservation around restorative and transformative justice practices and consent, specifically with the youth and woman’s council.
Can you describe the importance of language to you work, especially with terms such as “trigger” and “triggering” or “survivor” and “perpetrator,” rather than the more common “victim” and “abuser”?
A trigger is when something you hear, see, or feel or experience somehow wakes up memories, senses, and parts of your body. Usually, people use “trigger” to mean something bad, like you are physically or emotionally or sensor-ally brought back to a time where you survived abuse or experienced harm. One thing that we really love about the Philly Survivor Support Collective is that they talk about triggering as often being a really positive thing.[iii] It’s really common, when you survived sexual assault, to disassociate and to check out of your body. And so, when you get triggered, sometimes that can be a really amazing way to come back to your body and to remember things and to dig in there. So that’s what “triggering” means: bringing something that flips that switch and brings you back to an experience, which can both be positive or negative.
We think language is important: specifically the way that we distinguish between “survivor,” “perpetrator,” and “victim” and “abuser.” Victims are people who are no longer with us; survivors are people who have experienced harm and assault and are still with us. So, it feels a lot more important to use the term “survivor” for people who are with us.
We think it’s important to recognize that people are people and are not only the actions they’ve done. Often, “abuser” is a sort of stamp on someone, whic