Harm Free Zones

Rethinking Restorative Justice
by NYC Harm Free Zone Collective

In our communities, we face harm in our everyday lives in many forms. State institutions such as the police, the courts, ICE (the former INS), and the prison system are a major source of physical and psychological injury. The Restorative Justice movement in the US is based on a critique of the ways that the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) rips apart communities, specifically communities of the poor and people of color, in the name of “justice.”

The PIC is based on punishment and economics, and not on repairing the real interpersonal and state harms in our communities. For this reason, we propose that our energies and our efforts be refocused on addressing and repairing these harms ourselves -- by creating Harm Free Zones.

A Harm Free Zone is a community-centered alternative to dealing with state violence and interpersonal violence. A community becomes strong through a process of taking seriously and resolving the harms that community members inflict on each other. In New York City, the Harm Free Zone Project, supported by the prison abolitionist group Critical Resistance and the popular education collective La Escuela Popular Norteña, provides tools and trainings to local communities to strengthen and develop our ability to confront and transform state violence, intra-social conflict, and interpersonal conflict.

The idea for the Harm Free Zone project grew out of the movement’s rethinking approaches to restorative justice to deal with the violence that women of color face in their everyday lives. In our view, genuine security derives from strong relationships between community members, an understanding of power and inequality inside and outside our communities, and spaces for dialogue and growth.

Our work started in the South Bronx, in the same community in which unarmed Amadou Diallo was cut down in a hail of police bullets. In the beginning it was linked to a campaign to keep police violence in check. While doing this work, we realized that we needed to redirect the focus to our communities themselves, in order to keep anti-civilian misconduct out of the neighborhood. In this, we are inspired by the autonomous community-building projects in Latin America, in particular the peace communities of Colombia.

The Harm Free Zone Project sees restorative justice as a process concerning the whole community, not just those individuals who have been directly involved with a particular harm. We see in our communities over and over again that we are angry, depressed, mistreated by the larger society, and turning against one another. To turn our communities into Harm Free Zones, we have to be clear that whenever we mess with each other, it is because we have internalized harms from living in an oppressive society. We need to get rid of these harms in our communities, in our relations and in ourselves, with each otherís help, insight, awareness, care, and support. In our organizing efforts, we want to involve the whole community while keeping women of color at the center.

In a Harm Free Zone, we come to an agreement with each other that any time any one of us harms another community member, we have a commitment to address the harm, with everyone involved. We have an agreement to think about how we will stop the harm and educate ourselves to understand what is happening. In the process, we often come to see that there is something wrong with the community and not just with the person who has engaged in the harm. If we understand why this is happening, we can come up with solutions: measures that not only stop and prevent the harm, but also transform the person involved and the community as a whole.

In our framing, a community is accountable to its members through four types of processes: intervention, reparation, prevention, and transformation. These processes are linked together in such a way that separating one from the others changes its meaning and force. It is crucial to emphasize that the spirit and implementation applied to intervention and reparation is not punishment; but a transformative spirit that both requires and creates vision and hope.

We focus on holding discussions with community groups and on identifying particular groups to work with. We have faced the difficulty of redirecting our attention to the community itself, in a climate that focuses on the wrongs done to the community by the state and by capitalism. In a Harm Free Zone, the state and capitalism do not cease to oppress us. But even if these forces intrude in the lives of people in ways that are harmful, by transforming our relations with one another and by committing to the community as members of it, we can stand up against oppression in a much better way.