Without Prisons, How Might Society Deal with Domestic Homicide: An edited excerpt from Ardath Whynacht’s Insurgent Love
In this excerpt from Insurgent Love, activist, sociologist and writer Ardath Whynacht acknowledges that, even as a prison abolitionist, she has hoped for a guilty verdict for her friend, who murdered his girlfriend. But in her book, she imagines how a world without prisons might deal with the community- and life-shattering act of domestic homicide, which she says, like other family violence, is intricately linked to state and military violence. Whynacht is coaxing us to think about the transformative potential of healing justice, rather than incarceration. Might a world be possible where we don’t merely live through and with trauma, but learn to address its root causes, together?
For decades, advocates who work with survivors of domestic violence have been predicting domestic homicide with tragic accuracy. Those who know knowwhen someone’s life is in danger. That knowledge can save lives.
Kristin Johnston’s relationship should have raised numerous red flags amongst her peers, but no one feared for her safety. Her friends and family recoiled in shock and surprise when her ex-boyfriend took her life. For those of us who are familiar with patterns in domestic homicide, red flags feel like sense memories. It’s like smelling something familiar, but you aren’t sure where it is coming from or why it makes your blood run cold.
But what are we supposed to dowhen our fears are anchored in experience and our gut is telling us we are in danger?
What do we do with that?
Most precursors to domestic homicide are not necessarily criminal, and even when they are, few report the violence and even fewer receive consequences that lead to improved safety. Reporting to police can be dangerous as abusers often retaliate when bystanders or survivors report their concerns to police. Policing, as a general strategy of crime control in contemporary settler states, has not kept us safe from family violence.
I am someone who believes in abolishing police and prisons. Despite working for two decades with survivors of family violence and those who have been convicted of homicide, sexual abuse and intimate partner violence, I don’t fear a world without prisons. Working with incarcerated people has given me an intimate glimpse into how—rather than improving community safety—policing, prosecution and imprisonment intensify the cycle of violence and create more dangerous conditions for us all.
Decades of activism, social research and brilliant scholarly work have made a case for abolishing prisons and police to improve public safety and bring healing and justice to our communities. Abolitionist feminism seeks to transform the conditions that give rise to violence. Abolitionist feminism acknowledges that intimate partner and family violence cannot be seen as separate from state violence, which arises through the military and police. […]
Yet, despite teaching and writing as an abolitionist, I still found myself perched on the edge of a hard wooden bench in a courtroom pleading for a guilty verdict for a friend of mine who had murdered his girlfriend. Ground zero—the territory in which the impacts of homicide are immediately felt—is ripe with mess and contradiction. […]In this book, I gesture towards transformative justice for domestic homicide. I start thinking about what an abolitionist strategy for domestic homicide might look like. I don’t have all the answers. I share, however, my own journey in thinking through how we can get out of the dead end of carceral feminism and start contextualizing domestic homicide within settler colonialism and racial capitalism. We don’t spend enough time thinking about what makes someone a killer. We don’t have the right tools for responding to their violence and the risks they pose to our kin.