Using Conflict Mediation as a Tool for Abolition

As our political world shifts towards the possibilities of the abolition of police and imprisonment, it seems individual communities are also leaning in to all the ways they can and will need to address harm and conflict without relying on the police or court system going forward. When I was first introduced to the principles of Abolition and Transformative Justice, I immediately aligned with the idea that we are ALL responsible for changing the conditions around us that make harm possible. This kind of abolition is in our hands and our control. We don’t need to wait for anyone in an elected and/or assigned role of power to make these changes. We only need brave, committed, and loving community members willing to get messy and real about the hardest shit: healing and preventing conflict, harm, and violence.

There are various tools communities have been using for millenia to respond to and address conflict, harm, and violence. On occupied Turtle Island, many indigenous and First Nations communities relied on (and continue to rely on) community-wide processes which often include talking and peace circles, decisions on reparations for those harmed, and utilizing family and friends to hold harm do-ers accountable. This is sometimes referred to as Indigenous Justice. In settler communities, some of these processes and lessons have been adapted and are sometimes used in Transformative Justice and Restorative Justice as elements of larger processes. While there is a difference between Indigenous Justice and Transformative Justice, there are shared principles and values and both reject use of the white-settler criminal justice system as appropriate responses to these real human issues.

One of the shared values and principles of both Indigenous Justice and Transformative Justice is creating and holding space for those involved in the harm to come together and talk in a structured space held by loving community members. As we vision and imagine bringing these lessons into the many communities currently ravaged by police and imprisonment, we must acknowledge that currently we are very far from feeling equipped and resourced to respond to the real conflict, harm, and violence happening. It’s imperative to identify what skills are useful NOW and will support prevention and healing NOW.

Conflict Mediation is one such tool in the large toolbox of healing and responding to harm, conflict, and violence. Often it is a tool best used when the conflict or harm exists between a small number of people and impact has had minimal community impact. Sometimes it can be used as a supplementary tool in larger processes that are addressing bigger impact situations but require some unpacking of interpersonal conflict within a larger community and pattern of harm. And certainly this tool can be expanded and adapted for use in larger situations involving many people, but generally when doing group work this tool is best used in a supporting role with other interventions and practices in motion as well.

As a society, we are very afraid to “get involved” when there is drama and disagreement. There is a deep rooted belief that we should mind our own business and go deep into our individualism and handle our problems on our own. It is considered a weakness if others are aware of your personal problems and it’s even worse if you are someone who asks for support.

There is also the fear in some communities that getting involved in someone else’s conflict makes them a new target for the conflict and could negatively impact their lives and interpersonal connections. I think this is a very valid concern and must be considered when determining whether or not someone is the best person to engage an intervention or response to conflict.

But what if getting involved did not put you at an immediate risk for harm and violence, could it be seen instead as an act of love to intervene? What if we invited trusted loved ones in when we were struggling with others? It would mean allowing our loved ones to deeply witness us at our messiest points, and conversely it means we would be asked to hold space for those unflattering and sometimes scary moments for our friends and family. It would mean admitting we aren’t perfect, and that in fact, sometimes we’re complicated people who do awful things. We would also be invited to hold one another accountable to behavior change that we often agree to and struggle with actually implementing. This would also mean that we can no longer check out and look away when we see conflict, harm, and violence. No longer relying on outsiders to handle the neighborhood drama means we must address it or else it will start to harm bystanders and our families as well.

Conflict mediators are those who are willing and able to hold space for those in conflict to talk through the elements of the conflict as well as move towards resolution. Mediators are not magicians and they are not the bosses. They are often excellent listeners, enjoy facilitation, deeply love people, and can practice objectivity. They are also people willing to be uncomfortable, say and ask hard things, and point out patterns or behaviors contributing to conflict. It is very difficult to be a mediator if you are experiencing instability and crisis in your own life. This doesn’t mean you have to be perfect or have everything figured out in order to show up to support your community. But as a mediator, it is important that you are able to show up for the people involved without making it about your own struggles and trauma.

In every conflict between people, it is important to remember that there is both trauma and power/oppression dynamics that inform the situation. This means that who is right and who is wrong is going to be complicated by these dynamics. We are often taught that there is a wrong and right person in conflict. But when we account for all the layers at play, that binary isn’t clear in all situations. One role of a mediator is to hold space for ALL the truths in a situation in order to truly hold the whole picture of the conflict, including the conditions that are underlying and made the conflict possible in the first place. Was there a previous conflict between these people? What else was going on in their personal lives at the time of the conflict? Is it possible there was some racism/classism/misogyny/homophobia/ableism at the root of some of the interactions and to what degree can folks admit this? Oftentimes, all parties have contributed to the conflict and harm in some ways and to some degree thus requiring all to recognize and acknowledge not just the negative impact on themselves, but also their complicity in perpetuating the harm.

Healing happens many different ways. One of the more powerful moments of healing in a conflict are when responsibility is authentically taken and/or generosity and forgiveness are authentically extended. I know from personal experience that getting to my most generous and authentic self in terms of taking responsibility and/or offering forgiveness requires some steps.

First, a space for safe story-telling and talking must be made. This looks like allowing everyone equal amounts of time to be heard, naming micro-aggressions and power dynamics, and allowing each individual to process how their own histories and trauma were present in the conflict. With enough time and space for this type of story-telling and understanding, the resolution develops itself and generosity is built by hearing each other’s truths. It doesn’t always get there on its own and mediating sometimes means asking the hard questions and offering options for continuing to move forward. Sometimes this space is created on the fly, in the moment, and/or on the spot. Other times this space is agreed to ahead of time, at a special location, and with agreed upon terms. Bottom-line is the logistics are less important than the actual ability for a container of trust to be built. This will be different depending on the existing relationships and/or circumstances of the situation – sometimes trust building takes time and may not happen immediately.

Behavior change and practicing new ways of being are often the scariest parts of resolving a conflict for those involved. This is the most vulnerable part – where each person is asked to say out loud how they will prevent harm from coming from this conflict. Saying it out loud, with a third party present, is an important part of the accountability. Behavior change, while (usually) physically painless, can feel emotionally wrought and mentally confusing. It often requires unlearning an instinct or habit. It often means integrating new information and a new perspective. This takes time and practice and we mess up along the way. We need people holding us in our mistakes and sharing with us how they’ve seen us change and grow. This reflected back to us is one of the most exciting parts of conflict resolution for those who have caused harm. It’s important to note that when one becomes aware of how they have caused, perpetuated, or benefitted from harm, this realization on its own can cause its own special kind of distress, which can manifest as physical symptoms such as anxiety, cognitive dissonance, dissociation, etc. And some of these feelings may continue to be present or come up as we work toward behavior change and actionable accountability.

Mediation is not a guaranteed happy experience and end of the conflict. Sometimes it takes weeks and multiple mediations for things to feel “better.” We’ve also seen mediation co-opted by the state and used in place of legal proceedings but ultimately utilizing the same players of legal proceedings and similar punitive and punishment-based resolutions. Also, people can erupt and act out during mediations, sometimes bringing violence into the mediation. This also means that if someone is in complete denial about their contribution to the conflict, you may only be able to go so far in the mediation. This is all to say that mediation is not a replacement or alternative for our current systems of judgement. But rather it’s a tool that if implemented with care could be incredibly supportive to communities and provide healing opportunities and resolution options when conflict and harm are present.

Overall, mediation is one piece in a larger puzzle of how we will transform society away from punitivity and punishment and towards healing and transformation. There is not one way to do it, and it can be formal or informal. It is deeply nourishing to have a community member hold you and your conflict with a belief in your transformation and a commitment to your healing. What a beautiful gift to be able to share with your beloved community. Sometimes the best way to learn about mediation is by experiencing one. Next time you find yourself knee deep in conflict with someone you care about, seek out a mediator for support!

**Much of my analysis on Transformative Justice was inspired by INCITE: Women of Color Against Violence, Transformative Justice Law Project in Chicago, the SF Coalition on Homelessness, and all of the organizations/communities/individuals that have trusted in me for mediation support.