Making Sense Of Restorative Justice, Community Response, And The PWR BTTM Fallout


Last Thursday, as social media posts began circulating calling PWR BTTM’s Ben Hopkins a “known sexual predator” and accusing the singer and guitarist of alleged sexual assault, the band tried to head off the backlash with a post on Facebook. “To address this matter head on, we have set up an email address through which a survivor or someone working directly with a survivor can discuss the allegations being expressed on social media,” the band wrote, in an attempt at accountability that has been broadly criticized for disproportionately tasking survivors with the responsibility of coming forward.

“There should have been a commitment to change and accountability made at that time, even if it wasn’t public, and while the past can’t be changed, the band needs to address this in the present,” wrote Jes Skolnik, a writer, musician, and activist based in Chicago, in a well-articulated and widely circulated piece. Skolnik has been doing community accountability and survivor support work for more than twenty years. These efforts, which include work on restorative and transformative justice processes, are informed by Skolnik’s longtime involvement in the DIY and punk communities.

The day after the allegations were posted, Jezebel interviewed an anonymous victim of one of these alleged assaults, who described the experience in detail. The music industry responded swiftly: The band was dropped by its label and management, its entire tour was canceled, and its music was pulled from streaming services. The music press covered the reaction extensively.

From the band’s fans and friends came an outpouring of confusion and grief, which is warranted: PWR BTTM have always prided themselves on their values, turning their shows into “safe spaces” (by doing things like requesting gender-neutral bathrooms at their venues), celebrating nonbinary identity, and generally promoting acceptance of otherness, and Hopkins’s alleged abuses are directly at odds with these values.

This enormous response, from both the industry and fans, is a testament to PWR BTTM’s claimed politics. But the groundwork for such a response was laid by decades of work by queer organizers. “People don’t necessarily see that,” says Skolnik, “because that work happens outside of spaces where there is a lot of visibility. There has been some very serious reckoning in the queer community about what it means to truly be accountable.” Over the last two or three years, they add, the music industry has begun to think about what it means to harbor abusers, too.

Skolnik has been writing about these topics for decades, but, they say, “this is the first time where I feel like the wider music industry has responded — not just the same corner of DIY.”

Times like these require nuance and sensitivity. It is impossible to know what true accountability looks like until it is determined by survivors. But there are ways for communities to process experiences like these while respecting that reality — ways in which we can open ourselves up to learn and grow, and to work at fostering a culture that better understands sexual abuse, consent, and accountability.

1. Understand that consent is complicated.

Shifting the focus of community work toward actively defining and encouraging explicit consent, and away from post-incident accountability, is a good place to start. That’s the suggestion of Andrew Sta. Ana, the director of legal services at Day One, which works with youth — offering prevention-based workshops to high schools, community organizations, and professionals who work with youth — to prevent and end intimate partner violence and sexual assault.

The myth that consent is easy to understand also needs to be debunked. “Our society has barely begun to wrestle with what it means to talk about consent,” says Skolnik. “There are so many different levels of social pressure and community pressure and social weight that go into being sexually available, and feeling like you have, or don’t have, the autonomy to turn down somebody’s advances if you’re not comfortable.”

Consent is more nuanced than simply getting a “yes” from your sexual partner, Skolnik explains. It involves emotional intelligence and communication skills, which can be learned through practices like therapy, reading about behavioral psychology, and attending consent workshops. It involves acknowledging the role that alcohol and substance abuse can play in sexual encounters, and being able to say, “Hey, I am too drunk to function right now,” or “This other person is too drunk to function right now,” or “They seem uncomfortable, I should probably ask them.”

And even when we inhabit social spheres where such an understanding seems evident, we need to never stop reminding ourselves of the definition of rape. “When I do consent workshops, I always start by asking everybody what they have learned about rape from [the television show Law & Order:] SVU,” says Skolnik. “Because the narratives on cop shows really color how we think about sexual assault….If it was nonconsensual sex, that is rape. If you were passed out, that is rape. If you were asleep, that is rape. If you said ‘no’ or you went numb and stopped responding, that is rape. We’re not taught about coercive control in school. We’re not taught about coercive control on television. And so it’s hard to process.”

2. Make long-standing commitments to education.

Skolnik’s story provides a good example of how to approach a new understanding of consent and accountability. Skolnik started their process of self-education on survivor support as a teenager, volunteering at domestic violence shelters. Later, they created their own independent group for survivors (as part of their own healing from abuse) because there was a need for this type of resource that didn’t exist. “No one was a counselor,” they remember, “and no one had any training at the beginning.” But they also came from the riot-grrrl community and DIY organizing, worlds that supported learning autonomously instead of through institutions.

There were a lot of bumps along the way, but for Skolnik, having this support group, on their own terms, was an empowering way to understand accountability in a new light. “That’s one of the real values of countercultural and radical thought,” Skolnik says. “The idea of disposing of the frameworks that you know are normative, that you’ve been raised with, and always questioning them and trying to shift them and change them. And look for an alternative that is more able to accommodate all the complicated and gray parts of human behavior.”

Skolnik furthered their education through years of reading, attending conferences, talking to other organizers, and learning from friends with social work degrees. They taught themselves about restorative justice and transformative justice, and how those strategies can be potentially applied in sexual assault situations. Read about bystander intervention, specifically as it relates to sexual violence.

3. Learn about restorative and transformative justice.

Restorative justice advocates for addressing conflicts and crimes in ways that are restorative rather than punitive. The New York Peace Institute defines it as “a response to crime and wrongdoing that empowers a group of people affected by an incident (victims, offenders, and their supporters) to collectively decide how to repair the harm.”

In the introduction to the essential collection of essays The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities, editors Ching-In Chen, Jai Dulani, and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha explain restorative justice as a system where those who have been harmed take a role in guiding the process, and those who have caused harm make repairs. “The focus is on restoring, as much as possible, the situation to the conditions as they were before harm,” the editors write. But they are critical of this model. “What if the situation was shitty in the first place?”

The book goes on to show groups using transformative justice approaches, conflict-response strategies that center on a greater sense of transformation and liberation. “It is an approach that looks at the experiences of both individuals and communities involved, and the larger social conditions at work; an approach that seeks to integrate both personal and social transformation,” describes the organization Generation Five.

Support NY was a transformative justice collective that existed from 2005 through 2016, organizing specifically around healing from sexual assault and abuse. The collective’s website remains a vital resource for reading lists and lesson plans.

Even when we are not explicitly employing these practices, educating oneself on restorative and transformative justice can help us redefine ideas about self-determination and autonomy surrounding justice, and modes of healing outside of the criminal legal system. For example, restorative justice is not at the core of what Day One does, but it does inform their ideas about what culture change looks like, says its legal services director, Sta. Ana.

“Our tag line is, ‘Love should always be safe,’” says Sta. Ana. “If you think about what the possibilities are when love is safe, they are infinite.”

4. Recognize the impacts of commodification and social hierarchy.

Transformative justice suggests that we think about the ways in which the state not only fails to serve victims of violence but also creates the conditions that lead to abuse. The same can be said of the effects of capitalism.

“I feel like in our society and culture, it’s part of capitalism — you are supposed to totally ignore your boundaries,” says Skolnik. “Work through lunch. And not eat when you’re hungry. And not have time off. And just keep pushing and pushing yourself into situations where you’re really uncomfortable. Which doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t challenge yourself. Part of doing work is making yourself uncomfortable. But there’s a difference between the discomfort of doing work and learning, and the discomfort of really pushing yourself past a boundary that shouldn’t be crossed at that moment.”

When these systems exploit and commodify realms like art and activism, which are supposed to be healing, they lead to imbalances of power and, sometimes, social hierarchies and idolatry. “We need to think about what it means even in DIY scenes to have celebrities, to have social capital, and what we allow even micro-celebrities to get away with,” says Skolnik. “We have tiny little miniature Kim Kardashians. And often the people in those positions of power got there by stepping on others. It can be corrupting to even be in that position. We need to be careful about these mini-hierarchies, whether they’re in the music industry or they’re in DIY.”

5. Examine society’s tools for communication, thinking beyond sloganeering and social media optics.

Perhaps we’re also at an apt moment to reflect on the tools currently being used for “education” at the intersections of arts and activism. In a culture where social media forces us to water down ideas — communicate in 140 characters or less, or send messages at the whim of algorithms — how can we push back to make space for nuanced and difficult conversations, like conversations around consent?

“I’m so frustrated with the easily digestible, surface-level analysis that passes for a lot of political thought right now,” says Skolnik. “It’s about marking who is part of your group and who is not. ‘You share a certain number of articles that are on these topics so you’re part of my group.’ It becomes this weird metric that is really counter to actually doing productive work. You can’t just post on Facebook and be like, ‘Hey, I learned how not to be an abuser.’…These are really complex, long-term goals that are not easy. You accrue knowledge over time, and you build relationships with people, and you see positive outcomes starting to happen in your community. It’s something that is not measurable in a way that we are taught right now in this age of Chartbeat and clicks.”

Social media enables a product-centered commodity culture that revolves around curated images, social capital, and overly simplistic slogans. “That’s what ends up putting you at the top of the heap right now,” says Skolnik. “It’s really upsetting, especially when you break it down and see who is doing the work. Those people are not getting money or fame. There’s a whole economic component to it where all marginalized people are doing this work…and it gets swept up into this thing that then gets repackaged and sold.”

“There’s a really dangerous flipside to the commodified understanding of really complicated topics,” Skolnik adds. And consent is one of those topics.