Black Lives Matter activist Erica Garner

Reflections on Archives of Violence and Transformative Justice

Gabriel Solis
Sep 10, 2018 · 8 min read

As we prepare to gather at the Architecting Sustainable Futures meeting later this month, I want to take this opportunity to briefly reflect on archives and transformative justice. I work with the Texas After Violence Project, a restorative justice and multimedia documentary project that conducts oral histories with people directly impacted by police shootings, deaths in jail or prison custody, incarceration, and the death penalty. Since 2007, TAVP has documented hundreds of hours of first-person testimonies, and has built an extensive archive of stories and other materials. Our work is inspired by truth and reconciliation movements, trauma studies, social constructionism, and assessing the impacts of violence through community health approaches.

In a recent Sustainable Futures essay, Jarrett Drake argues that “archivists must shift their paradigms away from the fictive notions of ‘local’ and ‘community-based’ towards a more radically precise and politically liberatory language.” I often describe TAVP as a community-based documentation and archival project, mostly as a means of distinguishing it from mainstream archives, especially state-run archives. But even before Drake’s thoughtful intervention, I’d wondered to what extent, and in what ways, TAVP was actually a community archive. For one, although TAVP has always been a community-based 501(c)3 nonprofit, our digital archive is housed at the Human Rights Documentation Initiative (HRDI) at the University of Texas at Austin. (TAVP’s partnership with HRDI was formed in 2009 in coordination with T-Kay Sangwand, then the human rights archivist for the Benson Latin American Collection).

Additionally, TAVP’s archival collection, publications, and multimedia projects are used by activists, researchers, and educators across and outside the United States. While we are based in Austin, we conduct oral histories, facilitate trainings, and build collaborations in towns and cities across Texas. This year, with funding from the Open Philanthropy Project, we worked with formerly incarcerated advocates in Austin and Houston to document their stories about life before, during, and after incarceration. Moreover, we’re currently planning oral history research projects on the traumatic impacts of the death penalty (investigations, trials, appeals, executions) on families and communities in Austin, Houston, and San Antonio.

TAVP is a community-based archive in some ways, and in some ways it isn’t. On a fundamental level, though, TAVP is an archive of violence. The stories, records, photographs, videos, and other materials in our collection were born from violence and its aftermath. There are stories from the loved ones of murder victims, families of prisoners executed by the state, victims and perpetrators of violence, and others directly impacted by interpersonal and state violence. In a powerful Sustainable Futures essay on the silences and erasures in archives, Bergis Jules reminds us that archives, no matter their intentions, can themselves perpetuate cultural, psychological, or physical violence. We take this seriously, and are always thinking about how to improve our methods and practices so as not to cause harm to storytellers, staff, interns, collaborators, and others involved in our work. As an archive of violence, we also strive to be an archive of survival, resilience, and healing.

TAVP is also an archive of violence because our work critically interrogates the causes and consequences of violence, and encourages public dialogue on more effective, nonviolent ways to prevent and respond to violence in our communities. While Drake is right about the “diminishing analytic and actionable value” of the concepts ‘local’ and ‘community-based’, that does not diminish the integral role of localities to co-create and practice community-based, restorative, non-punitive ways to prevent and and respond to violence.

In an upcoming essay in Kula’s special issue on endangered knowledge, I build on the work of Michelle Caswell, Tonia Sutherland, and others, to bring attention to the unique power of archives and counter-narratives of violence to confront and challenge the cultural and ideological work of dehumanization and annihilation (symbolic and actual). One of my central arguments is that counter-narratives are forms of endangered knowledge not only because of political, technical, and funding barriers, but also because the people most directly impacted by state violence — overwhelmingly people of color — are silenced by justice systems, mainstream media and archives, and early death.

Consider the recent death of Venida Browder, who died of complications from a heart attack only sixteen months after her son, Kalief Browder, committed suicide. Kalief had been imprisoned on Rikers Island for three years (two years in solitary confinement) without being convicted of a crime. In the months before his death, Kalief had shared publicly his stories of being beaten and abused by guards and inmates at Rikers.

Consider the recent death of Erica Garner, Black Lives Matter activist and daughter of Eric Garner, who died after suffering a heart attack at the age of twenty-seven. In an interview a few weeks before her death, Garner said, “I’m struggling right now with the stress and everything. . .it beats you down. The system beats you down to where you can’t win.” As cultural anthropologist and former TAVP board member Christen Smith writes,“In the wake of the deaths of black people at the hands of the state — from the police to the prison system, the living are often weighted with a sadness that is too heavy to bear…The fallout of police violence, not just the chokeholds and baton blows, are killing black women.”

The silences imposed by violence, trauma, and early death are yet another reason why it is urgent to create sustainable models for community-based documentation and archival projects that preserve the stories, records, and other ephemera of tragedy from people directly impacted by state violence. There are several community-based documentation and archives projects across the US that must be sustained so they can continue to be critical resources for broader social movements to end white supremacy, end violence against LGBTQ communities, close jails, prisons, and immigrant detention centers, and many other life and death urgencies.

Archivists are quick to point out that archives are as much about the future as they are about the past; that past and future are intertwined and reenforcing. TAVP’s work is inspired by Michelle Caswell’s concept of the “liberatory archival imaginary,” the “dynamic way in which communities creatively and collectively re-envision the future through archival interventions in representations of the shared past.” This is one reason why documentation and archival projects like TAVP are important, especially in the current political context. It is the storytellers — not the politicians and pundits — that guide the construction of new narratives, understandings, and visions of justice in the aftermath of violence.

Caswell also brings our attention to the critical role of archivists in the realization of liberatory archival imaginary. She writes, “Archivists are not just memory activists, but visionaries whose work reconceives imagined worlds through space and time.” This point resonates with me as well. I end the essay mentioned above with: “If the logic of dehumanization is to collapse the space and time between present and past, and the logic of symbolic annihilation is to erase existence, then our liberatory memory work must also manipulate space and time to achieve transformative justice.”

The problem, though, is that I don’t say what transformative justice is, or the concrete actions we need to take to achieve it. And this raises an important question: How often, and to what extent, do we take the time to map our “imagined worlds”? We are good at identifying injustices and inequities, forcefully deconstructing their historical and ideological trajectories, and unearthing more accurate narratives and constructions of memory. Imagine what we could achieve if we collectively mapped our visions of liberation and transformative justice, and worked with activists and organizers on the frontlines of policy advocacy, movement building, and radical organizing.

The first in a series of short films from TAVP’s Life and Death in a Carceral State: Narratives of Loss and Survival project. The oral histories featured in this film were from a collaborative project with the Texas Justice Initiative, an open-data initiative that tracks deaths in police, jail, and prison custody

When I think about archives of violence and transformative justice, I think about existence and truth. The concept of symbolic annihilation in the archival context is useful because it reveals the destructive path of ontological violence in narrative and memory. If we work with (or within) oppressed and marginalized communities to defeat symbolic annihilation in archives and justice systems, it is not to prove our existence to anyone. No. We do it for ourselves. We do it for those that came before us. We do it for those whose lives were cut short by violence. The stories and records in archives of violence are like fragments in a vast mosaic of life, a collective affirmation: we have always been here, we persisted, and we aren’t going anywhere.

Are archives of violence repositories of truth, or hope for the future, or both? Memory and truth have a contentious, if not volatile, relationship. Much like the relationship between truth and fact, and fact and hope. In his classic text Justice as Sanctuary, the late Dutch criminologist Herman Bianchi writes that, “the main justification for the existence of repressive procedures is the attempt to find the truth, that old objective of the Inquisition. The means by which the repressive system seeks its truth are overwhelming in their destructive force.” In US justice systems, this is an understatement. Just look at the violence and trauma perpetuated by police investigations, prosecutorial misconduct, solitary confinement, overincarceration, the death penalty, and on and on. Archives of violence are also truth-seeking. But we do not seek the truth sought by repressive justice systems. We do not even seek objective truth. The truths we seek in our work — and often find — are raw, relational, contradictory, transformative.

Archives and counter-narratives of state violence are not only expansive critiques of repressive justice systems, they are lived visions and embodied imaginings of liberation and transformative justice. “This is the starting point of abolition,” writes activist Mariame Kaba. “Connecting a radical critique of prisons and other forms of state violence with a broader transformative vision.” The stories of people directly impacted by state violence do not reflect distant dreams or defeatism; they are blueprints for creating a social world that prevents and addresses violence without resorting to counter-violence.

I’ll wrap up this reflection with an urging that we must practice accountability over disposability in our memory work, activism, and advocacy. Kaba introduced me to this idea a few months ago at a gathering of criminal justice reform activists, organizers, and advocates. She reminded us how transformative justice rejects destructive binaries between victim/perpetrator, guilt/innocence, good/evil. She also urged us to work with victims, survivors, and perpetrators of violence with care, understanding, and compassion: What can we do to help you? What can we do to heal with you? The pursuit of accountability over disposability in the aftermath of violence is a central premise of transformative justice and, I think, an essential contribution of archives of violence and liberatory memory work. Accountability is existence, truth, justice. Disposability is silence, erasure, annihilation. How can we, as memory activists, demand accountability in our work, activism, and advocacy without perpetuating the logics of disposability we fight so hard to abolish?

*Gabriel Solis is the Director of the Texas After Violence Project.

Sustainable Futures

Sustainable Futures

on capacity building, sustainability, and the power and promise in community-based archives

Gabriel Solis

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Director, Texas After Violence Project /

Sustainable Futures

on capacity building, sustainability, and the power and promise in community-based archives