Radical Love as Political Act

“Radically loving each other

is the only everything

worth anything”

Aja Monet

I’ve stayed away from love rhetoric my entire life. I find it fluffy and unobtainable: it has always created shame in me for not loving enough, for not feeling loved enough (and who am I, that I need everybody to love me?). I think the “love thyself or you can’t love others” adagio pervasive in the wellness industrial complex is a terrible pile of falsehood aiming at commodifying individualism and selfishness. I could keep going because being a yoga teacher, this is something I have to face daily.

I have also read Bell Hooks’ work(1), studied with Rev Angel Kyodo Williams(2) and Zenju Earthly Manuel(3), and hoped to learn how to make love an action, how to choose daily, and strive for those I love, how to make an impact through connection, tenderness, and accountability.

When I started working in prison one of my mentors, Anneke Lucas(5) taught me about “the unconditional model”: a way of going inside and working with people who have committed heinous crimes and still be able to relate and offer what I can. I read and re-read The New Jim Crow(6) and what I learned, gathering my thoughts and experience, is that ideally, nobody would end up rotting in prison. Not because suddenly people become kind, compassionate, wise, they overcome all their trauma and mental illness and fear, and we all kumbaya along forever after, but because I believe that a punitive system is not a system of justice, nor is it a system of love-as-action. Prison abolition became, in my mind, the only viable option to solve a problem that seems too gangrenous to be fixed without some deep dismantling.

Because there isn’t much I know with certainty, but one thing is that my student at Rikers, who’s detained for domestic violence at age 18, is unlikely to change for the better by being sent to prison unless he’s one of those rare cases who happen to meet a mentor or a passion to help him through; so what if, while holding people accountable for their actions, we focused more on offering those chances of connection and guidance, rather than locking people away claiming it’s for society’s sake? Because recidivism numbers tell us clearly that what we are doing, here in the US, is not working. We are not making communities any safer.

I then started to notice a place of dissonance in the conversations I was having with people around me. Even people who marched to defund the police and reform the justice system would understandably be overwhelmed and distressed when their friend had to deal with a stalker or abuser and wished the perp got arrested and the key thrown away. I hear so many complaining about the imbalance in sentencing between Black and white folk, and the injustice of the rich who never end up spending time in prison because they can make bail and pay lawyers, and the call for white folk to be convicted at the same rate as Black. I hear and second the call for state-sanctioned murderers like Derek Chauvin to be held accountable and hope for a day when fewer racial and social biases will dominate the courts.

But there is something that always holds me back when I catch myself wishing for someone to rot in prison: that the sentiment, while understandable and legitimate, goes against everything I believe in for ethical justice. It goes against everything I feel is righteous about radical love.

It seems that we keep forgetting that we hate the system whenever we need it to work in our favor, out of habit perhaps, so we use it as it is meant to be used, forgetting that it is neither equitable nor effective. This is different in different communities: more privilege equals less fear of the system because it was created to uphold and protect this very privilege.

Steps are starting to be taken in this regard, while we contend with the issue that there seem to be no alternatives: racial biases regarding incarceration rates and the consequences of incarceration itself on families and communities are starting to be studied and presented widely to the public, creating a ripple effect of socio-economic inquiry; justice systems in other countries are being offered as potential alternatives or models to look up to when they seem to offer long-lasting positive results; transformative justice(6) is more than an abstract concept, and resources can be found to start the work in smaller communities. Most importantly, in this conversation about the role of radical love in the abolitionist movement, white folks are starting to consider the repercussions of calling the cops, in particular on BIPOC, and to realize that they are indeed treated differently. When a white person calls the police to seek justice, they might create an avalanche of events causing more injustice, violence, and trauma, and not bringing any sense of reparation to the injured party.

We also know from Resmaa Menakem’s (7) work that “trauma in a people, decontextualized over time, looks like culture”, thus enforcing and enabling biases and collective traits.

The question that keeps coming up for me is how can we trust an organized body such as the police on a conditional basis, depending on the specific circumstances and on who’s involved? The answer to that is that we don’t: more and more, we distrust the force because it’s showing us that it is unpredictable, biased, and unyielding to criticism. Trust in institutions and laws shouldn’t be conditional.

Radical love can’t be conditional either. Under this perspective, the rapist and the cop are equally as deserving as the model citizen or the oppressed. Radical love needs to hold space for difference, pain, even hate. It has the drive of accountability because it is based on the deep desire to support one another in growth, it is invested in sharing tools and resources because each person’s success benefits the entire community.

While we are starting to make progress in the discourse around individual trauma and what it takes to heal and integrate, we are still reticent to see that in order for systemic change to occur, we need to change our approach to the issue: we need to train ourselves to see things differently, to react differently, to feel differently. As Rev. Angel says “ Without inner change, there can be no outer change; without collective change, no change matters”.

My invitation is to listen to yourself when fear, anger, and frustration form the thought that someone deserves to be punished or jailed, and ask yourself: where is my thought coming from? What good does it do, in the current system? What does the collective actually need to make reparation of the suffering caused? How can we create long-term healing rather than short-term satisfaction?

Strategies and policy are a huge component of course, and more and more district attorneys, lawyers, and prosecutors are starting to become educated on the importance of offering programs and education rather than traditional incarceration. But a deeper change has to happen at the individual level, so that a couple of generations from now, the question raised by crime or violence (including wars, interpersonal violence, gangs, and sanctioned police brutality) won’t be “how much fear can we instill to subjugate the enemy/perpetrator”, but “how do we approach the root causes of this to benefit the wider collective”.

Watch yourself, because we are all but a tiny reflection of our society. Watch others, because you, or your beloved, might be in their same shoes one day, however unlikely it seems. Love well. Fight for everyone, because until we are all free, nobody is free.

  1. Bell Hooks, “All about Love”, William Morrow, 2001
  2. Rev Angel Kyodo Williams, “Radical Dharma”, North Atlentic Books, 2016
  3. Zenju Eartlyn Manuel, “The Way of Tenderness” Wisdom Publications, 2015
  4. Michelle Alexander, “The New Jim Crow” The New Press, 2010
  5. Anneke Lucas, founder of Liberation Prison Yoga
  6. https://transformharm.org/abolitionist-practices-reformist-moments/ for a quick overview of TJ
  7. Resmaa Menakem “My Grandmother’s hands” Central Recovery Press, 2017

Margherita is a movement practitioner and a seeker of somatic wisdom. www.margheritatisato.com