Harm reduction, mothering, abolition every day 1
As the La Commune 2021 Free School has unspooled over this spring, I have been thinking through the lessons and reverberations between then and now, the Paris of there and the here, on the unceded and ancestral territories of the the xʷməθkwəy̓əm, Skwxwú7mesh, and Səl̓ílwətaʔ peoples. In my overgrown garden, at the kitchen table and the playground, I’ve been listening, reading, thinking. When I think about the Paris Commune as a possibility, as a lesson in how individuals can be agents of revolution, as a space of rupture and refusal, I think of other spaces in this city, these territories, that I have seen glimpse of this work, these possibilities.2 I keep coming back to the deep lessons of harm reduction I have been taught in this place; the connections between these lessons and the ongoing work of abolition; the daily work of parenting; and how, maybe, these labours can be braided together.
Emerging from radical organizing in the ’80s and ’90s, harm reduction is “historically led by hookers, faggots, drug users, HIV+ people, sick, crazy, and disabled people, people who live on the streets, and others who have been historically excluded from institutional resources and medical systems.”3 In Vancouver, its roots are in community organizing in the Downtown East Side community, where drug users, sex workers, and Indigenous communities have been living and organizing and pushing for decades.4 It is a model where drug use is not medicalized or criminalized, but instead recognizes that “drug use patterns are not static and that legal and illegal categories of drugs are social constructions that have nothing to do with dangerousness. Harm reduction attempts to offer pragmatic interventions that make drug use safer, rather than interventions based on morality”.5 Like many interventions from below, harm reduction methods have been institutionalized into something which often stray from these radical roots. But the roots are still there, still being tended to and growing new shoots, strategies and methods.6
I learned harm reduction by doing it. First, as a queer teen growing up just after the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis. And later, learning how to keep my friends and neighbours alive while living in an epicentre of an ongoing overdose epidemic. When I think of harm reduction, I think of physical spaces, of objects – the Narcan in my car and my front hallway and my bag; fresh water bottles given to dates on the dance floor; spare Dexedrine passed onto friends; the free clinic at QMUNITY everyone went to when I was 23; the unsanctioned Overdose Prevention sites in the alley blocks from my kid’s school; the phone at my day job that I let library patrons use whenever they wanted; the safe supply the Drug User Liberation Front gave away during a street party, as the government drags decriminalization on and murderously on.7
When I think of harm reduction, I think of the radical reordering of capitalism, of this world, that it requires. To insist that no one should die from lack of resources. To insist on the full bodily sovereignty of everyone in this world. To push towards providing options, and against carcerality. Speaking of their time working at a needle exchange program in the Bronx, M. E. O’Brien writes, “Harm reduction seemed to offer a path towards a different sort of practice: an alternative ethical framework that allowed us to stop constantly judging others — and ourselves — according to the rigid criteria of political righteousness. Instead we could learn to care for each other with dignity, to challenge our capacity for harm by lovingly welcoming the most painful parts of ourselves.”8 I think of the ways harm reduction is a politics of care, the kind of care that emerges when the State is actively out to get you, when its power is built on your dispossession.9
I think of how in my life, harm reduction has been intimately intertwined with transformative justice. Similar to harm redux, transformative justice as a distinct project emerged in the ’90s from the work of women of colour, queer and trans people, and others who needed to create systems outside of the police to keep each other safe, building on generational lineages of abolition work against the State.10 TJ is an expansive category of practices that ask, how can we respond to harm directly and compassionately, without reproducing carceral logics of exile and punishment? How can communities be resourced to work through conflict and support one another, without turning to the police or social workers? Sometimes this looks like a formal accountability process, where people are invited together to work through harm while held by community; sometimes it looks like bystander intervention on the bus ride home from work. Both are just some of the constellations of strategies that are a part of looking out for one another.
Harm reduction and transformative justice are both streams of an abolitionist politic that start by asking “what can we imagine for ourselves and the world?” and moves on from there.11 Two modes that require a deep working-with ethics, a refusal of punishment, a radical commitment that everyone deserves resources and to have their needs met. Of the two, the organizer Shira Hassan writes “The gift that harm reduction has given me has been to be able to really mean self-determination, and to view things on a spectrum and a continuum, and to think about how to hold all of the truths that are happening, and to be able to sit with the beautiful mess. TJ is nothing if not sitting with the beautiful mess. And that’s what harm reduction is.”12 When you change the circumstances around someone, you maximize their freedom to choose. When you trust that others know what they need, new possibilities emerge. When you hold people in their full humanity, you are seen in yours.
From Alexis Pauline Gumbs, I think frequently of her question “what would it mean for us to take the word ‘mother’ less as a gendered identity and more as a possible action, a technology of transformation, that those doing the most mothering labour are teaching us right now?”13 There is a similar delight in Sophie Lewis’ call for “momrades,” her question, “in what ways do comradely mothers of all genders abolish not only motherhood but the present state of things?”14 What worlds are unmade and reconstituted through a politics that take mothering as a communal responsibility we have to one another? If mothering is thought of as a type of labour, a technology, and not a holy vocation, where does that leave things? The role of Mother itself is heavily classed and racialized, a white woman fantasy of simultaneous innocence and martyrdom. I think about how queer moms, poor moms, Black and Indigenous moms, moms who use, trans moms and parents of many genders, have been historically excluded from the institutions of motherhood.15 How they are always mothering under the risk of heightened surveillance, mandatory reporting, and state intervention.16 If “mothering” is moved from an idealized, ideological identity into an ongoing, collective action, can there be space to ask for what we truly need, space to move through shame and stigma together?
A pillar of the ideology of the mother is the displacement of immense structural inequality onto individual parents and families. The poet Taisia Kitaiskaia writes of “the peaceful mother figure” who “haunts, taunts.”17 The “peaceful mother” that is impossible to achieve, and a constant source of judgement for those who do not measure up. Part of the role of the Mother is a separation from all the messiest parts of ourselves, a division that cleaves our full, human lives from our children, and our families from the struggles of the world. Substance use and parenting, intimate partner violence and parenting – both of these very human experiences hold immense stigma, stigma which is a very real material risk the more structurally marginalized a parent is.18 Harm reduction and transformative justice are frames that both look head-on at these experiences as part of the vast spectrum of our lives, instead of cataclysmic failings, and offer ways through. They provide spaces to practice new ways of relationality. As sets of dynamic principles that centre on self-determination & interdependence, they provide tools for working towards our humanity as parents, and as people mothering.
On the revolutionary potential of mothering, Cynthia Dewi Oka writes: “the ethos of mothering involves valuing in and of itself a commitment to the survival and thriving of other bodies. It presents a fundamental contradiction to the logic of capitalism, which unmoors us from each other.”19 Transformative justice and harm reduction can offer tools to intervene in the ideological structure of “the mother.” By dislocating mothering from motherhood, there is space for it to be considered as an ongoing action, a category of labour, that in turn has space within the larger project of abolition surrounding us.
When I think of the Paris Commune and the Communards, I think of what it means to truly, deeply, fervently know that the State is not the answer. And what it means to then continue forward, to create and remember ways of being and working and struggling, of partying and caring and mothering and surviving. Through these labours, ways of knowing both how to care and be cared for emerge; pushing through the intertwined logics of capitalism & colonialism, growing stronger every day.
- Everyday Abolition/Abolition Every Day. https://everydayabolition.com/
- William Clare Roberts. “After the Commune: Learning the Lessons of Failure.” Spectre Journal. May 26, 2021. https://spectrejournal.com/after-the-commune/
- ripley soprano & Jade Forrest Marks. “EVERY TIME YOU SAY VOTING IS HARM REDUCTION another faggot moves to hell’s kitchen…*” in Harm Reduction Is Not a Metaphor. New York: Visual Aids, 2021. https://visualaids.org/uploads/projects/HarmReductionZine.pdf
- Susan Boyd, Donald MacPherson, & Bud Osborn. Raise Shit! Social Action Saving Lives. Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing, 2009.
- Susan Boyd. From Witches To Crack Moms: Women, Drug Law, And Policy, p. 175. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2004.
- Zoe Dodd & Alexander McClelland. “Taking Risks is A Path to Survival.” July 16, 2017. https://hivhepcanarchist.tumblr.com/post/163060083647/taking-risks-is-a-path-to-survival-by-zo%C3%AB-dodd
- Jen St. Denis. “For One Day, BC Activists Hand Out Clean Heroin and Cocaine.” The Tyee. April 15, 2021. https://thetyee.ca/News/2021/04/15/For-One-Day-BC-Activists-Handed-Out-Clean-Heroin-Cocaine/
- M. E. O’Brien. “Junkie Communism.” Commune. July 15, 2019. https://communemag.com/junkie-communism/
- Nancy E. Stoller. Lessons From the Damned: Queers, Whores, and Junkies Respond to AIDS. New York: Routledge, 1998.
- Adrian Cole, Yalini Dream, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and Jenna Peters-Golden. “Our Hearts Are Beating Together: A Conversation with Some Old TJ Heads,” p. 257-274. In Beyond Survival, edited by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarashina. Chico: AK Press, 2020.
- Mariame Kaba. We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, p. 3. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2021.
- Shira Hassan. “Every Mistake I’ve Ever Made,” p. 284. In Beyond Survival, 2020.
- Alexis Pauline Gumbs. “m/other ourselves: a Black queer feminist genealogy for radical mothering,” p.11-19. In Revolutionary Mothering: Love On The Frontlines, edited by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, China Martens, and Mai’a Williams. Oakland: PM Press, 2016.
- Sophie Lewis. “Mothering Against The World: Momrades Against Motherhood.” Salvage. September 18, 2020. https://salvage.zone/articles/mothering-against-the-world-momrades-against-motherhood/
- Alexis Pauline Gumbs. 2016.
- Mandatory Reporting is Not Neutral. https://www.mandatoryreportingisnotneutral.com/
- Taisia Kitaiskaia. Ask Baba Yaga. Andrews McMeel, 2017.
- Susan Boyd. Mothers and Illicit Drugs, p. 44 – 72.. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.
- Cynthia Dewi Oka. “Mothering as Revolutionary Praxis,” p. 51-58. In Revolutionary Mothering, 2016.
Emily Guerrero is an archivist and librarian living on the unceded territories of the xwməθkwəy̓əm, Skwxwú7mesh, and Səlí̓lwətaʔ Nations. They research gossip as both information practice and a method of care. They have worked at Xwi7xwa Library, SFU, and most recently as the archivist at VIVO Media Arts Centre. They are a parent and a Leo.