How growing up in what some called a religious “cult” helped me make sense of police abolition
All of the abuse that we find in insular communities is a product of the world from which the people who make up those communities come.
Editor’s Note: This post contains discussions of sexual and domestic violence. It also contains spoilers of the Netflix film One of Us.
I’ve been thinking a lot about growing up Black in the Hare Krsna community lately, owed primarily to the fact that I am currently working on a memoir. But I was most recently resurrected into my peculiar childhood while watching a documentary on Netflix called One of Us. The film follows three Hasidic Jews as they struggle to escape their insular sect after suffering many abuses at the hands of those their community protected.
By all accounts, One of Us is a powerful cautionary tale about the very real horrors of unchecked power. One of the subjects was raped by a mentor, and another woman experienced constant physical and emotional violence from her husband. But while these horrors deserve to be the central narrative of the film, I couldn’t help but notice a secondary storyline with which I am all-too-familiar, and that is so pervasive it almost always goes unanalyzed.
In the film, the strange and sinister ways of the Hasidic community are emphasized to understandable cinematic effect. Revelations that the characters had to learn basic social interactions, like how to use Wikipedia, are drawn out to shock the viewer, and at one point the film cuts to archival footage of a rabbi who angrily damns the internet and erupts in fascistic hysterics over the fact that preteens own cell phones.
Were it not for the violent backdrop of the three tragic stories, I might have laughed at this. It reminded me of how often I have seen my own childhood religion described and portrayed as a “cult,” and how those outside of that community commonly take very real issues and happenings within it and amplify them to comical and condemnatory degree. This always works to erase the nuance and agency I know to exist among members in order to benefit the “normal” society Hare Krsnas are contrasted against.
The truth is, the kooky, saffron robe-wearing renunciates that my mother joined in the 60’s have their issues, and sometimes these are issues just as ridiculous and terrible as those of the orthodox Jews portrayed in this film. Also invested in the creation of their own isolated schools, agriculture, and social systems, Hare Krsna communities certainly fostered widespread abuse that is analogous to what the three main characters went through. Still, on a day to day level, we were a community with significant and specific love and care for one another, a love that was sometimes taken advantage of, but that was very real, very valid, and, for some, very necessary.
There are only two sympathetic Hasidic characters given screen time in the film, and perhaps they are the only ones in these three particular character’s lives. Perhaps the other sympathetic people—like the parents of Ari, the sexually abused boy, who still check in on him and pay for his rehab when he becomes addicted to drugs—don’t appear because they do not want to, or are restricted from doing so. Or perhaps there truly are only two kind people out of the thousands of orthodox Jews in Brooklyn.
But, to me, this omission reads just like the lie I witnessed so often growing up, the lie that Hare Krsnas are (almost) all one-dimensional, whacky, illogical zealots, who abuse because of their nonconformist identity, not because they live in a patriarchal, white supremacist society that encourages the same abuse regardless of who enacts it.
In another reveal meant to shock the viewer, huge text graces the screen to explain that the Hasidic community in Brooklyn has organized their own police and ambulance force. Their religious rules prohibit turning in fellow Jews to the outside criminal justice system, and instead they are held accountable in communal courts and other sanctioned practices. This is set up in the film to elicit alarm, but instead I marvel. Instead, I think back to the work abolitionists are doing to create their own policing and prison alternatives, and how often we are told it is impossible.
Instead, I imagine what it would mean for Black communities to heal and work through our trauma without being forced to turn to the inherently anti-Black criminal justice system, and I am overjoyed. Like most of society, the film seems to imply that operating outside of America’s legal system is an inherent problem, but I know that most of society is usually wrong about what happens in its margins. I do not assume that community policing does not work. I try to think first about why it does not work in these three instances, and how it might work better in others in the future.
At the end of One of Us, Etty, the abused wife, loses her child custody case on the grounds of New York City’s “status quo” clause, which says that a divorced parent should not change the lifestyle of the children from what they are used to. It is a clause that the Hasidic people, Etty explains, has mastered how to exploit, given that any exit from such a tight-knit community would be a drastic change in lifestyle for any child.
And though this is a clause sanctioned by the state, the state not only escapes indictment in the film, it is still positioned as the answer to a problem it fully endorses. The film implies that if only these people could escape into the world, they might be “free,” a word used many times throughout the documentary. But I have too many murdered Black friends and family, too many Black mothers who lost their children or lives to abusive husbands, too many recollections of sexual violence on my Black body out here in the “free” world to believe the lie that this is the sanctuary we need.
Rather than acquiescing to the contradictory but commonly accepted idea that the state is here to save us from the violence it permits, abolition forces us to think about how we might fight the ways the violence of the world creeps into our stateless communities. Abolition acknowledges that the patriarchal violence which allowed Etty and Ari’s abuses is one that has already been perfected in the “free” world, which is why that world’s leader is a self-admitted sexual assaulter (at the very least).
All of the abuse that we find in insular communities—both communities non-consensually structured by prisons or consensually structured by radical religious beliefs—is a product of the world from which the people who make up these communities come. The challenge is in figuring out how to reject the white supremacist patriarchal violence of the world in totality, not in finding better ways to get it to save us from itself.
Despite their mantras about renouncing the world, the Hare Krsna community did not fully reject the racial and patriarchal violence of it. The orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn clearly embraced it in these three cases, not to mention in their violent history and ongoing practices of anti-Blackness today. But if these communities can refuse to collude with the state in some instances, we can refuse to in all, and if we could somehow get such a refusal right and protect it (because history tells us that Black autonomy would not be so easily permitted), perhaps that might be the only way to truly provide sanctuary for everyone searching for a freer world.