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Illusions of Safety

On freedom from policing
Three police officers stand in a street before a protester with their arms thrown up. In the distance, a fire.

We’re in the midst of yet another bipartisan crime panic. Democratic mayors in San Francisco, Chicago, D.C., Atlanta, and New York City are loudly demanding “law and order” while President Joe Biden calls for one hundred thousand more police officers on the streets. On the right, Republicans stoke conspiracy theories about a border crisis in which immigrants are flooding the nation with drugs, diseases, and, of course, crime. Across the political spectrum, lawmakers urge us to be afraid of strangers, of our neighbors, and of each other.

The drumbeat of fear is hyperbolic and manipulative. It’s effective, though, because most of the people who live in the United States do not feel safe most of the time. By all reasonable measures, ours is a violent and dangerous society.

The United States has more than ten times the number of gun homicides than most comparable countries. Our rates of childhood gun deaths are terrifyingly high, and—even more panic inducing—they are increasing. Our health care system has gaping holes; 27.5 million people still lack health insurance. Our maternal mortality rates are more than twice as high as those of peer countries; Black maternal mortality rates are more than four times as high. Homelessness is rising. Life expectancy is falling. And the United States has had a dismal pandemic response compared to countries with similar resources.

When people are scared, they want security. Police and prisons seem like an answer. Police can arrest “bad guys” carrying firearms. They can sweep the homeless out of sight, so the general public isn’t reminded of their own precariousness.

Safety is a rhetorical weapon wielded to make people feel less safe.

Yet even though the United States has two million people behind bars and the highest incarceration rate in the world, Americans still don’t feel safe. In fact, policing simply creates more precarity and fear, especially in marginalized communities. Studies show that Black people are five to ten times more likely to be arrested than white peers. Almost half of Black men, and 40 percent of white men, are arrested at least once by age twenty-three. Being constantly threatened with arrest and imprisonment makes people feel less secure, not more protected.

And when people feel less secure, politicians offer more police.

Safety is a rhetorical weapon wielded to make people feel less safe. We are in an endless cycle of fear, which generates an authoritarian reaction, generating more fear and more authoritarian reaction. How do we break free?

What does the term safety mean in particular for me, a Black Muslim woman born to return migrant parents in the United States? I often come back to a James Baldwin quote:

Nobody knows what is going to happen to him from one moment to the next, or how one will bear it. This is irreducible. And it’s true of everybody. Now, it is true that the nature of society is to create, among its citizens, an illusion of safety; but it is also absolutely true that the safety is always necessarily an illusion.

To say that safety is illusory is not to say that it isn’t a valid and real need. Instead, it is to acknowledge that safety is not something that I can possess in a permanent, personal way. Safety isn’t a thing: it’s a social relation. I’m more or less safe depending on my relationship to others and to my proximity to the resources I need to survive.

If you ask me today if I feel more or less safe, my answer will depend on different factors. Did I get paid today? Scarcity, after all, is a type of violence; if I can’t pay rent, I will feel unsafe. Did I log on to the internet today and see stories of missing white women and mass shootings? Do I have people I can lean on if some calamity befalls me, or do I feel alone? The truth is that we co-create safety through trusting relationships.

Policing is touted as a solution to all insecurity. But police are themselves a threat. Moreover, police encourage us to see safety in division. They are focused on cordoning off “wrongdoers” based on race, class, sexuality, gender, and respectability. A main consequence of policing is to separate people. But separating people works to separate us from what does provide a sense of stability, and hope, as well as safety—which is the support of others.

This may seem counterintuitive. We’ve been conditioned to seeing other people as threats that need to be managed, controlled, and policed. Without police, movies and politicians constantly tell us, we would descend into a violent war of all against all.

The truth, however, is that when you remove police, people don’t attack each other. They build community. In A Paradise Built in Hell, writer Rebecca Solnit examines a range of natural and manmade disasters throughout history. What she finds is that when faced with sweeping catastrophes, people’s first instinct is to help each other. In a similar vein, activist Dorothy Day was transformed by the experience of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Reflecting on it thirty years later, she noted, “What I remember most plainly about the earthquake was the human warmth and kindliness of everyone afterward. . . . While the crisis lasted, people loved each other.”

During disasters, police and government are often slow to arrive and slow to respond. When they do arrive on the scene, they often make things worse rather than better. For example, they’re often focused on stopping people from taking desperately needed supplies from stores (so-called looting). Sometimes authorities themselves engage in looting or attack those trying to help each other. There is a double standard around what appropriation, and by whom, both police and media understand as “looting.” The solidarity in disasters—the revelation that people don’t actually need police—is often seen by authorities as a threat, and they react accordingly.

Disasters are, by definition, very unsafe. But for that very reason, they break the cycle of safety politics. When people recognize they have little to lose, they are free to let go of mutual fear and act as if they care for one another.

Waiting for an earthquake is obviously not much of a plan for change. But you don’t have to have an apocalypse to try to build safety with neighbors rather than in spite of them.

In 2010 I was living in an apartment building in Chicago where music kept me awake every night into the early morning hours. Alleys in the city often double as hangout spots for teens. Young people would party by the building until someone called the police. The police would arrive and tell the teens to go away, or else arrest them for curfew violations. And the next night the whole cycle would repeat.

I had founded Project NIA a year earlier to address youth criminalization. I knew that for young people, encounters with police are traumatic and can escalate dangerously. I also have insomnia, and loud noise at two a.m. was leaving me, and everyone else in the apartment complex, exhausted.

So I tried to find another solution. I met with neighbors and suggested inviting the teens to lunch to talk about the issue.

My neighbors were understandably anxious. A lunch might make things worse; a teen might act out and become violent. I offered to talk to them myself, and eventually we arranged a meal with five teens and two neighbors. My neighbors explained that the noise was disruptive, and that there were small children in the apartment building who were being kept awake. The teens explained that they were playing the music loudly because they had been “disrespected.” A neighbor had threatened to call the cops without giving them a chance to turn the music down. Once we apologized to them, they agreed to stop playing the music so loudly.

The police were not the solution. They were the problem; turning to the police to fix the situation had only escalated it. It was only when the community reached out—without the police—that the situation could be resolved.

This illustrates what prison industrial complex abolitionists like myself argue—that police are a barrier to conflict resolution. If you care about the violence of policing, then you should want as little policing as possible in any form. If we want to move toward a more caring, less violent society, we need to immediately shrink police power and to redirect resources to life-affirming needs. This is the essence of the call to #DefundPolicing.

Defunding police prevents the police from terrorizing and harassing marginalized people. And it also makes funds available to invest in education, health care, and community building, creating a sense of trust and stability.

Currently, police budgets take up a huge share of city resources. Baltimore for example, spends 26 percent of its budget on policing; Miami spends 33 percent; Chicago spends 37 percent. Yet there’s no evidence that police spending reduces crime.

In contrast, research has shown that more spending on social services is strongly correlated with reduction in homicide rates. Investment in public schools as well as spending on social welfare has also been shown to decrease crime. Community-based violence interruption programs, which provide funds for respected members of the community to build personal relationships with people at the center of violence, have also been effective.

Spending a third or more of a city’s budget on police doesn’t leave much to fund the approaches that do reduce violence. Police starve civil society of the resources that could be used to address real problems. That leads to greater insecurity and fear, which police then use to argue that they need even more money.

Defunding police, therefore, isn’t just about reducing police budgets. It’s about working toward the project of “a social life lived differently” by organizing for abolitionist safety.

One current site of struggle is Seattle. Abolitionist organizers have issued a call for a budget—the Seattle Solidarity Budget—that “centers the needs of the most marginalized and vulnerable.” They have focused on the rising numbers of deaths in King County Jail and among homeless people targeted by police for removal.

This is an example of solidarity in practice, with more than two hundred community groups supporting the proposed budget. “At the core of the Solidarity Budget is our refusal to allow our movements to be pitted against each other for funding,” the organization’s website states. “Divesting from police systems and investing in Black communities goes hand in hand with climate justice work and housing justice work and participatory budgeting.”

The Solidarity Budget is an example of real and substantive democracy as opposed to the cramped and hollow sort to which we are accustomed. The coalition has had some successes; it cut Seattle’s police budget by $11 million and expanded investments in affordable housing, community services, and transit. Its ultimate demands include a 50 percent cut in the Seattle Police Department’s budget, dramatic climate action, and an investment in good jobs and community resilience.

What I deeply appreciate about the Seattle Solidarity Budget is that it does what I think we most need: convening people across communities and sectors to have robust conversations and to make decisions about what those communities most value and want.

The fact that the carceral state does not actually provide safety is not a failure but the point of its existence.

The work has been grueling. Police, politicians, and reactionaries have made efforts to derail the initiative. There has also been internal conflict among members of the coalition. Yet organizers and community members are pressing on and persisting. They are showing us that organizing is the how. It’s how we get from where we are to where we want to go. Black freedom movement organizer Ella Baker taught us this.

Scholar and activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore argues that the rise of the carceral state is the result of the underdevelopment of the social welfare state. I think the rise of the carceral state is also the cause of the underdevelopment of the social welfare state. Disinvestment in education, in health care, and in democracy leads to more policing. More policing in turn feeds on the rest of society like a giant bloated mosquito with a badge.

This is why police reform is a perpetuation of the problem rather than a solution to it. Reforms assume that the police are a fundamentally effective and democratic institution. Reformers believe that if you could just tweak the police, they would stop lying in reports and depositions. They would cease shooting unarmed Black people. They might even somehow miraculously start preventing crimes. And so reformers look to body cameras (which police turn off when they feel like it) or to civilian oversight boards (which police often block or neuter) or to training, which has little effect on police use of violence.

Most reforms involve giving the police more resources—training and body cameras cost money. Thus, they end up perpetuating the real problem, which is that ineffective, violent policing uses up all the resources that could be used for effective, nonviolent approaches.

Policing is a practice, but it’s also a tactic and a vision. The carceral state is built on the principle that Black people, poor people, and other marginalized people are the cause of insecurity and that they must be detained, walled off, and tormented if others are to enjoy a good life of safety and affluence. The fact that the carceral state does not actually provide safety is not a failure but the point of its existence. The goal is ever-escalating fear, providing forever escalating punishment and hate. A police state is a state that wants to police more, and more fiercely. It is fundamentally opposed to freedom and solidarity. It is designed to build walls.

Many of those walls are in our heads. During a virtual teach-in in 2020, writer Patrick Blanchfield said that the police “are in our minds as a solution rather than as a problem.” Whenever prison industrial complex abolitionists call for the elimination of policing, people immediately and aggressively push back by insisting that we provide “an alternative” to address public safety. The question hurled at us is “Well what will replace the police?” They should ask instead, what are police replacing? Or as Chicago-based organizer Damon Williams put it, “When I see police, I see one hundred other jobs smashed into one thing with a gun.”

If policing is the solution, that doesn’t leave any room for the rest of us to have influence. The (alleged) expertise of police leaves no room for decision making by the public at large—not to mention that the notion of “crime” constructs large swaths of the public as unworthy of anything but violence. It undermines any notion of democracy.

We don’t know what our nation without police would look like. But we know that our society with police is violent, racist, precarious, unequal, and unfree. The carceral state is a choice. Abolitionists believe that if we work, dream, and imagine together, we can choose something else.


Excerpted from Wake Up America: Black Women on the Future of Democracy. Copyright (c) 2024 by Keisha N. Blain. Contribution copyright (c) by Mariame Kaba. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.