Fear, Safety, Control, and Resistance: Shifting the Dialogue on Policing

What role does policing and police violence play in U.S. society, and what responsibilities do we all hold in transforming it? Credit: Creative Commons/Esterina on Silver.

Screenings of Fruitvale Station and the recent controversy over the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk practices are stirring up new conversations about policing, crime, and violence among white people who are not targeted by policing.

I have heard a few ideas thrown around among other white people that I would like to investigate and respond to. For example, in response to Fruitvale Station, the new film that tells the story of Oscar Grant, the unarmed black twenty-two-year-old shot and killed by transit police in Oakland, I’ve heard some white people express grief at the tragedy while insisting that it was an isolated incident. And in response to a federal judge’s ruling against the NYPD’s use of stop-and-frisk practices, made visible nationally by powerful organizing, I’ve heard others express fear at the spike in violence that they anticipate.

All of us are actors in this system of policing, and we are both complicit in and affected by how it functions. I hope that those of us not targeted by the police because of skin privilege, gender privilege, and class privilege can use this moment to examine our beliefs and negotiate how we can participate in eliminating police harassment and violence to begin building safer communities, whether through copwatching, transformative justice, or simply taking time to locate the sources of our fear.

Below, I have listed five common remarks that I have heard from other white people. Each is followed by a response drawn from several original interviews with organizers, statistics, and other texts and news sources. These are not conclusive but meant to serve as starting points for effective conversation and action.

Defining Safety

Comment: Stop-and-frisk, as currently practiced by the New York Police Department, is a necessary reality for keeping everyone “safe.”   

It is important to think about what safety and unsafety mean for different people, and why.

For example, in response to a Tikkun Daily piece on the federal judge’s ruling against the New York Police Department’s practice of stop-and-frisk, one commenter wrote:

I live in NY, Can’t wait for the bullets to start flying, old ladies afraid to walk around. The drug corners to come back. And rapes to skyrocket. Back to the 70’s. It’s going to be a blast.

Stop-and-frisk has not been shown to reduce crime. But regardless of this, many recent comments have demonstrated deep-rooted anti-black fear. Since the outcry in response to George Zimmerman’s acquittal and continuing today, they commonly reference fear of muggings and violence by black men.

At the same time, fear and precaution is often an ongoing reality for people targeted by the police, such as trans women and gender non conforming people of color, black, Latina/o, and South Asian people, unhoused and other poor people, Muslims, other religious minorities, and recent immigrants.

Gahiji Barrow, a staff member of Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE) and organizer with Critical Resistance, has been in many community meetings in New Orleans. He reports that often in those meetings, black parents say, “I don’t want to raise my kids here, I don’t want to send them out into these streets where all this stuff is … very much happening and very likely to happen because of the ways in which the police operate here.”

Barrow adds:

It is specifically black people who are concerned about their children’s safety from the police. There’s already the street violence that’s happening, which is a symptom of the institutional racism and inequality, so there’s a concern with that. And then there’s also a concern from the police themselves, because [black youth are] targeted by the police.

I’ve heard of kids being chased down by the police. These young kids [are] brutalized by them in front of their family members. How can we allow this to happen to our children? They’re being shown, they’re being taught that their bodies don’t matter, that their rights don’t matter.

In New York City streets, everyone is viewed as a potential suspect. The turn of a head or the outline of a wallet in your pocket can get you stopped—but in 2012, the people determined by police to be “suspect” were black and Latino 87% of the time.

Marjorie Dove Kent, Executive Director of New York-based Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), points out that not only are targeted populations not safe with current police practices, but their unsafety makes everyone less safe:

When someone is repeatedly and unnecessarily being stopped, frisked, and physically searched by the police, day after day, they are experiencing a kind of trauma. Through stop and frisk, we are inflicting this trauma on thousands of city residents every day, and that is very dangerous for a city as a whole. There is now a collective trauma happening, and it does not make me or anyone else safer. We are being collectively harmed.

Kent and Barrow both emphasize that police harassment is a danger. Rather than a “safety precaution” or “violence prevention,” police harassment in and of itself causes harm, as reported in this human impact study.

Addressing Fear

Comment: I understand that policing is awful for a lot of people, but without it—or even with it—I feel afraid in lots of places. When I talk about this, people call me racist.

Stemming from patriarchy, frustration, desperation, rampant access to guns, or whatever else, civilian violence and other harmful behavior does happen and is not going away overnight. How should white progressives talk about fear and safety in a society that so readily racializes conversations about precaution?

Kent responds to this question:

I think it’s real important to tap into those feelings of being unsafe, as a first step, because it actually connects us to our neighbors. If you go through your whole life and you don’t let yourself feel the moments when you feel unsafe, you’re not going to have a very clear understanding of what people feel like when they’re put at risk.

Kent says that there is a shaming that can happen in white communities trying to be anti-racist, where people try to shut down each other’s fear. Instead, try to take and help others take time to figure out where the fear might be coming from, tangibly and specifically:

Are there no street lights on the walk home from the station? That is probably not a safe situation. But if people look around them and untangle what is going on, [they can sometimes realize that] there’s nothing I can visually see that is putting me at risk, so I’ve got some racism I have to deal with.

Not an Accident: The Structure of Policing

Comment: The killings of Oscar Grant, Fong Lee, Trayvon Martin, Ramarley Graham, Duanna Johnson, Israel Hernandez-Llach and others are isolated accidental tragedies or individual acts of racist policing. They’re outliers, not part of a consistent structure.

The message that seems to be sent by regular police killings of black and brown people and the absent or halfhearted legal follow-up is that the “process of crime prevention” is worth, or at times demands, some casualties. And when people in many low-income communities of color call the police for help and they do not come, it sends the very clear signal that the “prevention of crime” is really “the prevention of crime against white people and people with money.”

How do surveillance and policing happen differently in various neighborhoods, and why? Credit: Creative Commons/Robert Kuykendall.

What role does policing play in our society, if this much harm is inflicted on so many people in its name, and “protection” is offered so selectively?

As Kristian Williams argues in Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, these practices suggest that policing is and always has been about maintaining property ownership, not about the collective safety of people’s bodies and emotional well-being.

Black people in the U.S. have always been targeted with state-supported violence, going back to slavery. Gahiji Barrow highlights the ways in which policing has always been used strategically to create a “constant state of emergency” in black communities, discombobulating, traumatizing, and destabilizing people so that they cannot organize for better economic or political conditions. This same tactic has been used in other cases against other communities in order to maintain economic and social control.

Among non-black groups, who is targeted tends to depend on political power and access to resources. For example, in the 1909-1910 Shirtwaist Strike in New York City, Jewish factory workers were targeted by the police—but the owners of the factory were protected and guarded by the police, and they were also Jewish. JFREJ has addressed the ways in which Jewish-based organizing has always been complicated because of the ways in which Jews are and always have been treated differently by police depending on race, ethnicity, class, and immigrant status. Marjorie Dove Kent points out that “when Jewish meant ‘poor immigrant,’ it was a targeted identity. When Jewish meant ‘wealthy property owner,’ it was protected. And those dynamics still continue within the Jewish community.”

Among Asian American people, too, communities’ experience of police violence has shifted over time depending largely on immigrant status, class, ethnicity, nationality, and religion.

In addition to keeping poor communities and communities of color from organizing for better conditions or otherwise resisting the status quo, policing practices can also be used to keep the middle-class quiet and working consistently through seeing and fearing the conditions that those “just below” are subject to.

“Not In My Name”: Non-Targeted People’s Role in Taking Action

Comment: This is a strategic moment for people of color and other targeted people to step up and fight their battle. I’m sorry that police harassment happens, but it’s not my job to intervene.

Many targeted communities all over the U.S. have been organizing for police accountability and community-based safety practices for a long time, and have done and are doing powerful work. Non-targeted people also have a role, responsibility, and self-interest in helping interrupt policing practices, both materially and culturally, in both the short and long-term, through accountable relationships with people targeted by policing.

Marjorie Dove Kent highlights that JFREJ is committed to supporting the leadership of people targeted by policing, and where the energy is most right now is on “stopping the bleeding.” JFREJ approaches its organizing for police accountability using a three-pronged approach: legislative, legal, and on the ground.

Kevin Clark, a college student whose beating by the San Francisco police was caught on film, speaks at a rally against police brutality in February 2013. Credit: Creative Commons/Steve Rhodes.

It focuses on mobilizing Jewish people to offer legislative support and pressure, and to help maintain the visibility and accountability of legal battles, such as the recent victory against stop-and-frisk and the current lawsuit against surveillance of Muslim communities.

The approach on the ground is more complicated. As an organization of Jews, JFREJ has a diverse membership of people who are targeted by police harassment and those who are not targeted. The organization holds the tension, then, of people’s engaging in different ways in the campaign.

A common tactic of maintaining police accountability in the short term is the practice of “copwatching,” in which groups of people monitor police, particularly at night, to ensure that they are treating people respectfully, humanely, and legally.

It is often safer for white people to watch the cops, but as Kent points out, this can fail to “shift the power dynamic of policing—because police have always been accountable to white people.” There has been conversation within Communities United for Police Reform about having “watchers of the watchers,” to shift the power through people of color directly holding the police accountable and make sure everyone stays safe by having white people present to use their privilege strategically, but this is still under discussion.

It is safest and most effective to do copwatching in groups. In many cities, there are active websites where people interested in this work can connect with others. But regardless of whether you are actively participating in an organized copwatch, if you are someone who is not typically targeted by the police and you see someone being harassed, frisked, arrested, or antagonized by the police, it is always a good idea to film or, if no camera is available, simply watch others’ interactions with the police.

Rose City Copwatch advises this:

It’s your legal right to watch the cops and your presence may stop them from violating someone’s rights! If they talk to you, tell them, “I’m here to observe. I do not intend to interfere.” This means staying 10 or more feet away from the action and not doing anything to distract the officers or other people involved. If police tell you to go away, ask them where they want you to stand and move there.

If something seems wrong or illegal, get the number on the police car. Write down what you saw, when and where. This information may help someone get justice for police violations!

Rose City Copwatch, though disbanded, also has several very useful “know your rights” materials that you can reference in case, like me, these are things you have never learned.

The Collective Need for Transformation

Comment: We white communities are doing just fine. We’re healthy and safe and can call the police if there’s ever a problem. It’s the black-on-black crime and the black-on-white crime that’s causing all the pain.

It’s first important to recognize that 74.9% of reported rapes and sexual assaults of white people in the U.S. were committed by attackers perceived to be white. And white people killed in the U.S. were killed by another white person 84% of the time.

Not only this, but it cannot be healthy psychologically for us to live in a situation in which we (passively or actively) participate in locking in cages the people we fear.

In the words of Andrea Smith, how can we begin to practice the place we want to bring into being? It requires both “working in the world as it is, and working toward the world as it should be.”

In addition to participating in short-term accountability measures on the street and in the courts and legislature, what can conversations about community-based violence prevention and accountability practices look like inside our intimate spaces, social communities, broader geographies of our towns and cities? Are there ways to discuss hard things that happen in our communities rather than embracing a culture of silence and shaming? How can we value everyone’s lives and also stay safe?

Safety, well-being, and creative long-term solutions all begin with healing. Healing, for white people, is in part about recognizing and addressing harmful behavior among white people, such as domestic abuse, corruption, addiction, physical and sexual assaults, etc. Activist and writer Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha emphasizes the importance of healing ourselves and not throwing people under the bus (by calling the police, etc.) when they mess up, as part of a long-term shift away from the culture of policing that is harmful to all of us.

Healing is also about connecting to the communities we are taught to fear. Erika Slaymaker, an organizer with Decarcerate PA in Philadelphia, suggests that people without relatives or friends inside prisons can begin by realizing that imprisoned and formerly-imprisoned people are not “in another world. They are in our streets, prisons, nearby. … You can write to people, visit, connect, even if you don’t have a family member or friend currently incarcerated.”

In addition, Gahiji Barrow talks about the potential of people with privilege to infiltrate the leadership of prison and policing systems—with accountable support so that they do not get confused once they are inside—to help dismantle and heal them from the inside.

Now more than at other moments, there may be a bit of space to make change through Barrow’s method, as the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted last Thursday to reconsider mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. This change, along with Eric Holder’s historic statement that “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason,” suggests both the effect of grassroots pressure and the potential and need to continue to push for change and dismantlement of the U.S. prison industrial complex. (The cyclical combination of surveillance, policing, and imprisonment is often collectively called the prison industrial complex because of the government and industry interests that benefit from keeping the structure in place.)

Gahiji Barrow emphasizes the importance of building up alternative solutions to violence while we take down the current system, because people “are not going to want to come over if they don’t see an alternative in play.”

There are many possibilities and most likely not one singular fix to violence within all of our communities. Tightened gun regulations, work to shift the rape-supporting and transphobic culture of patriarchy, conflict resolution trainings, community-building and addiction recovery resources, meaningful and living-wage employment, and restorative and transformative justice circles could be a few places to start. These and other effective solutions often come from communities targeted by police harassment and arrests, but many other solutions are not able to surface because of the ways in which people are in a constant state of emergency.

What do we want from policing, if we want it at all? Conversations about this are ongoing, and people have a wide range of suggestions and perspectives. But as Marjorie Dove Kent says, “Bare minimum is that the police do not inflict trauma on residents on a regular basis. Just as a starting place.”

Anna Stitt is a freelance writer, researcher, and radio reporter. She has a BA from Swarthmore College, where she specialized in U.S. history, social anthropology, and critical race theory. She is a long-term student of organizing praxis, specifically as a white person from the South, and currently works as web editorial intern at Tikkun Magazine.
tags: Activism, Economy/Poverty/Wealth, Spiritual Progressive Analysis   
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