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One of the first times I remember encountering police was when I was in second grade, circa 1990. My teacher had made an announcement that we’d have a special guest and things would run differently from our usual schedule. The angst in the air to meet a “special guest” loomed as we awaited said guest to disrupt our day-to-day schedule. A white man with a crispy uniform walked into a class of youngsters followed by another human dressed like a dog with a trenchcoat on. We were told to sit in a circle on the floor as the “special guest” introduced us to himself as “Officer Friendly” and said the human dressed like a damn dog was named “McGruff the Crime Dog.” His practiced speech led us to believe that this “dog” was going to come save us when crime happened. 

As the officer spoke, I recall the nasty feeling that came into my stomach when he told us that if bad things were happening in our homes, that we should call them: “So, when you see someone doing drugs, stealing, or violating you, you should call us and we will handle it.” Knowing what I’d been taught about not trusting the police versus what this white dude was now telling me we had to do was creepy; even by just listening to what he said, I felt I’d betrayed my upbringing in some way. Calling the police for help was not the protocol in my family. My great-aunt taught my sisters and I that “what happened in her house stayed in her house” and to violate that meant there would be consequences. I was certain that her rules would reign supreme.  

After the presentation of the “special guests,” we were called up one-by-one and fingerprinted. The officer told us that this was to protect us in case any stranger ever kidnapped us. In hindsight, it was because this classroom of Black, brown, and working-class white kids were already suspects to people like “Officer Friendly”—they were just waiting for us to make our first mistakes. 

Growing up in the 80s and 90s, I’d learn that visits from police in my community would be frequent and unwelcomed. The angst of the interruption would always be present when they arrived and it would always mean that things were never the same after they’d left. The police would take someone and that meant that on Sundays my sisters and I would be dressed to go with my aunt to the jail to visit that someone behind a glass. I hated those visits; the way the officers treated the visitors was not how you treat a guest. There were no hospitalities offered and the rules of the jail were rigid, which meant the standards of behavior my aunt expected were even more rigid. 

As time went on, my distrust for police turned into an all-out disdain. I’d borne witness to the ways they came into my neighborhood, with no “friendly” on their badge, and wreak havoc on the lives of the people caught surviving. Unfortunately, I blamed us. I thought the adults around me were making bad decisions, not realizing that their decisions were because they had even worse options. Nor did I know that Nixon had declared a War on Drugs and Reagan sent the troops. I didn’t know that the good factory union jobs had moved to Ohio and welfare-to-work laws made single-headed families like mine stretched to figure out how to be a parent and a worker. I didn’t know that Clinton had signed a crime bill that meant when someone was taken after “Officer Friendly” came, they wouldn’t be returned for a lot longer. I didn’t know that the high tide of capitalism was drowning the labor force and while commodifying our every need and desire. I didn’t see how the tug of worker and consumer kept people in my family always robbing Peter to pay Paul. 

I just knew there were some people, like the white kids in my school, who brought lunch and there were those of us who had to get the “free lunch.” I knew that there were some people, like the ones I saw on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, who had everything, and there were some like my family who barely could keep our lights on. There were some who would see those “special guests” as their protectors, and those of us who knew them to be kidnappers.

It’s taken years of experience, study, and listening to put all the pieces together of this society and to understand just how ridiculous the system of “public safety” actually is. When I look at the conditions my family and community were forced to struggle and survive in, in addition to the harsh conditions that our foremothers and fathers were determined to survive, I know without a shadow of a doubt that this has all been a set up. There is no way public safety as we have been taught is going to bring about safety in a real and meaningful way. The reality is that we have lived this lie long enough and public safety must be redefined and reimagined in order to consider the totality of the people who inhabit the public sphere, not just the properties that make for a good skyline. To reimagine public safety requires a sober assessment of the current order of the day and be honest about who it’s hurting, what is being kept safe, and what isn’t.  

The truth of the matter is that what makes people safe is as varied as the gender spectrum. As humans we have the capability of compromising each other’s ideal of safety at every turn. But to think militarized police in tacky polyester uniforms is the best way to address it will leave us all doomed. I know for a fact that had my family and community had meaningful work that they had control over, we would have had a taste of safety. If we’d had the services necessary to address the wicked state-sanctioned crack epidemic, we would have been able to get a sense of safety. Instead of “Officer Friendly” and the weird human dressed like a dog, had a caring community-led group that looked and sounded like the adults who were raising me had come to our classroom and offered a safe space to talk about hard things in our life, that would have offered me and my little stomach some safety. Ultimately, had colonizers not kidnapped Africans and brought them to stolen Indigenous lands to dehumanize, maim, kill, and rape us, only to later pretend they could protect us, that would have made me feel safe.  

History cannot be undone, but we know that it can be repeated if we aren’t willing to steer the ship of our future in a different direction. For years, colonized Africans in this country and other exploited people have relied on the very institution that has been responsible for our suffering to address human harm, often for lack of options or the fact that they are an occupying force in our daily lives. Our aims must go beyond reforming this rotten institution but to be visionary in crafting new ways of addressing harm and better yet, resetting our values on human life all together. 

For example, Portugal has realized that taking an approach to drug use that decriminalizes drug use and providing harm-reduction methods to addressing unhealthy relationships to drug use has minimized the crimes associated with it, in addition to doing public education that provides a scientific approach to understanding the impacts of it’s usage. Organizations like Crescer have created community-based institutions that support folks who are in their addiction by providing cafes and recreational facilities that allow folks an alternative to drug consumption. They are also working to get safe consumption places to prevent the spread of diseases, prevent overdoses, and educating people on safe usage.  

Here in the U.S., community-based organizations like the Violence Interrupters were literally doing what the police have not proven they have the ability, nor will, to address active violent interactions. They are community members who put their lives in the middle of violent interactions, only armed with the cultural wherewithal to make the interventions that bring people back to their humanity in a moment of life and death. This organization is no longer active, due to allegations of sexual violence against the women inside of the organization. I raise this example because much like the humans that put on the blue uniform, the interrupters are humans that must be charged with the transformation that they were seeking to bring about. A Black queer feminist approach to interrupting violence must be part of the alchemy that creates the life-saving work they embarked on. The model they have offered us is still one that we should take the best of and leave the rest to continue to bring about the world we want to see. These are just two examples, but can you imagine what could be possible if these programs were funded as well as the institution that has been trained to kill us?  

We can’t get rid of policing as we know it if we continue to value one person’s time and labor over another’s, which is a requirement of racialized capitalism. We must fight like hell to break isolation and mediocrity which nurtures capitalism and fear. 

This may seem like a tall order. However, if we exert the same amount of force and energy that has been used to instill fear, make mass consumption an art form, shred the social safety net, lie and manipulate the public to support war and exploitation to instead imagine and build alternative systems of public safety, then I believe we can do what must be done to turn the world right side up again.

Mary Hooks is a Prism Senior Fellow focused on Black and LGBTQ+ liberation in the South. A Black lesbian, feminist, and mother, Mary is co-director of Southerners on New Ground (SONG).