Demonstrators light candles during a youth-led protest to defund the Oakland Police Department on June 10, 2020. (Getty Images)

As critiques of the police and conversations about different ways to address harm, violence, and other threats to safety have become increasingly commonplace on the national stage, more policing alternatives are garnering support and funding from local governments. Among these local initiatives is Oakland’s Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, which developed a set of recommendations for reducing the Oakland Police Department General Purpose Fund budget allocation by 50%. Although the Oakland City Council accepted the task force’s recommendations in May, concerns leveled by members of the task force illustrate how opposition to police abolition has at times come from within the communities that many of the staunchest organizers call home. It serves, too, as a reminder that careful, nuanced conversations are necessary for reckoning with this gap.

In December 2020, five Black members of the task force penned a letter highlighting their worries that plans to defund the city’s police department were outpaced by the development of viable alternatives. Their concerns that “[e]ven more lives will be lost if police are removed without an alternative response being put in place that is guaranteed to work as good as or better than the current system” reflected the success of local and national elected officials in implying a link between rising crime rates in large cities and the nationwide demands to defund police departments over the previous summer.

The reality of these ongoing divides—even within communities that agree police violence and corruption is a problem—and the need for a new understanding of public safety was highlighted during last month’s AMP Seeds panel on reimagining safety featuring Myrtle Thompson-Curtis, co-founder of Feedom Freedom Growers, and Tawana Petty, author, poet, and national organizing director for Data for Black Lives. The AMP Seeds series, hosted by Allied Media Projects, seeks to amplify the work of people who use the media for liberation and includes panels featuring writers and organizers such as adrienne-marie brown and Ross Gay.

Building community bonds means tackling complicated questions

Petty and Thompson-Curtis spoke of how organizers need to lead with empathy, deep listening, and an acknowledgment of people’s existing fears around safety when engaging in the practical work of building bridges between abolition organizers and community members. In the midst of those conversations, organizers must also be willing to ask difficult questions about whether our current law enforcement and criminal legal system are adequately addressing those fears or further exacerbating them. Those questions should also acknowledge how infrastructural divestment contributes to harm, violence, and danger.

Thompson-Curtis encouraged viewers to ask themselves and those in their community how they’ve been affected by disinvestment in their cities. Did the presence of police in a situation ever make them feel safer? Do they know anyone in their families who’ve been affected by the justice system? If so, what was the outcome? Thompson-Curtis advised those conversations to be honest, but also assured that they can be gentle and allow for community members to be imaginative.

“What were the times in your life when you felt safe? What were the components? What kind of world do you want to live in?” she asked.

In a conversation with Prism, Cat Brooks, a former Oakland mayoral candidate and co-founder of Oakland’s Anti-Police Terror Project (APTP), echoed the importance of posing those tough questions and pulled upon APTP’s own efforts to illustrate how communities can be brought into movement work. Over five years ago, APTP launched their campaign to defund the Oakland Police Department, giving Brooks years of experience that newer organizers can learn from—especially as they seek to build momentum within their own communities. Brooks also emphasized the importance of having people talk to those in their own communities before approaching legislators. The belief that law enforcement provides safety is still one of the biggest obstacles to widespread acceptance and support of efforts to defund the police—and the state knows it.

“Don’t underestimate the lengths that the state will go to to protect its interests, including lying,” Brooks advised. “Focus and communicate clearly about how ‘defund’ means actual safety, because we’re talking about redirecting resources to prevention, instead of reacting after a harm has already happened. Build coalitions and involve the most impacted from the get go.” 

In addition to collaborating on new alternatives with those most impacted, Petty, Thompson-Curtis, and Brooks also agree on the importance of uplifting existing programs, organizations, and initiatives that are operating locally and have already seen success. 

Being seen, not watched’: Community care over state surveillance

In Detroit, where both Petty and Thompson-Curtis are based, some of those initiatives are bringing awareness and attempting to curb how law enforcement is using technology to expand its reach. Surveillance has become omnipresent through not just the proliferation of residential cameras, but also the expansion of CCTV surveillance cameras in cities across the world. A recent study from researchers at Stanford University sought to identify the number of outdoor surveillance cameras in 10 major American cities and six large cities in other countries. It found over 10,000 cameras in New York City alone. Disrupting this normalization of surveillance is both a challenge and a key component in rethinking safety. 

Thompson-Curtis highlighted the work of Green Chairs, Not Green Lights, a Detroit-based anti-surveillance campaign that seeks to reorient how we conceive of and create community safety. The program opposes the various ways that surveillance technology is woven into our daily lives and was born in response to Project Greenlight, a rapidly expanding surveillance program that launched in Detroit in 2016. Initially, the project consisted of partnerships with eight gas stations where cameras were installed with real-time connections to the city’s police headquarters, touting itself as a “ground-breaking crime-fighting partnership between local businesses, the City of Detroit and community groups” to become the “first public-private-community partnership of its kind.” Project Greenlight has since spread to over 700 businesses throughout Detroit featuring over 2,000 cameras. In 2017, Project Greenlight began to incorporate facial recognition software when the city of Detroit signed a $1 million contract with DataWorks Plus.

Research shows that communities of color are not just more heavily policed, but also live in neighborhoods that feature more outdoor surveillance cameras. The harms of this surveillance on people of color are exacerbated when paired with facial recognition technology. Facial recognition software that runs searches of existing databases of drivers license photos, mugshots, and even social media pages are heavily critiqued because of their high margins of error when identifying people of color—particularly Black people. A 2019 test administered by the National Institute of Standards and Technology found that the government’s most reliable facial recognition software falsely matched Black women’s faces at a rate 10 times higher than that of white women.   

Meanwhile, Green Chairs, Not Green Lights helps train youth throughout Detroit in basic carpentry while contributing to the community’s ability to look out for itself. In developing their carpentry skills, program participants build benches for residents and community members who wish to look out for their neighborhood. The benches are installed outside of homes and apartments and promote the idea that community members can keep one another safe by physically asserting themselves in public space and building relationships through familiarity. The campaign was developed to reflect the ideal that “we all look out of our windows and see our children as they play in our neighborhoods, and our elders as they return to their homes in the evenings, to ensure their safety. We know that resourced and involved communities tend to be safer.” 

Thompson-Curtis argued that true safety comes from “being seen, not watched,” while Petty underscored how the project promotes the idea that we can create “green benches” in our everyday environments by finding opportunities to be more attuned and watchful. This level of awareness and involvement in communities is a way to reclaim the shared spaces and interpersonal connections from the isolation of state surveillance.

“We’ve conflated surveillance with safety, so we’re held up in our homes with surveillance cameras and the [Amazon] Ring doorbells and the gates and the bars and a lot of times were not looking out for one another,” Petty said. “I know when I’ve had dialogues with people and [ask them], ‘When is a time that you felt safe?’ I don’t think I’ve ever had anybody say, ‘when the police showed up.’ What they did say was ‘when I knew my neighbors,’ or ‘when somebody was watching me come home from school,’ or ‘when my neighbor looks out when I’m coming in late at night,’ or ‘when my street is well-lit’—not ‘with surveillance cameras’.” 

There are also strategies that people anywhere can begin to adopt to divert our crisis responses away from calling the police. Thompson-Curtis and Petty pointed to pod mapping, a way of identifying and documenting resources and emergency contacts that can be called upon in a crisis. Pod mapping is a way to both shift away from our society’s instinctual reliance upon law enforcement and mutually recognize those around us as pillars of our own safety. It works toward abandoning the idea that safety is something ensured by individualism and reconceiving it as something contingent on community. Requesting consent of those in your pod map to include them creates the opportunity for them to ask the same of you, fostering a culture of reciprocity. The people involved in a pod map rotate with changing situations—some may be present one week and unavailable another, and in some cases pod maps may require expansion. The system is dependent not only on maintaining existing relationships, but also on creating new ones to help protect each other’s safety.

“Knowing that I have this [map] takes a level of anxiety away and it helps the people in my life because they know what needs to happen,” Thompson-Curtis said. “Communicating with the folks who are closest to you first about what needs to happen [offers] a degree of safety.”

Change takes time and practice

While a growing variety of policing alternatives can offer more choices for communities, their impact and widespread use is contingent upon its proponents’ willingness to engage in persistent conversation with community members who might still be reluctant. Consistency and repetition is key to helping community members grow comfortable with public safety strategies that sit outside of law enforcement, Petty said. She recalled how the first time she attended one community meeting, she was shouted down by elders and told to “leave our police alone.” She persisted, attending every week with new information and resources to share, and eventually people became interested in asking how alternative systems to policing worked.

Other major metropolitan areas have already implemented policing alternative programs. In Eugene, Oregon, CAHOOTS has successfully provided a non-police response to mental health crises for the past 32 years and has served as a model for programs that have since emerged elsewhere such as New York City’s B-HEARD program and Atlanta’s Policing Alternatives & Diversion Initiatives. It’s not impossible for similar initiatives to take root in other cities like Oakland, but it’s essential for organizers to ensure that proposed alternatives actually reflect the needs and concerns of communities, and that means taking the time to create consistent relationships and bonds of trust.

“One thing that I’ve learned in organizing against face recognition, [for] example, is that repetition, conversation, and political education has the power to transform hearts and minds,” Petty said. “Everybody wants to feel safe, but the conflation between surveillance and safety is so embedded into our psyche and into the narrative that unless you are willing to stick and stay, it’s going to be surface level.”

Brooks also reiterated the importance of staying on message and saying it “over and over again.” The narrative that “the police are necessary to keep us safe” overlooks how neighborhoods with the most police tend to have the most crime and the least amount of resources, while those with the least amount of crime have the least amount of police but the most amount of resources. Pointing out that gap can have an impact, but it requires consistent communication, building trust, and having workable alternatives.

“We have to involve [community members] in the organizing and the planning and the advocating for alternatives and we have to address our trauma,” Brooks said. “I’ve gotten more and more focused on the role that trauma plays inside of the cycle of violence. The state is never going to do it. We’ve got to get about the business of doing that.” 

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.