Despite historically low and still largely falling crime rates, most Americans do not feel safe. Black parents worry about the risks their children face from interactions with police. All kinds of parents live in fear of yet another school shooting. Women fear being harmed in their workplaces, with domestic workers, restaurant workers and janitorial workers facing heightened threats. Queer folks, especially transwomen, are increasingly in danger, while people with disabilities continue to be victimized at higher rates. People whose immigration status is uncertain fear being separated from their children and deported.
Not to mention the threat of losing one’s home, or needing medical care but not being able to afford it, and the looming prospect of financial collapse. The spread of the coronavirus threatens a global pandemic but the President has attempted to cut the budget of the Center for Disease Control. Toxins in our water, food, air…the climate. There are a lot of potential harms that drive our anxiety.
In explaining how crime could be falling and anxiety rising, it is important to mark the distinction between crime and harm. From among all the things that actually harm us, a mere sliver is addressed by our criminal legal system — a term I prefer over “criminal justice system,” because calling it a “justice system” inaccurately links it to justice, fairness, healing, and safety.
Much of what people go to prison for are actions that were not harmful to anyone. Meanwhile, there are so many actions that are actually harmful that we’re not considering because the current criminal legal system can’t or won’t apply to them. In focusing so much on crimes — defined as what’s against the law — we have increasingly lost sight of morality.
The True Perpetrators of Harm
What about the pharmaceutical industry’s denial of the addictive nature of opioids? What about Federal Drug Administration’s approval of the advertising of those drugs despite evidence of the addictive nature of the drug themselves? How about the shamefully greedy behavior of massive corporations, making a handful of “banksters” and shareholders richer and richer at the expense of the other 99 percent of humans? What about predatory lenders who caused almost one million people to lose their homes? What about contaminating an entire city’s water supply?
There’s a serious disconnect between actual harm and crimes. The worst perpetrators of harm, in terms of number of people hurt, tend to be mighty and complex institutions like corporations and governments; the very entities least likely to be held accountable within the current “justice” system.
These powerful entities then back politicians that scapegoat and dehumanize entire communities, calling them thieves and thugs, welfare queens and wastrels. When we allow these architects of anxiety to distract us from the real threats, we decrease our societal capacity to hold them — and their policies and institutions — accountable for the things that actually threaten and harm us.
HE Keeps Us Safe?
In avoiding politicians that distract, divide, and drive our anxiety, we should watch out for what I call the “he keeps us safe” lie.
The “he keeps us safe” lie is the lie of abusers. In an abusive home, the person abusing someone else often tells that person to not trust anyone but them. Girlfriends, co-workers, the person’s family are not to be trusted. The abuser limits the contacts and connections of the person being abused in an effort to conceal the harm happening behind closed doors. Our criminal court system similarly narrows our vision toward crime while not addressing larger more persistent and consistent harms. At the level of government, architects of anxiety running on the logic of “he keeps us safe” tell us not to trust our neighbors too. They say ‘don’t trust your neighbor around the block, don’t trust your neighbor at the border, don’t trust your neighbors in distant lands. They will cause your downfall. I will keep you safe.’ Meanwhile, they erode the infrastructure designed to keep us safe from worker protections to the environmental protection agency (that would keep our air clean and our water safe to drink) to the Center for Disease Control. Taken to its logical conclusion, the ‘he keeps us safe’ lie is the lie of dictators who ignore checks and balances, consolidate control, and help their friends evade accountability.
Public Health, Not Punishment
Instead of falling for the head fake, we should remember that we keep us safe. The nature and scale of the problems we face — from climate change to inequality — will require collaboration to solve. The only way we can hope to take care of public safety is if we take care of the public.
This means adopting a public health approach to public health issues like school discipline, drug abuse, and homelessness rather than criminalizing children and people in need of support. This means reinforcing the social safety net, a critical part of our safety and security infrastructure. It means finding avenues of real accountability for big corporations as well everyday people committing crimes on the street.
There are so many solutions all around us that as yet are under-resourced or nearly unknown. Restore Oakland is a new community safety center that demonstrates what public safety looks like when it is done in the interest of the public. Advance Peace is a highly effective gun-violence prevention effort that should be replicated in every city in the country. When people call for help, we need a more robust set of first responders. For example, someone having a mental health crisis should get appropriate care. Universal healthcare and childcare are public safety interventions that would help stem the spread of illnesses such as the coronavirus while also providing families with the support they need to help their children break cycles of poverty, addiction, and incarceration. While that level of change won’t happen overnight, mandatory paid sick days for all workers would be a good start.
Restorative justice is a key vehicle for holding people accountable while holding them in community. It can be used in homes, workplaces, and the halls of power. It can decrease the us versus them dynamic prevalent in our courts and driven by the architects of anxiety. It can increase our capacity to come together to address underlying causes of harm and short-circuit cycles of poverty and incarceration. By bringing people together to solve thorny problems, it can build our democratic muscle.
Ultimately, just getting to baseline levels of safety may require a complete overhaul of our democracy.
Zach Norris is the Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, author of We Keep Us Safe: Building Secure, Just, and Inclusive Communities, and co-founder of Restore Oakland, a community advocacy and training center that will empower Bay Area community members to transform local economic and justice systems and make a safe and secure future possible for themselves and for their families.
Zach’s book WE KEEP US SAFE, a new vision of a care-based strategy for public safety that overturns more than 200 years of fear-based discrimination, has been praised by Forbes, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe, and Kirkus Reviews.