Despite running as a “law and order” candidate, the President is using his power to grant clemency to a small number of individuals for overwhelmingly corrupt reasons. Ever since the Senate failed to impeach the president, he seems more emboldened to punish enemies and reward friends. He punishes those he doesn’t like via tweets, executive actions and/or firings. He rewards those he does like through sweetheart deals and manipulation of the Department of Justice to let off his rich, famous friends serving time for crimes like perjury, racketeering and tax fraud.
How might Democrats distinguish themselves from the President on this issue? Should we have a single-issue-focused question on “criminal justice reform” or the role of the Department of Justice? While I have worked for over twenty years on criminal justice reform, I don’t think that is the answer. At root are actually much larger questions such as “what is democracy? And how do we achieve safety?
With anxiety at historic highs, the key question is who will keep us safe? There are two worldviews in contention come November. One worldview is 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. 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. They also let off those who are responsible for both institutional and interpersonal harms. Down-trodden people don’t care that Trump lets off people accused of harm as long as he keeps them safe.
The other worldview recognizes that democracy requires collaboration, that the scope of problems we face — -from climate change to inequality — -require people coming together. The truth is that ‘we keep us safe.’
In order to achieve public safety, we have to 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. 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 politicians that seek to distract and divide.
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.
Voters being driven by fear and worried for their safety may be lost in the policy intricacy of single issues, even on an issue as important as what kind of healthcare system we have. Ultimately, distinctions must be drawn for a democratic candidate to emerge and those distinctions are important. But whoever is still standing come November, must be able to speak to how we get to safety. If that candidate can’t map the fundamental lie of would-be-dictators against the promise of real safety and democracy, it won’t be “four more years” of fear and corruption. It may be much longer still.
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.