A groundbreaking new vision for public safety that overturns more than 200 years of fear-based discrimination, othering, and punishment
As the effects of aggressive policing and mass incarceration harm historically marginalized communities and tear families apart, how do we define safety?
Community leader and lawyer Zach Norris lays out a radical way to shift the conversation about public safety away from fear and punishment and toward growth and support systems for our families and communities.
In order to truly be safe, we are going to have to dismantle our mentality of Us vs. Them.
By bridging the divides and building relationships with one another, we can dedicate ourselves to strategic, smart investments—meaning resources directed toward our stability and well-being, like healthcare and housing, education and living-wage jobs. This is where real safety begins.
In this book, available February 2nd, author Zach Norris provides a blueprint of how to hold people accountable while still holding them in community.
The result reinstates full humanity and agency for everyone who has been dehumanized and traumatized, so they can participate fully in life, in society, and in the fabric of our democracy.
An excerpt from Defund Fear: Safety Without Policing, Prisons, and Punishment by Zach Norris (Beacon Press, 2021).
Richard Nixon campaigned and won election with a focus on “law and order.” In so doing, he helped launch what would become the largest prison-building boom in human history.
Year after year, politicians of all stripes, especially at the state and local levels, fought to demonstrate who could come up with the toughest “tough-on-crime” attitudes, the longest sentences. . .
From Fear to Care
There are two ways to think about safety. There is a fear-based way and a care-based way. For the fear-based model, architects of anxiety cultivate and stoke the Us vs. Them mindset, based on a zero-sum mentality around the idea of scarcity: that there is not enough of the good stuff for everyone.
This fundamental divisive and adversarial mindset extends beyond politics, race (white vs. people of color), and class (rich vs. poor) into most institutions.
In housing we have landlords vs. tenants; in the law we have plaintiffs vs. defendants; in health care we have insurance companies vs. patients.
When we set two sides against each other, rather than acknowledging they are components of one whole, the result is always less safety for both sides.
Two-sided is always lopsided.
The fear-based model defines safety only in terms of being free from crime and criminals, which is limited, and limiting. This has resulted in a criminal legal system that holds close to seven million adult Americans in jail, in prison, on parole, or on probation.
With or without literal incarceration, millions of people are cast as “others” and “bad guys,” including many children who have a hard time focusing in school, many people whose anxiety and depression pushes them to consider suicide, and many people who miss a paycheck, get evicted, and have to sleep in their car.
Over the past nearly 250 years, the architects of anxiety have leveraged the Us vs. Them mentality and the zero-sum mindset to select groups of people to scapegoat, based on their race and ethnic backgrounds, their belief systems, their abilities, or sexual and gender identities.
These architects then created and steadily expanded what I call the “framework of fear,” which employs four key elements:
extensive and expensive systematic suspicion
often-permanent isolation from the rest of society
According to the architects of anxiety, this framework should keep us safe.
In fact, it has done just the opposite.
The framework of fear has led to the traumatization of not just the individuals who have been targeted, dehumanized, and criminalized, but the traumatization of entire communities, unfathomable devastation that will be decades in the reckoning.
Because trauma is as much a chief cause of violence, as the result of violence, our current fear-based system paradoxically generates more harm than it prevents, in never-ending cycles of trauma. . .
The Care-based Approach
This moment presents the opportunity to take action toward a culture of caring and policies of caring.
We need to shift our focus from individual criminals and what qualifies as crimes, to what actually causes most suffering and damage.
The real threats to our safety are not coming from a few bad apples; they simultaneously come from powerful massive institutions and “-isms” (racism, capitalism) that we all have a hand in upholding and from within our own families and communities.
The care-based approach asks how do we care for ourselves and each other so that we all can be safe.
A new care-based model of safety can replace deprivation, suspicion, punishment, and isolation with resources, relationships, accountability, and participation, what taken together I call a “culture of care.”
A culture of care prevents many harms from happening in the first place, by investing in a social safety net (resources), by building our capacity to relate to one another across difference (relationships), and by increasing our sense of “skin in the game” with more vibrant engagement on every level, within neighborhoods, and within our democracy and society (participation).
Care-based safety also means we address harms in ways that hold people accountable and bring about healing (accountability).
It means we tackle all the harms going unaddressed by the current system: on the one end of the spectrum, the really huge harms perpetrated by huge institutions, over history, and on the other end of the spectrum, the interpersonal harms like domestic violence and sexual abuse.
Where There’s A Will There’s A Way
In terms of paying for the shift from fear to care, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Much of the billions that we currently spend each year on the framework of fear, incarceration in particular, can be reallocated and used as investments in programs and services that keep us healthy and safe.
A tax on the rich that merely matches the rate that was in place from 1913 until 1982 (70 percent for the highest tax bracket) also can be partially allocated to a social safety net that benefits everyone.
Despite all the talk about “public safety,” there is very little public in our safety system.
We need holistic solutions to ensure our communities have the safety and security necessary to thrive. A care-based model of safety includes all the things that create and maintain stability and well-being on the level of the individual, the family, the community.
The care-based approach gives all young people the opportunity to become responsible, engaged, and empathetic participants in their communities.
Safety is not tied to our capacity to watch our neighbours, but rather based on our capacity to truly look out for one another.
There is no doubt in my mind that we are safer when we act together than when we let ourselves be divided.
Excerpted from Defund Fear: Safety Without Policing, Prisons, and Punishment by Zach Norris (Beacon Press, 2021).
Zach Norris (see him speak in the video below) is the executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which creates campaigns related to civic engagement, violence prevention, juvenile justice, and police brutality, with a goal of shifting economic resources away from prisons and punishment and towards economic opportunity.
He is also the co-founder of Restore Oakland and Justice for Families, both of which focus on the power of community action.
He graduated from Harvard and took his law degree from New York University.
Connect with him at zachnorris.com
“We can’t heal harm in isolation.
We can’t heal harm by ourselves.
It’s going to take a collective effort
in order to undo long history of trauma.”