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Building Community Safety: Practical Steps Toward Liberatory Transformation

Ejeris Dixon speaks to the need to address violence without relying on the criminal legal system.

Demonstrators from the Audre Lorde Project's "Safe Outside the System Collective" participate in a march against police brutality in October 2006. (Photo: Audre Lorde Project)

Mom, when you were growing up, did you ever call the police?

I can’t remember any time that we did.

What did you do if something violent happened?

It depended on the situation. Often we could send for the uncles, brothers, fathers, or other family members of people involved to interrupt violence. However there was this time when we had this family that lived on our block, where the husband was attacking his wife. And people were fed up, so some men in the community with standing – a minister, teacher, doctor, etc. – decided to intervene. Those men stopped by the house to let the husband know that they wouldn’t tolerate his behavior and it needed to stop.

My mom grew up in New Orleans in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Her entire life was marked by experiences of state violence and Jim Crow segregation. The police, white citizens councils and the Klan intermingled and formed the backbone of a racist political and economic system. Her experiences were not unique. Historically and currently most marginalized communities – including Black people, poor people, queer and trans people, and people with disabilities – have experienced violence and discrimination from police, emergency services and the legal system.

Just as the use of state violence against Black communities is not new, neither are the ideas of transformative justice or community accountability. Transformative justice and community accountability are terms that describe ways to address violence without relying upon police or prisons. These approaches often work to prevent violence, to intervene when harm is occurring, to hold people accountable, and to transform individuals and society to build safer communities. These strategies are some of the only options that marginalized communities have to address harm.

As a person who has survived multiple forms of violence, I know that ending state violence alone will not keep me, my family, my friends or my community safe.

The work of transformative justice can happen in a variety of ways. Some groups support survivors by helping them to identify their needs and boundaries, while simultaneously ensuring their attackers agree to these boundaries and atone for the harm they caused. Other groups create safe spaces and sanctuaries to support people who are escaping from violence. There are also community campaigns designed to educate community members on the specific dynamics of violence, how to prevent it, and what community-based programs are available.

As the powerfully inspiring movement to end anti-Black state violence continues to grow, we must ensure that our work toward community safety receives the same amount of attention and diligence. As a person who has survived multiple forms of violence, I know that ending state violence alone will not keep me, my family, my friends or my community safe. I’m excited by the campaigns that organizers are pursuing to divert money away from police departments and into community services. However, I want us to push this work one step further. I believe we can build community safety systems that will one day operate independently from the police and all government systems.

The process of building community safety poses some critical questions to our movements.

What is the world that we want?

How will we begin to define safety?

How do we build the skills to address harm and violence?

How do we create the trust needed for communities to rely on each other for mutual support?

I’d like to offer some answers to these questions in the form of principles for building community safety strategies. By acting on these principles, everyone can take steps to decrease our reliance on police and prisons.

Relationship Building

From 2005 to 2010, I had the privilege of serving as the founding program coordinator of the Safe Outside the System Collective at the Audre Lorde Project. During that time I worked alongside other queer and trans people of color living in Central Brooklyn to create a campaign to address state violence and anti-LGBTQ violence without relying on the criminal legal system. During that time I learned that the process of building community-based strategies can fundamentally reshape our ways of engaging with each other.

If and when violence occurs, it’s the people who live within the closest proximity who are most likely able to help us, and vice versa.

Violence and oppression break community ties and breed fear and distrust. At its core, the work of creating safety is to build meaningful, accountable relationships within our neighborhoods and communities. Within the S.O.S. Collective, we made it a point to do outreach in the immediate area after incidents of violence. While it often felt terrifying to talk about the work of preventing and ending violence against LGBTQ people of color, we built strong allies and had life-changing conversations.

Time and time again I’ve known people who were saved by the relationships they built. I’ve witnessed people selling drugs for survival, intervene in anti-trans violence because they had relationships with their neighbors. I know friends who’ve helped their neighbors escape from violent relationships based on the connections they have built together.

If and when violence occurs, it’s the people who live within the closest proximity who are most likely able to help us, and vice versa. Relationship building doesn’t have to involve old-school door-knocking. It can be as simple as attending community events, saying hello and introducing yourself to your neighbors or inviting your neighbors to events that you organize. It can be the act of talking to your noisy neighbor as opposed to calling the cops. It’s about the necessity of meeting the businesses and storeowners in your immediate areas and on routes that you frequently use.

This strategy is not without complications.

For many people, particularly women and gender nonconforming people, the act of engaging with strangers can open us up to harassment and even violence. At the same time these challenges shouldn’t prevent us from building relationships; they may merely shift the ways that we go about it. Attending community events is also a great way to build relationships.

Additionally we must also be cognizant of the way that class, educational privilege, and gentrification can impact relationship building. Gentrification is its own form of violence within many low-income neighborhoods. Many gentrifiers/newcomers can act fearful and do not shop within their communities, attend events, or build relationships with their neighbors. Gentrifiers/newcomers who are also movement leaders tend to create movements and strategies that are not grounded within the lived experiences of the people most impacted by violence.

While I don’t believe that we can separate ourselves from our privileges, I think we can leverage them toward justice. My educational privilege and relationships mean that I know a lot of lawyers and have knowledge about our rights during police encounters. I’ve made sure to share “know your rights” information with my neighbors, observe the cops alongside my neighbors, and given legal referrals. Through these moments I’ve been able to build stronger relationships with my neighbors and deepen trust.

Bold Small Experiments

Some of the most innovative transformative justice and community accountability projects have come from bold, small experiments. The Safe OUTside the System Collective started from the audacity of a small team of people who believed that we could prevent and intervene in violence without the police. During our weekly meetings, we discussed our experiences of violence and brainstormed responses for over a year. During these times, LGBTQ people of color were reporting physical attacks to us at least one per month, and there were two to three murders per year in Central Brooklyn.

Meanwhile the NYPD was operating like an occupying army. It was common to walk home from the subway and see officers stationed on every block or large groups of police officers walking down the street. We had no choice but to create a community safety campaign. Our campaign recruited and trained local businesses and organizations in how to recognize, prevent and intervene in violence without relying on law enforcement.

At first we had no idea how to work on this, but we researched, experimented, and talked with the business owners themselves to understand how they already addressed violence and worked with them to ensure that their strategies included LGBTQ people of color. At the time, we did not think we were doing something innovative. We just knew we needed to build new structures for our ultimate survival.

How can you practice safety? Where can you deepen your knowledge? And what unlikely allies can you recruit as learning partners?

I believe that bold, small experiments rise and fall based on two fairly simple ideas: planning and perseverance. We have to be accountable enough to continue our experiments, to measure them, to hold ourselves to high standards and to believe in them. Even within completely volunteer projects, we are using a very valuable resource: time. And it is often those of us with the least money, time and privilege who end up disproportionately putting our time into movement work. So as we continue our experiments, we need to talk about what our goals are, where we’re trying to get, what resources are needed, and how are we going to distribute those resources equitably.

Therefore the question is what can you help build? What conversations can you start to increase the safety of your community? What new structures or collaborations will you create to decrease your reliance on the criminal legal system? Perhaps you want to think about one form of violence to work on and build your knowledge from there. You could start simply by having a dinner with your friends, family and chosen family to discuss how you all can better support each other. Or you could raise the issue of police violence and harassment at your next tenants association meeting and see if there’s a way that your neighbors want to engage with each other as opposed to the police. Next, you could research ways that people can get emergency medical assistance outside of 911. The possibilities are endless.

No matter how small they are, our experiments should aspire to center the experiences of the most marginalized folks within our communities. One of the major challenges of the movements of the 1960s and 1970s was their inability to fully hold and implement an intersectional analysis. We need to work to make sure that our bold experiments are centering the experiences of Black people, people with disabilities, trans people, poor people, low-income people, undocumented people, and all marginalized people. Starting small gives us the opportunity to collectively imagine community safety responses without telling anyone to wait their turn.

Taking Time to Build Skills

In order to truly ensure safety for our communities, we also need to ensure that we have the necessary skills. One of our largest failures in this arena seems to stem from arrogance. There are times when we believe we inherently have the skills to address harm, simply because we have a strong political analysis or a strong desire to address harm. There’s a substantial distinction between having skills and learning skills, between being experts and practicing.

In activist and progressive communities, we’re accustomed to attending one training or reading one essay and then declaring ourselves leaders and educators on an issue. I believe that the notion of instant expertise is contrary to our liberatory values. Safety is not a product that we can package and market. Community safety is not a certification that we place on our resumes. We have the invitation to practice with one of our most precious resources, our lives. In a world that is already trying to kill us with a multitude of oppressive strategies, we must be deliberate and vigilant to honor where we each are in our journeys.

I’ve spent the last 10 years practicing verbal de-escalation strategies to address violence on the street, at events, and at actions and protests. I am constantly learning and growing. Every incident is different; sometimes I can reduce or diffuse conflict, and other times I fail miserably. The strategies or tactics that work in one instance can go horribly wrong in others, even under similar conditions. Intervening in violence in the moment is inherently about using nonverbal communication to read, communicate, and/or negotiate safety. With each incident I tell myself that I am developing my instincts and that by practicing I learn, despite the outcome.

We must practice community safety much as one practices an instrument or a sport: By practicing in slow, measurable and deliberate ways, we can build the knowledge we need to diffuse and address conflict within our communities.

We can also learn a great deal if we are open to engaging with people who have different politics than we do. I left the S.O.S. Collective in 2010 because it was time for new leadership, and I was ready to continue learning in other settings. I took a job at a large LGBTQ anti-violence organization that wasn’t involved with transformative justice or community accountability work. I did this intentionally and deliberately to see what I could learn from working outside my comfort zone.

When we make judgment into one of our primary organizing strategies, we reduce the trust needed to create safety.

Some of the people with the most practice working on violence are deeply embedded within the criminal legal system or other punitive structures. I’ve had enlightening conversations about trends in homophobic and transphobic violence with prosecutors. I’ve also learned about de-escalating violence from bouncers and from school counselors. I deeply wanted to learn from people who had held down more incidents than I had.

This new experience expanded my knowledge and deepened my practice. I coordinated organizers in their efforts to implement advocacy and community organizing strategies in response to more than 40 murders of queer and trans people.

I had the opportunity to refine my process developing and presenting community-organizing options to recent survivors of violence and surviving family members. It was through this intense practice that I developed a process of rapid response organizing in the aftermath of violence. I was able to use all the skills that I had developed while doing community safety campaigns and grow a deeper more nuanced understanding of organizing around trauma. The ability to work with survivors of intimate partner violence, sexual violence, anti-LGBTQ violence and police violence was invaluable as was my experience of working with survivors and organizers around the country.

I also want to acknowledge that in these times, taking time to practice can feel like a luxury. The urgency is real. We are dying. As a Black queer woman, I live and love in communities of survivors. But we will not create, implement and achieve the measured and nuanced community safety systems we deserve through shoddy and rushed attempts. Instead we will collectively weave our stories into strategies based on sharing what worked and what failed. Therefore my question to you is, what has kept you alive so far? What are the lessons and themes and patterns that you can draw from? How can you practice safety? Where can you deepen your knowledge? And what unlikely allies can you recruit as learning partners?

Spending Less Time Judging Survivors

One day, while I was working at the Audre Lorde Project, I received an email that deeply upset me. We had recently attended a march organized by a mother whose gay son had been horrifically murdered. This mother had organized the march to raise awareness about her son’s murder and was also passing out flyers that asked people to report information to the police. In response, I received this message from a critic:

“I can’t believe that you would support state based responses. Can you tell us about how this is in line with your politics?

I was incensed by the email. While I didn’t believe that the state would bring justice in this case, I believe in supporting Black mothers. I particularly believe in supporting Black mothers who are brave, proud and resilient enough to organize against homophobic violence in the face of devastating loss. I do not need to believe in or even dictate what strategies surviving family members should use. Instead, I find ways to support them that are in line with my politics because I know that just as punishment does not transform behavior, neither does judgment.

When we make judgment into one of our primary organizing strategies, we reduce the trust needed to create safety.

I know that when we say, “Don’t call the cops!” We are usually envisioning that we’re talking to privileged, college-educated, upper class, mostly white people who aren’t aware of the impact of calling the police on communities of color. I also recognize that we need to push back against our societal conditioning that tells us policing and prisons make us safer. Yet, I believe that when people of color and particularly Black people make the choice to call emergency services, it is an inherent negotiation. We come from generations of state violence. Many of us have family members in prison. Most of us have either directly experienced police violence or intimately know people who have. These are not flippant decisions. Yet when we create a culture of judgment so thick that we make it impossible for people to admit that when they have called emergency services or needed to, there are critical impacts. I’ve had many queer people of color survivors or witnesses of violence come to me for support, distraught that they called 911.

“I heard my neighbor screaming. I couldn’t figure out how to safely intervene. Was I wrong to call 911?”

When people who’ve experienced life-threatening injuries or people witnessing violence decide to call an ambulance, we must acknowledge that we have yet to build an alternative to 911. However, if we create a culture in which people feel comfortable sharing stories of the times when they called emergency services but didn’t want to, we actually learn about really crucial needs for community safety projects.

I believe that we can practice transformative justice while simultaneously reducing the harm from the state. Remembering that one of the primary goals of our work is relationship building, we must ask ourselves who wins when we shame survivors for using the options available, when all the options left are violent?

Therefore our work is in finding ways to hold both compassion and critique while also building our awareness of when to use which tool.

As a practical step I would suggest examining when and why we use judgment in our conversations with each other and whether we’re seeking to educate or support. We can reframe both education and support in nonjudgmental ways. For instance, education can include sharing tools for de-escalating conflict that a person can try to use before calling 911. We can achieve compassion without judgment when we focus on making sure that people feel heard, understood and not isolated. Compassionately discussing calling 911 with someone can sound like this:

I’m so sorry that happened. It seems like you didn’t have very many options. If it’s helpful, I’m happy to be someone you call on if you ever find yourself in that situation again.

In the end I’d like to offer these ideas as sparks for our collective imagination. To do this right we must start small, build to scale, and allow ourselves to learn from both our successes and failures.

In this piece I have discussed smaller steps toward community safety, but in order to be successful, we must connect these strategies with larger liberatory movements. We must bring these ideas and conversations into our meetings, organizations and movements. We need to take time to include within our demands and campaigns strategies to build community safety and reduce harm. Even as we act urgently to resist the state violence that is killing our communities, we must also do slow work to develop community safety and resilience.

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