The city of Davis, California, was recently shaken up following a spate of stabbings — three over the course of five days, beginning on April 27 — which left two dead and one severely injured. Davis is a small, affluent, college town where no one expects “bad” things to happen, even though they sometimes do. Due to that illusion of safety, it’s not uncommon to see children freely roaming neighborhood streets, or to find many a front door unlocked. But this latest violation of public space left people on edge.
The presumed perpetrator — a former University of California Davis student — has been arrested, yet I remain troubled by the widespread emphasis on greater police and security presence as key mechanisms for generating safety. The university amped up its surveillance cameras and enlisted campus police from across the UC system, in addition to city police and private security officers; even the campus Safe Ride program was coordinated by city and campus police. The student association, while critical of the administration’s choice to not pivot to remote instruction, implicitly reasserted carceral rhetoric when noting in a letter to the campus community that students felt unsafe and did not wish to return to campus “until the suspect(s) [were] apprehended.”
In the face of the egregious and spectacular violence of serial murder, it is difficult to imagine outside of policing and prisons. As I reacquainted myself with Zoom teaching and heard from anxious students, I too confronted a complicated mix of feelings. I was relieved to hear of the perpetrator’s arrest, but also felt angry as I thought about the police’s role in creating violence, fear and insecurity, often in the name of “safety.” George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, and many others lost their lives because of police officers who deemed their Black bodies a threat. The most recent data from the Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board indicates that, as in the rest of California, Black drivers are five times more likely to be stopped for traffic violations by Davis police than white drivers.
The wisdom of abolitionist feminisms is particularly relevant here. As abolitionist writers such as Mariame Kaba and Andrea J. Ritchie point out, the police — and carceral solutions emphasizing crime and punishment more broadly — fail to generate safety. They do not prevent violence, nor do they enable healing from violence. To the contrary, grassroots movements have historically taken on much of this work.
Feminist self-defense training, for example, teaches women and trans people not only how to ward off attackers but empowers them to feel entitled to public space. In the 1970s, feminist anti-violence activists provided secret shelter to women fleeing domestic abuse. The domestic shelters we know today grew out of these underground ones. In 1979, the Combahee River Collective, a Black feminist group, drew attention to the racialized and gendered nature of a serial killer who was targeting Black women in Boston, Massachusetts, when police failed to make these connections. More recently, people have been developing alternatives to calling the police, such as those documented by Creative Interventions’ StoryTelling & Organizing Project.
In an informal survey of some of my students, I learned that while many were sheltering-in-place, holding out for the perpetrator’s arrest, they were also offering care and support to one another in a number of ways: sharing locations and updates, checking in on friends, traveling in groups, ridesharing, and holding space to grieve and process. They were, in other words, doing a lot of safety building work, exemplifying UC Davis Cops Off Campus’s assertion to students that “true community lies within the shared experiences, grievances, and struggles you and your peers face.”
Safety is a long-term and structural issue. Criminalization and prosecution — which respond to violent acts after the fact — do not generate safety. Affordable housing, health care and education create safety. Well-funded social services create safety. Flourishing public spaces create safety. Davis’s high cost of living played no small part in the recent stabbings. The unhoused population in Davis, who did not have the means to shelter-in-place, were particularly vulnerable: Two of the stabbing victims were unhoused.
As people grieve, mourn and process these events, I’m also hoping they will heed the call of abolitionist feminisms that emphasize care, community accountability and mutual interdependence over carceral solutions. I am weary of the possibility of increased policing and surveillance on campus, given the risks this may pose, particularly to Black and Brown students. The memory of the 2011 pepper spray incident — when campus police pepper sprayed students seated on pavement during a tuition hike protest — is still fresh, too.
The perpetrator may be behind bars, but Davis isn’t suddenly “safe.” Was it ever? Safety here, as in other places across the country, requires a lot of structural change and a ton of creative imagination.
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