We must recognize that our safety is tied to each other
By Zach Norris, executive director of the Ella Baker Center and author of Defund Fear
On the first Tuesday in August every year since 1984, neighbors have gathered with other neighbors, with the police, and with elected officials to reclaim neighborhood safety. According to the National Night Out website, 38 million people have been affiliated with these events through the years. But this year, that number will be closer to zero.
This year, in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the National Association of Town Watch is encouraging everyone to stay home and postpone any events until October. Postponing these events—until at least October—is the right thing to do. Event organizers shouldn’t host a “community safety” event that flies in the face of COVID-19 public health and safety guidelines.
Still, I can’t help but think that if this country approached safety with public health in mind instead of the “see something say something” vision promoted by National Night Out, we would have already limited the spread of COVID-19, as well as the scourge of police violence.
A public health approach to safety recognizes that our safety is tied to each other. It is the idea that our overall community health can only ever be as good as the health of our most distressed communities. We have seen this with COVID-19 as meatpacking plants, prisons, and eldercare facilities have become centers of contagion. A public health approach to safety would empower first responders who are trained to deal with mental health issues, drug use and abuse, homelessness, and school discipline—rather than sending in armed police.
While subtle, the vision of safety promoted at National Night Out has been more grounded in fear and suspicion than in this public health orientation. Don’t get me wrong: The spirit of everyday people coming together to ensure their communities are safe is laudable. My sister and her family for many years participated in National Night Out, and as someone who has children and who, like my sister, has had my home in Oakland broken into multiple times, I understand the need to feel safe in our neighborhoods.
But the silence of National Night Out event organizers in the face of the exposure of a long history of police violence in communities of color is deafening. The event website does not mention police violence, nor police brutality, nor any statement acknowledging the ongoing trauma police have caused Black communities.
The problem is not just what has gone unsaid (that police departments have never escaped the racist culture that animated their design) but also what has been said. The main message from police to community members is “You are the eyes and ears of the police.” When police promote these messages, they tap into centuries of social conditioning that lead white people as well as people of color to believe that Black and brown people constitute a threat. An overwhelming focus on watching our neighbors with suspicion, rather than seeing them, can be deadly.
On Feb. 26, 2012, George Zimmerman, a self-described neighborhood watch captain, followed African American teenager Trayvon Martin as he walked through a gated community in Sanford, Florida. Despite clear instruction from the 911 dispatch officer that Zimmerman should not follow Trayvon, he did so anyway. When he caught up to Trayvon, an altercation ensued and Zimmerman shot and killed the teenager.
In the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin, Night Out for Safety and Liberation was born. What started as a handful of community events in a few cities has grown to include hundreds of community events in over 30 cities reimagining what safety is. At these events, we remind people that they don’t just have eyes and ears—they also have hearts, hands, and minds. We describe the myriad ways and reasons people feel unsafe, including restaurant workers who can’t put food on their own tables, and transgender women who are afraid to walk out of their homes. We also describe the many ways people contribute to community safety, that mentoring a young person, providing a job to a formerly incarcerated person, and participating on the local water or school board are all ways to contribute to community safety.
There are so many viable, effective safety solutions that are under-resourced or nearly unknown. In California’s East Bay, Restore Oakland is a new community center that demonstrates what public safety looks like by making job training, as well as restorative justice and organizing resources available to the public. In Richmond, California, Advance Peace is a highly effective gun violence prevention effort which can and should be replicated in every city in the country. 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 break cycles of poverty, addiction, and incarceration.
Ultimately, at Night Out for Safety and Liberation, in addition to pointing to viable public health approaches to a myriad of safety issues, we are also saying that it is impossible to be neutral in a society that is structurally racist. If we are not engaging in real conversations about taking real action to address the long history of racial injustice committed by police departments, then a culture of suspicion toward Black people within those same police departments will remain intact. Demagogues like Donald Trump will continue to leverage our fears in ways that distract us from the public health solutions we need to address pandemics like COVID-19 and continue to minimize the harm caused by those who are supposed to serve and protect.
This year, our hope is that people take action in their neighborhoods and at the ballot box in ways that embody the message on one of the Night Out for Safety and Liberation posters: “I don’t watch my neighbor, I see them. We make our communities safer together.”