To Protect Black Joy We Must Re-Imagine Safety
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has consistently been rated as one of the most segregated cities in America and one of the worst places for Black people to live. Wisconsin imprisons Black men at the highest rate in the nation; many of them come from Milwaukee. I was raised in an overwhelmingly white suburb just a few miles away.
Living in an all-white suburb doesn’t automatically make you feel safe and certainly does not protect you from unprovoked interactions with police, but I grew up unencumbered by police presence. I never had to think about the police. In fact, I cannot recall even seeing police officers at the mall, at school, or driving by my house. Looking back now, I can see that growing up without visible police presence allowed me the freedom to express myself, find joy, and to make mistakes without traumatic or possibly deadly consequences.
Black people often don’t have the luxury of making silly mistakes as a child or young adult without dire outcomes. My lack of contact with police as a child means I can think back now with joy on all of the childhood mistakes I made. I have always felt a deep connection to water and unbeknownst to my mom, I would often ride my bike to a beautiful Lake Michigan overlook that was nestled in one of the wealthier neighborhoods in the city, a bit too far from home for a child of my age. I remember the peace and joy it brought me that I would carry into adulthood. One reason I am able to carry that joy into adulthood is that I was never confronted by the police for being in the “wrong place.”
My college years were spent at a Historically Black College and University (HBCU). Within the confines of the campus, safety was constructed communally. From cafeteria workers to staff to students, we worked together to create a community where we protected and watched out for one another, dealing with misgivings and incidents from a place of love, respect, and trust. This type of shared accountability was one the most beautiful examples of centering Blackness that I have ever experienced. Maybe it wasn’t perfect, but it was ours and we felt control over our own lives, our mistakes, and our processes of forgiveness and repair. Here again, I remember unencumbered joy that I can now see was inextricably tied to an environment of safety and trust built on the idea that Black people should be valued.
The first time in my life that I ever interacted with the police, I was over 40 years old. I was living in Philadelphia and experienced a home invasion. It was frightening and disorienting and I had no idea what to do other than call the police. The police cycled in and out of the rowhouse, trampling through rooms and leaving black oily stains where they had taken fingerprints. My roommate and I were taken to the police station where officers joked around at our expense. There was no real resolution or greater peace of mind. When I later recounted the incident to a cab driver he looked at me incredulously through the rear-view mirror and asked, “Why would you call the police? They are not going to help you.”
It is a question that had never occurred to me, but I realized then that, much like my experience in college, it was people in the neighborhood who were actually trying to keep me safe all along. They not only provided practical advice and tips on how women living alone could take precautions and avoid potentially dangerous situations, they would stop by to check on me and keep an eye on me. This is part of what a world without policing could look like for Black people.
Looking back I see that a lack of police presence has marked the safest, freest chapters in my life. It allowed me to live a childhood where I could begin to celebrate my Blackness. I was able to laugh and create incredibly beautiful memories with my extended family. Mine was a childhood full of discovery, love, and unmitigated joy. The realities of longstanding segregation, anti-Black racism, and poverty in Milwaukee did not escape me, even in my youth. In fact, it is one of the reasons I have committed my life to fighting for social justice. Imani Perry, a Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, reminds us:
“Joy is not found in the absence of pain and suffering. It exists through it. American racism is unquestionably rapacious. To identify the achievement and exhilaration in Black life is not to mute or minimize racism, but to shame racism, to damn it to hell. Blackness is an immense and defiant joy.”
Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, where systemic racism leads to disproportionate harm to Black people, and a national, multiracial movement to dismantle systems of injustice, including the call to defund the police, the vestiges of slavery are indisputable. Modern day policing as a means to control the bodies of Black people remains as one of the most violent legacies of slavery.
But we are living in an important moment to reimagine what safety looks like.
In her book Black Imagination, curator Natasha Martin calls on readers to describe a world where they are loved, safe, and valued. For me and many others like me, police have played little to no role in that space. I understand that talking about police abolition is scary. It raises moral and economic fears, but recent discussions about police abolition have given me a new awakening about policing from my own life experience. And there are fundamental questions I began to consider: Can we simply reform a system that is operating as designed and intended? Can we readily reform a system that has been built on and thrives from Black suffering and Black death and actively seeks to demolish Black joy?
I have come to believe that what we need is a positive, transformative vision of safety that is not just tearing systems down, but re-imagining and rebuilding them anew. Derecka Purnell, a human rights lawyer, asserts that “we have an opportunity to support lots of different answers to the problem of harm in society, and, most exciting, as an opportunity to reduce and eliminate harm in the first place.” This is indeed a thrilling vision, and one that we would do well to hold true to as we look beyond reform to holistically redefine what safety means for us all.