Lies on Safety

It is spring of 2008, and I am giving a workshop on prison industrial complex abolition at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. We start by asking participants, “What makes you feel safe?” There is a wide range of answers, from “my friends” to “having healthcare” to “self-defense classes” to “knowing my parents could support me in an emergency.” No one mentions the police or prisons.
Four years later, with capitalism in global crisis, fear, anxiety, and suffering have become the norm. Even for many who had previously escaped declining wages and social benefits, the disastrous impacts of ongoing wars on terror, drugs, “gangs,” and unions is harder and harder to avoid. So, this year I am sitting again with the question: what really makes me safe? What types of relationships and institutions do we need to create genuinely healthy and powerful communities? And what stops us from building exactly that?
Of the many stories that keep our current economic and political inequality in place, I am thinking about the two greatest lies we are told about safety: 1) That holding on to privatized wealth is how we ensure our future security, and 2) That punishing people in the US and abroad with state violence will make our communities and our country safe.
What happens if we think of these as two versions of the same lie? How can I challenge the ingrained lessons I’ve received since birth to horde my money and support the expansion of war, imprisonment, and policing worldwide?
As rich people, we are usually shielded from seeing, let alone experiencing the harshest impacts of our economic system.  We get access to the best public services, from roads to schools to library to trains. Where public services are not available or convenient enough, we buy private healthcare, education, transportation, internet, and housing. As people who currently or will one day have wealth, we are strongly encouraged to keep the resources we have for ourselves, so that we can provide access to these services for ourselves and our loved ones, so we can retire with security, so we can travel, or get Master’s degrees, or have children.
This brutal individualism teaches us that good people provide for ourselves and our families, no matter what setbacks or barriers we face—a familiar myth of pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps. We are also actively taught the converse: that sharing money is full of risk, irresponsibility, and danger. We are taught that we are individually responsible for what we have, or what we don’t.
When we zoom out, we see that these lies have created record profits teetering against the rise of record poverty. Even for many young people with wealth, we’ve found ourselves in job searches that drag on, in relationships that include violence; while the lies we’re told about safety tend to hurt us less, they hurt us still.
For the most part, we avoid the harshest punishment of the prison industrial complex (PIC), but it still shapes our experiences. The PIC tells us not to think about social, economic, and political problems, but to focus on individuals and their “choices.” Rather than address widespread poverty, patriarchy, and racism, we harass, arrest, and disappear poor people and people of color into the prison system, then send most of them home with no support. The PIC disguises the root causes of the harm that happens in our communities, from mental health problems to homelessness to interpersonal violence, by blaming individuals for collective problems.
This doesn’t make us safe from illness, from poverty, from being alone, from experiencing harm. And if we don’t have the money, white skin, or male gender identity to get out of the way, it inflicts violence both subtle and extreme on a daily basis.
In fact, the PIC exacerbates harm in our communities and destabilizes them by creating mistrust and removing people that we rely on to provide emotional and economic support. It limits our ability to imagine, let alone implement, new ways of organizing society, and takes desperately needed resources from the programs that can actually build safe communities. It also forcefully maintains our current economic and political system by severely, even preemptively, punishing political dissent—how else can we understand the millions of dollars police forces have spent attacking Occupy sites nationwide, or the millions more Wall Street corporations donated to police departments as the encampments gathered steam?
So what are our alternatives?
Extreme individualism lies at the core of both the PIC and our unjust economic system, and radical plans for our collective futures will be required to dismantle both. At this time of supposed austerity, we need to imagine not only stemming the tide, but creating culture, programs, and practices that are designed and sustained by communities themselves toward building healthy communities that have the resources they need to thrive. Some great models for this exist at both small and large scales: rent parties, childcare collectives, sliding scale services, community gardening, building and funding strong grassroots organizations for systemic change, and tax justice campaigns are just a few of the things we can start doing right now.  Like our friends at Bolder Giving, we can choose to let more and more of our time, energy, and money go to build a collective future for all of us, and trust that strong community will care for us, too.
Feminists of color have been leading the charge in developing a different kind of collective alternative: that of responding to interpersonal harm collectively without using the state, providing services and coming up with best practices around community-based forms of addressing intimate violence. In just one example, The Storytelling and Organizing Project, a collaboration between more than a dozen organizations around the country, provides stories of everyday people who collectively intervened in harm.  Soon they will publish a book of strategies and reflections to help more people do the same.
While we practice putting alternatives into place, we need to fight collectively for the world we want by getting money out of military, prison, and police spending and into life-affirming programs.
The lies about our safety have been specifically tailored to resonate with us, to ensure our complicity in maintaining this system. Extricating ourselves from those lies is easier said than done, but we can do it together. Having truth on our side is no small thing.