What does safety mean to us?
“Mass shootings happen in the U.S. with depressing regularity,” Saeed Ahmed wrote in an NPR article that counted at least 246 mass shootings since 2022 began — a tally that comes from the Gun Violence Archive, where you can view every incident plotted on an interactive map. This country ended 2021 with 692 mass shootings and 2020 with 610. Visually, this looks like the cover of The New York Times’ Sunday review section last month, the design a repetition of the line, “Authorities said the gunman was able to obtain the weapon legally.”
This June, March For Our Lives marched in Washington, DC and asked, “What will it take to create safe communities?” In their policy agenda, they state that “Violence is a complex and layered issue, but it is undeniable that the root causes of much of the violence in the United States lie in poverty, marginalization, exclusion, and glorification of guns in our culture.”
White supremacist violence occurs in instances of acute violence like the mass shootings that happened in a grocery store in East Buffalo in May. And it occurs as chronic violence in intentional, systemic disinvestment in communities of color, particularly in Black communities. As Rebekah Williams, Co-Founder of Food for the Spirit and the Buffalo Food Equity Network, said, “There is not just one solution to the issues of racism and food apartheid in Buffalo. There needs to be policies created to address issues of historic disinvestment and racism in the food system.”
These words echo what Zachari Curtis, Operations Director at Dreaming Out Loud, told the Catalogue in April. As a local, Black-led farm and food hub, they “(work) with a population that’s severely generationally under-capitalized and facing economic attacks.” It is about equity, but it isn’t only about equity. In institutional spaces, exclusion and barriers to access tend to happen in the fine print of “eligibility or non-eligibility.” Getting to the root causes of violence also necessitates interrogating our understanding of what violence looks like, and acknowledging that historic and ongoing disinvestment in working-class communities of color is violence in the fine print.
Though the pandemic has accelerated our reckoning with an ongoing history of state, carceral, economic, and systemic violence, and their very public relationships with interpersonal violence, we need to keep asking ourselves, “How do we want to live with each other?” In May, we spoke with Tenants and Workers United about their current campaign for affordable housing in the primarily Latino and low-income community of Arlandria. As Elsa Riveros, their Community Organizer, explained, in addition to the threat of mass displacement, it’s also about how our living conditions affect our self-esteem and how fighting disinvestment requires us to find our own value in our voices and stories.
What does it mean to describe everything — from mass shootings to food apartheid to medical debt to encampment clearings to the criminalization of abortion to unsafe conditions inside the D.C. Jail to over 1 million COVID-related deaths — as “American phenomena”? What are the realities we believe we have control over? Here, we offer the words of Avodah‘s New Orleans Program Director, Shosh Madick, who spoke out against the death penalty at an interfaith press conference in April.
“It seems very human to believe violence can result in liberation, though we (have) yet to see that actually function. I understand the inclination to confuse Justice and control. It (is) a tempting offer in our very human world, but I know true justice is possible. A justice that is sweet, connective, that acknowledges we might be individual worlds but we are bound to each other. Our job collectively, Jewish or not, is to look around and question: What systems have we set up and is it time to leave?”
To grapple with the complex intersections of violence,we need to move from a narrative of individualism to a narrative of collective responsibility. What does safety truly mean to us? How do we create spaces for joy? How can we grieve?
“Whether we have the “right” words or not, we do not have the luxury of saying nothing,” Samantha Wetzel, Executive Director of Common Good City Farm, wrote in a letter about the Buffalo shooting. In this spirit, we invite you to share your visions and definitions of safety, just as we share the words and work of our nonprofit partners who are actively reshaping our region. Together, we must drive toward a more nuanced understanding of the boundaries we establish between ourselves and others, the support system we need to build with each other, and the ways in which we can flourish if we feel safe.
Community-Rooted Public Safety
“We saw a lot of changes happen as a result of necessity during the pandemic that illustrated that we don’t need to be as punitive as we have been,” Patrice Sulton, Executive Director of the DC Justice Lab, told the Catalogue during a panel for our Give Local Gala in May. “We’ve seen changes to the number of people that we incarcerate without seeing a corresponding rise in crime, and so we know that we have people who are being subjected to arrest and incarceration who don’t need to be there.”
Understanding the root causes of violence is imperative to addressing it — we must embrace complexity and nuance in our fight for real safety. “The impact of gun violence on the lives of BIPOC communities is devastating, but so too is the over-reliance on a heavily punitive criminal legal system to address violence.” This statement comes from a Racial Equity Framework for Gun Violence Prevention report that the DC Justice Lab helped to produce, alongside March For Our Lives and other organizations. It also notes that, nationwide, the firearm homicide victimization rate is 11 times higher for Black people than for white people.
“When people dismiss abolitionists for not caring about victims or safety, they tend to forget that we are those victims, those survivors of violence,” Derecka Purnell wrote inThe Atlantic. Meaningful solutions come from the community. In DC, 94% of people sentenced for felonies, and more than 90% of people incarcerated in our local jails, are Black. In our narratives of criminalization and victimization, who are we focusing on? “If we are committed to eliminating this harm long-term,” Purnell proposed, “then society must offer quality housing, food, day care, transit, employment, debt cancellation, and free college so that people will not be stuck in unhealthy relationships because they need food, money, health insurance, or a place to live.”
In November 2020, then-Executive Director of Amara Legal Center, Llamilet Gutierrez, spoke about their work providing free legal representation and support to individuals impacted by sex trafficking or involved in sex work at our Community Changemakers panel about power-based violence. Gutierrez shared that their clients were “no longer able to access resources from their jobs and now (were) in a position where they need legal representation.”
““Safety” means more than the absence of harm.” This is the bedrock for a new, shared legislative agenda for community safety in DC, led by the DC Justice Lab, National Reentry Network For Returning Citizens, and Harriet’s Wildest Dreams, among others. The safety we collectively want to explore can be, as Mariame Kaba and Eva Nagao define, “the ability to bring, be, and move through the world as your full self.“
Away From the “I” and Towards the “We”
Talking about community is a lot easier than building it. A culture of individualism has been ubiquitous in the United States for some time, but it is this shift in mindset that we must make to answer our question of how we want to live with each other. Here, we take inspiration from the harm reduction work of organizations like HIPS, who wrote in a statement:
“Harm reduction was originally developed as a public health approach to drug use in the 1980′s. The approach was primarily created by drug users, as well as HIV/AIDS activists and social service workers. Harm reduction was particularly important at the time because of the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS and the criminalization of drug users that prevented so many from accessing clean injection equipment and quality healthcare. Harm reduction incorporates a spectrum of strategies, from safer use to managed use to abstinence to meeting drug users “where they are,” addressing conditions of use along with the use itself. This approach centers agency, dignity, and wellbeing of drug users. As a public health theory, it acknowledges drug use as a fact and seeks to minimize risks and dangers associated with said use.” (Emphases ours)
Drug use, as well as other isolating circumstances like debt and illness, exist alongside, and intertwine with, the structural oppressions that disproportionately impact people of color. That these circumstances are socially isolating should be a point of interrogation to begin with. The non-judgmental philosophy that HIPS uses — as do other Catalogue nonprofit partners — shifts the responsibility of care from the individual to the collective. If we are to implement long-term and effective solutions, then we need to cultivate healing, justice, accountability, and safety on the level of ecosystems.
In the words of Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS), “Who are you accountable to and how have you built sustained connection in your community in order to achieve liberation?“
Currently, we live in a city where white households are estimated to have, on average, net assets of 81 times more than Black households and 22 times more than Latino households; and where medical debt in predominantly minority neighborhoods is nearly four times as common as in white neighborhoods. Though some might remember the local economy “booming” in pre-pandemic times, even in 2019 that economic growth was not shared. Using Census data, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reported that “Approximately one in seven District residents, or 90,500 people, earned poverty-level incomes in 2019.” 18.9% of DC’s children — the vast majority of whom are Black — lived in poverty, well above the city’s overall poverty rate.
Theoretically and empirically, higher inequality is associated with higher crime and lower social trust. The narrative cannot be about individual action, reward, and consequence. As Kymone Freeman, cofounder of We Act Radio, told DaQuan Lawrence in The Hilltop, “In our nation’s political capital it seems community members have to make the changes because the wealthy know our circumstances are deteriorating.”
On the eco-system level, CASS works to strengthen community capacity by using the Transformative Justice framework, which holds as its goals, “Safety, healing, and agency for survivors; accountability and transformation for people who harm; community action, healing, and accountability, and transformation of the social conditions that perpetuate violence — systems of oppression and exploitation, domination and state violence.”What could flourish in this vision of DC?
At the Catalogue, we find hope and inspiration on this idea of safety from our nonprofit partners like CASS, who engages men in Rethinking Masculinity and trains residents in community-based solutions to gender-based harassment and assault; like HIPS, who runs a 24-hour crisis hotline and offers peer support groups, safer sex materials, overdose education and reversal, and more; like Tzedek DC, who closes the justice gap for low-income residents by providing legal help with debt-related problems; like the DC Justice Lab, who merges community organizing and empirical research to advance public safety solutions; and like the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts, a community built on love and support, who develops and promotes healing practices for adults living with cancer and their caregivers, and who believes that “healing is always possible even when curing is not.”
In their visions for our city, we see community and public safety as a shared responsibility. Safety truly does mean more than an absence of harm. Who are you accountable to? What connections are you building and sustaining in your community? Collectively, let’s keep asking ourselves and each other, “How are we keeping us safe?“