By Rajean Hoilett
The public displays of violence targeting Black and Indigenous people have fueled a movement demanding the complete divestment from and the abolition of police, prisons and all other forms of carceral punishment. The rallying call has become so loud that there is nowhere in the world you can go to escape this conversation. Despite the mark that this movement is leaving on our culture, elected leaders across so-called Canada have avoided any real responses to the growing support for a police and prison free world.
In conversations with people organizing within grassroots movements across the city, we have often come to the question of where we go from here. What more can we do to ensure that we see tangible results that ensure Black and Indigenous people are protected? How do we move past responding to the grotesque acts of violence that continue to take loved ones from our community? How do we demonstrate our humanity to governments that seem more concerned with preserving profit over our lives?
From resistance to abolition
Organizing with the Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project‘s We Keep Each Other Safe initiative, these questions have been top of mind. I have reflected on the shifts and transformations within Toronto’s direct action community with the introduction and rise of a new wave of organizations taking on the task of holding truth to power. Within these movements, people have already started the essential and challenging work of abolition. These revolutionaries live in a world already not dependent on the ideas that have given rise to policing, criminalization and punishment.
During this summer, one of the most eye-opening moments came while I sat with some Not Another Black Life organizers and volunteers on a friend’s lawn, eating fruit. We discussed one of the many actions they were leading and planning in response to persistent displays of state violence. The action came with an expected level of risk, and we were talking about what we should do to prioritize the safety of everyone participating. I immediately fell into the tactics that we’ve used in the past, counting how many marshals we would need, what kind of training they should receive, and determining who should be the police liaison. One of the organizers pushed back. They argued that we should not treat people like sheep. In traditional roles of safety planning within actions, we often recreate power imbalances in community spaces. Instead, we should trust that when we all have the information, skills and resources available to us, we can share the responsibility of caring for those around us. Like most of the work taken on by Not Another Black Life, the approach is informed by a radical, queer Black feminist politic that redistributes the power away from people who consider themselves organizers. Understanding that we as organizers do not liberate people – people liberate themselves.
At various parts throughout the action, we stopped to share what we knew about the threat of police violence, personal and community safety, and the actions’ intentions. People took hold of the action to keep the space safe and transform the gathering into something more beautiful than when it started. By the end of the action, community members participating in the action took control and shared their stories.
This thinking has guided the way we have been organizing the We Keep Each Other Safe project. Many of the discussions surrounding the movement to defund the police have focused on who should replace them. As someone who has reluctantly studied social work, I am critical of any actions that aim to replace police with social and mental health workers. I am not alone in voicing these concerns. These institutions are still harmful and often collaborate with carceral systems to uphold power and domination. Right now, the police and elected representatives are scrambling to figure out how to quell our demands for abolition with minor reforms that maintain the status quo. Part of that response is figuring out who to parachute into our communities under the veil of community safety.
Building community power
It is essential that our organizing uses all of the tools available to disrupt the status quo. Through direct action, we have raised the demand for abolition, and through direct action, we can empower everyone by the end of this transition. Already most of the transformative work to keep our communities safe happens within our community, in barbershops, drop-in centres, family-owned restaurants, on basketball courts and in skate parks. We do not always have the resources or information available to us to address issues that arise, leaving many people with no option but to turn to the police.
Through the We Keep Each Other Safe project, we are trying to ensure that we all have the resources and information to participate in this process of community safety. We are no longer focused on petitioning city councils or creating displays of our humanity in the streets to encourage police to treat us humanely.
Instead, we are focused on building capacity and focusing on the needs of the most marginalized and targeted people within our community. We are starting to offer training on issues including, but not limited to, suicide intervention, mental health support, and overdose prevention and response. These training sessions are online, and we know that we need to supplement this with more accessible information. Already people are coming forward to offer other resources in more expansive mediums like zines that will help us get broader participation. We are building a database to connect with resources in our communities that can offer support and training. The fact that we are not the only people doing this work is a testament to how important this moment is.
Abolition is not only possible; it is happening now in real-time in communities across the world and right here because we keep each other safe.
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