With the 2022 midterm election just days away, the Movement for Black Lives has called for greater attention to public safety and engaging communities around proactive measures to keep people safe instead of fear-mongering about allegedly rising crime. Media reporting and political posturing around crime have given a sense of impending doom without little discussion of possibilities for creating safer alternatives.
Recent findings from Pew Research noted that there has not been an apparent increase in violent crime recently. But Pew noted that murder rose during the pandemic. Still, the rate remains lower than in prior years.
Crime means a lot of different things to a different groups of people, as does what it takes to be safe. The Movement for Black Lives sees the upcoming midterm election as an opportunity to talk courageously with voters about public safety and what strategies can be taken to keep people safe.
Dr. Amara Enyia, public policy expert and a policy and research coordinator for the Movement for Black Lives, shared with NewsOne ways that campaigns and candidates should engage with voters about public safety instead of simply fearmongering. Enyia also said that Black communities need candidates willing to “make bold decisions” to impact people’s lives in a positive way and who are committed to fighting for longer-term change.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
NewsOne: Voters are bombarded with constant coverage of rising crime. How should candidates and elected officials talk about public safety?
Enyia: Far too often, public safety is used as a political tool, a political ploy to garner support, rather than to accurately convey what the landscape is when it comes to public safety. When you actually engage in the organizing process —we find that communities are not defining safety simply in the terms of police and police infrastructure— you can actually get into the layers of what needs to happen in those communities to create safety.
Often organizations that are doing that frontline, community-centered organizing work will tell you safety is many other things. It comes from stable housing. It comes from access to income. It comes from adequate infrastructure. It comes from not being exposed to public health hazards. It comes from access to education; it comes from so many other things.
When we talk to communities, this is how safety is defined. And it’s why in our advocacy, we consistently talk about the investments that are necessary to create safety, to be proactive about creating safety. We actually need to be talking much more about what kinds of investments we’ll be making communities that create actual safety for people.
NO: Did the Movement for Black Lives miss a window after 2020 for engaging black communities around defund?
Enyia: Absolutely not. In fact, it was largely because of grassroots organizations and communities across the country in response to the uprisings and after the uprisings, and 2020 that defund even became a national conversation and, more specifically, that there was attention paid to how much money and resources are going into policing versus how much is actually going into communities. As a result of the mobilizing that these community organizations, grassroots organizations did. After 2020. You have many more groups that are actually looking at city budgets and asking questions.
People are actually asking questions about how money is being spent. And is it the wisest to be spending billions and billions of dollars on police and police infrastructure when we have these other areas that are critical to a high quality of life that has been consistently defunded over decades? That’s a question that is now front and center in ways that perhaps it was not before. And I think that that’s a testament to this push after 2020.
NO: Without readily available alternatives in many communities, some Black voters do see value in having a police presence. How do you talk about this issue with people who feel as if they don’t have other options?
Enyia: The job of an organizer is not to tell other people what’s good for them and to tell other people what opinions they should have. The job of an organizer is first to understand, to listen and to understand the community that you’re working in, so that they can inform you about what it is that their needs are. And then, we can organize collectively to advance that agenda. It’s layers to the conversation.
So yes, there are many dialogues that occur where people articulate a need or a desire for police presence, that should not be something that people try to hide or run away from. It happens, especially with our elders in the communities. They are speaking to a desire for safety and security. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Our job is to start now asking more probing questions about their lives, asking questions about how they feel when they walk down the street. How do they feel at night if the streetlights are not functioning? And when you engage honestly and openly in those kinds of conversations with residents, you can get beneath the layer of just police presence, and you’ll find that there’s a lot more that creates the kind of security and stability and quality of life than police presence. And that’s the kind of work that we should, that we should be committed to.
I do want to say that there are alternatives that are being developed in communities where communities are engaging in kind of mutual aid, collective wellness, and collective well-being work. Groups are banding together to monitor, and watch over their communities, to have a presence on corridors that may have been problematic. It’s important to make sure that we’re not just saying there’s no alternatives to police in many communities. That may be the case for some, but it’s important to lift up where communities are actually getting out in front of the issue and building their own networks of care and safety.