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In Donald Trump’s America, the word “freedom” has been appropriated by the far Right to justify a reckless disregard for the common good, and the idea of safety has been equated with more guns and more militarized policing, both by law enforcement and by rogue civilian militias.
For those of us who aspire to an equitably shared multiracial democracy, freedom and safety require, at minimum, dominion over your own body and responsibility for the well-being of the larger community, including those with less power and fewer resources.
That blending of personal and communal well-being has been at the heart of Night Out for Safety and Liberation (NOSL), an annual, national event initiated nine years ago by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights—which has for 25 years organized to shift resources away from prisons and punishment and reinvest in our communities.
NOSL was our response to the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American boy who was killed by a Florida neighborhood watch captain. The purpose of this yearly event is to reimagine safety as dependent on community, and centered on health rather than on punishment. It is held on the first Tuesday in August every year and organized as an alternative to the police-centered National Night Out to redefine how we can create safety and joy in our communities without policing. Since its inception, NOSL has spread across the country, with more than 50 events held this year to redefine safety centered on the power of community, not cops.
Just a few weeks ago, I joined more than 500 people at Oakland’s Josie de la Cruz Park to celebrate that alternate vision for public safety at the 2022 NOSL. There was music and face painting, food and workshops, free books and diapers, and a drag show. Unlike the police-centric National Night Out, which pushes a narrative of “police-community partnerships” as the pathway to community safety, NOSL models how we can be together in secure and supportive communities.
But underlying it all was the profound understanding of how that vision is endangered in today’s America. Some of those threats have roots going back to the institute of slavery. As author Michelle Alexander exposed in her groundbreaking 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, our prison industrial complex of incarceration and detention is too often a rebranded form of cruel bondage and servitude, falling most heavily on Black, Brown, and Indigenous people.
Those racial disparities have been so sharply and painfully revealed over the past few years by a succession of highly publicized murders and deaths of unarmed people of color at the hands of police and within our prisons. While local governments have continued to fund law enforcement and expand jail budgets, police continue to kill people of color: Police killed 1,047 people in the past year alone.
The racial and gender hatred fomented by Trump and embraced by far too many of our citizens has added layer upon layer of physical danger and spiritual trauma to vulnerable communities. The same “MAGA” politicians and right-wing fanatics who howled about mask mandates and vaccinations as overly intrusive show no compunction about asserting dominance over the bodies of people of color, the LGBTQ community, or the women who make up more than half this nation.
We have witnessed the vilification of immigrants, young children torn from their parents, and young adults who have never known another home outside the U.S. needlessly deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. We have seen Asian elders and transgender teens increasingly become the targets of violence and abuse, fearful of walking to the supermarket or attending school. And this year, our courts have yet again failed to keep us safe by ripping away the bodily autonomy and freedom of pregnant people across the country.
“My art for Night Out for Safety and Liberation came with a lot of reflection on the recent hardships of these past few years of the COVID-19 pandemic and uprisings against state violence. This piece reimagines safety and liberation by conveying a desire to bask in rest, appreciation, and healing by way of one’s immediate natural environment; relying on your loved ones to hold you up or even teach you how to float when it’s necessary and while you can. Our work towards liberation shouldn’t come at the expense of our health and individual care.”
A Black trans woman is submerged in starry waters, held up by her comrade during the golden hour and under a pink moon. She is cleansing herself of past tribulations to invite in and focus deeply on the good that is still possible. Artwork by edxi betts for Night Out for Safety and Liberation 2022
NOSL invites us all to expand our definitions of freedom and public safety by seeing the intertwined nature of both the challenges of violence that happens in our communities and the solutions to keep each other safe from state violence and the systems that harm us. Even within our own communities of color, queer people, transgender people, and gender-nonconforming people have been historically marginalized. That has made them doubly vulnerable to mistreatment and violence within the carceral system as well. NOSL provides an opportunity to educate us all on those intersections.
This year, as part of NOSL, we commissioned 12 artists to reflect on what safety means to them. The artwork they created reflected the hunger we feel to hold our blended communities in a safe embrace. Their loving and luminous depictions emphasized that true safety and liberation go far beyond “fair and respectful” policing. Artist edxi betts reflected on their artwork for this year’s event:
True safety and freedom come when we work together to heal ourselves and each other beyond the need for policing. It comes with people having their needs met.
It comes when we invest in community-based alternatives to policing, like community mental health programs, public education, restorative justice practices, and economic justice.
True safety and freedom come when we change local, state, and national spending priorities to bolster those systemic changes and fund local community people and programs that can implement them.
Only then can the artists’ vision become our lived reality.
Two individuals embrace a neighborhood lined with houses, phone lines, roads, and gardens with white birds flying around them. The photo emphasizes people coming together to care for each other and keep our communities safe without relying on police. The text reads, “We Keep Our Communities Safe.” Artwork by Angelica Frausto for Night Out for Safety and Liberation 2022
|Marlene Sanchez is a movement leader, mother, and the Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.|