Last week, I got an e-mail from a friend that made me smile. She has given me permission to share it:
I saw a toddler running down Ashland barefooted and wearing very little clothing. No one was in sight. A month ago, I know that I would have immediately called the police. In light of recent events, I got out of the car and did my own detective work. I was nervous. The child was pre-verbal and I’m not good with small children, plus I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I was painfully conscious, however, that calling the police might bring irreversibly negative consequences for someone — a family, the baby, me.
The good news is that I found another passerby. We wrapped the baby in my sweater and together we went door-to-door until we found the mom, who by that point was hysterical because she realized that her child was missing. Between the neighbors confirming the child’s identity and the woman’s expression when we walked up with the baby, we were pretty confident the child was hers.
When I returned to my car, your work with Circles came into my mind. So, I wanted to share this little story with you.
This anecdote made me smile for two main reasons. First, it reminds me that my friends are actually paying attention to my regular rants about needing alternatives to calling the police. 🙂 Second, it illustrates that with only a subtle shift in thinking, we can creatively solve community problems without relying on law enforcement as the first resort.
My friend Mimi Kim launched an organization some years ago called Creative Interventions with the expressed mission “to create community-based options for interventions to interpersonal violence.” I am so excited about CI’s work over the years and even more excited that it will be releasing a new toolkit soon to help others develop models of intervening in interpersonal violence that do not involve relying on the criminal legal system. This will be an invaluable resource. In the meantime, below is a story from CI’s Storytelling and Organizing Project that illustrates why some people (particularly marginalized people) choose not to call the police to intervene in interpersonal violence. This story was first printed in the Abolitionist – A Publication of Critical Resistance:
Why did you not want to call the cops?
StoryTeller: It just wasn’t an option, on multiple levels. The police are, you know, the enemy. So it’s like you just don’t call the cops. Now, what’s inside of that, I don’t think it’s just a theoretical political thing. There’s the fact that the police had just shot this person in front of hundreds of people, you know, video tape rolling. They had just been incredibly violent out on the street. There was a police state downtown. On every level calling the cops was not an option, right? So there’s the political level in which you don’t call the oppressor to help you out. You just don’t.
Then there’s the level of our politics being like: we need to figure out ways to deal with this shit that aren’t about calling in the source of violence. So then there are all kind of layers that happen with that, so then there’s like well why don’t we, right? And in this situation why don’t we? Here is this person who is distraught, has a gun, and is a person of color. There’s no fucking way we could trust the cops to do anything but–I mean what, what were the cops going to do at best? The safest thing that they would possibly do would be to physically disarm this person which would involve, you know, violence, right? And lock him up. That is the best case scenario. So it addresses none of problems at all.
It was about this person’s safety, but in a way that was not just responding to a crisis around their safety but also like what can we do? You know, it’s not just what can we do by any means necessary to stop this self harm or harm to another person. It’s actually about: how is what we’re going to do right now going to reverberate to helping this person move through this period in their lives that is unfolding, in this very acute way right in this moment? I mean I guess that that’s actually kind of hopeful [laughs], that even in those moments of crisis you are actually thinking about why the moment is serious is also about the future.
You might be told in all these other ways in life about deescalating violent situations, like if you have beef with your neighbor that’s getting kind of heated, people say “well, just try to talk it out,” or “you could hire a mediator,” or “call a lawyer.” The discourse ends, I think, when there’s a gun involved. Or an act of violence. “Oh, well then you call the police.” And it’s almost like it’s a natural thing, right. It’s like an act of nature.
And so we don’t call the police, we call this community organization. I think that was cool—I mean it’s cool that it exists, it’s cool that we knew about it, it’s cool that we did— but I think also what’s cool is that that’s where our mind went very quickly in this crisis moment. And so, once again it engenders a little bit of hope, around our abilities to respond when the resources are so scarce.
We started talking about what we had done and we started talking about what could we do and where was the harm. What were the different levels of harm, right? Where are our efforts, where are our loyalties, where are we invested, where are we in relationship to all this stuff, what are our priorities?
And we talked about that and that was really good, and I think that that’s—what became the center was this thing that’s going to happen next week which is potentially traumatic to this person and he has acted out in this and this way previously. His mode of acting out has intensified. So the harm or the potential harm has intensified, the harm to himself and therefore, the potential harm to others has intensified. So, what can we do to reduce the harm? We started talking about everything that we can do. One of the major things we talked about is like: who else can we involve?
That’s when it came to mapping out who else can help. And the help being specific to what are the most like urgent things and what we’re trying to learn from these things, right? It’s like, where are people’s people in these situations? The analogy was: it’s a lot easier to lift something that’s really heavy if you have more than two people doing it, especially if it’s something heavy that you all care about. And you all carrying it is in relationship to you caring about it and it affects how you care about it down the road. I was like, true, where are these people’s people?