There’s Nothing New About Not Calling the Cops

Communities of color have long led the way in reducing reliance on police—because they have to.

Benji Hart July 25, 2018

Photo by Michelle Dione Snider/YouTube.

Sev­er­al young boys from my block on Chicago’s far North Side were jumped by a group of teenagers last sum­mer. Word was that some old­er guys had pushed the teens to do it. A few posit­ed it was gang-relat­ed — an ini­ti­a­tion require­ment — but the details were unclear.

Finding alternatives to calling police in moments of violence is a radical concept being discussed across progressive communities. Yet, for Black people, poor people, undocumented people—it has long been a way of life.

I learned of the vio­lence while walk­ing to the laun­dro­mat. I don’t have close rela­tion­ships with many cis men on my block, but I know all the queers. I saw Ce, a Black, les­bian elder shout­ing ani­mat­ed­ly to a group of young Black boys in front of the cor­ner store. Some were on bikes, oth­ers leaned up against the met­al fence, but all were lis­ten­ing intent­ly. No one talked back.

Ce turned from one boy to the next, demand­ing this one explain what he was think­ing jump­ing a child, remind­ing anoth­er that he came from a good fam­i­ly and had a moth­er at home who cared about him. A crowd grew until most of the block was there, giv­ing Ce — whose rep­ri­mands had con­tin­ued unin­ter­rupt­ed for the bet­ter part of an hour — their rapt attention.

Even­tu­al­ly, the old­er guys who put the teenagers up to the fight saun­tered around the cor­ner, almost cau­tious­ly. Ce marched down the block, the younger boys in tow, and con­front­ed them. They looked sheep­ish under her with­er­ing con­dem­na­tions, but also engaged.

Find­ing alter­na­tives to call­ing police in moments of vio­lence is a rad­i­cal con­cept being dis­cussed across pro­gres­sive com­mu­ni­ties. Yet, for Black peo­ple, poor peo­ple, undoc­u­ment­ed peo­ple — all those for whom law enforce­ment rep­re­sents an inher­ent dan­ger — it has long been a way of life.

Ce under­stood it to be her duty as a com­mu­ni­ty leader to address vio­lence direct­ly before it esca­lat­ed; she relied on estab­lished rela­tion­ships with the indi­vid­u­als involved, allow­ing her not only to be abreast of the vio­lence — inter­ven­ing before police did — but to speak direct­ly to the unique lives and expe­ri­ences of each young per­son she held account­able, address­ing them both com­pas­sion­ate­ly and authoritatively.

Police stop and frisk young peo­ple on our block con­stant­ly. They harass res­i­dents, call us sex­ist, racist and homo­pho­bic slurs. What is, for many Black peo­ple, a direct source of vio­lence is sel­dom thought of as a legit­i­mate option for stop­ping intra-com­mu­ni­ty violence.

Watch­ing Ce expert­ly medi­ate, I was forced to rec­og­nize my estrange­ment from many of my own neigh­bors, my com­plic­i­ty in the kind of dis­tance that allows us to jus­ti­fy and even call down state vio­lence on the very peo­ple who share our fear of it. We call police on those we view as threat­en­ing, deserv­ing of pun­ish­ment, and — if we are hon­est — wor­thy of the poten­tial of death. It’s rare we see any of the peo­ple with whom we share per­son­al and mean­ing­ful rela­tion­ships as falling into that category.

On June 21, 13-year-old Aziya Roberts of the Ken­wood-Oak­land Com­mu­ni­ty Orga­ni­za­tion orga­nized #WeWalk­ForHer, a march for a spate of miss­ing and mur­dered Black women and girls in Chica­go. The cri­sis is gal­va­niz­ing the Black neigh­bor­hoods, but notably not to increase the already dra­mat­ic police pres­ence. Instead, com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers like Chica­go State stu­dent Angel Buck­ley are work­ing with local fam­i­lies to coor­di­nate car­pools for Black girls, keep­ing them from trav­el­ing alone. In the spir­it of groups like Moth­ers Against Sense­less Killings, or NYC’s #SwipeIt­For­ward cam­paign — where­in activists offer free train rides to strangers in order to avoid fare­beat­ing arrests — Black com­mu­ni­ties are gen­er­at­ing solu­tions to com­mu­ni­ty vio­lence by shar­ing resources and cre­at­ing stronger net­works of support.

And ulti­mate­ly, that’s what all com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing is: rela­tion­ship build­ing. When we fol­low the lead of those who have nev­er had the lux­u­ry of rely­ing on law enforce­ment, whose sur­vival is depen­dent on locat­ing alter­na­tives to call­ing police, a pletho­ra of strate­gies emerge that hold one core com­mit­ment in com­mon: Get­ting to know our neigh­bors, build­ing trust with one another.

Ben­ji Hart is a Black, queer, femme artist and edu­ca­tor cur­rent­ly liv­ing in Chica­go. They are the writer behind the blog Rad­i­cal Fag­got, and have essays fea­tured at Black Youth Project, Truthout, and oth­er fem­i­nist and abo­li­tion­ist media.
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