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What Today’s Raging Debate About Policing Leaves Out—Peter Laarman

Public Safety Through a Different Lens

SafetyIs NOSL16

In Los Angeles and in more than two dozen other cities, August 2 affords an opportunity to counter the stale narrative that you are either for the police or against them if you want safe streets and safe neighborhoods.

In town halls, block parties, vigils, and protests across the country, everyday people will be coming together to explore the theme that greater social equity promotes greater safety by giving people a reason to be happy and a corresponding stake in respecting social rules. The National Night Out for Safety and Liberation is not aimed at disparaging the police; rather, it seeks to open up a wider awareness of what’s missing when heavy policing is all that people get in the midst of shockingly high unemployment and underemployment, shrinking educational opportunities, and collapsing public services.

August 2 is also the date of the National Night Out for Safety sponsored by law enforcement and neighborhood watch groups—as many as 30 million Americans each year participate. Our Night Out for Safety and Liberation won’t engage nearly as many people, but we will be in the vanguard of what we believe is an urgently-needed conversation on why America , puts “law and order” first while ignoring the mass suffering in precisely those areas that get the most police attention.

We could accomplish so much if even a fraction of what we now spend on policing and incarceration were spent instead on meeting human needs

We will create space at our events for the residents of low-income areas to talk about what their suffering looks and feels like. We will invite participants to dream about what radically restructured public priorities might look like. We could accomplish so much if even a fraction of what we now spend on policing and incarceration were spent instead on meeting human needs, like ensuring adequate nutrition for young children to enriching the public schools to rebuilding a depleted and decrepit housing stock to replacing predatory lending with low-interest credit for new small business development in high-poverty areas.

Our ultimate goal is to generate the level of public will needed to achieve systemic change and to remind everyone of the truth of Franklin Roosevelt’s statement that the measure of any society should be what that society does for those who have the greatest need, not those at the top who are already thriving.

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By now, everyone is familiar with the inconvenient truth that routine policing in America—who gets stopped, who gets brutalized, who is arrested, and who gets charged with what—is profoundly shaped by implicit bias and racism. And many are likewise awakening to the shockingly racialized character of America’s mass incarceration system, a system brilliantly dissected in 2010 by law professor Michelle Alexander in her breakthrough book, The New Jim Crow.

But what is still missing in public consciousness and in the public debate is something that sociologists, economists, and other scholars have known and talked about for many decades. And, it is something that those living in what the late Derrick Bell called “the bottom of the well” know in their bones, which is the crime-generating impact of extreme poverty and deprivation. People without hope, people who are told in a thousand different ways that their lives don’t really matter, are people with nothing to lose. Extreme poverty sometimes invites extreme—and sometimes dangerous—behavior.

SafetyIs NOSL16

We seem not to have noticed that the big surge in crime in the 1980s coincided with massive deindustrialization and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Black workers who had held well-compensated jobs in all the industries that got hollowed out: auto, steel, rubber, electrical equipment, glass, textiles, etc. Now, decades later, even the civil service jobs that offered a last economic lifeline for Black workers have likewise disappeared as a direct result of decades of anti-government ideology and half-baked privatization schemes.

The rise of the Tea Party and now Trumpism, and the resurgence of an openly white supremacist discourse during the Obama years have drawn needed attention to the declining fortunes of the white working class, but even now almost no one talks about the wholesale abandonment of the Black working class. Or about the fact that, during this same period, racism and intimidation have confined most Latinos to the most marginal and low-paying jobs.

If it is hard to talk honestly about race in America—and it is—it’s even harder to talk about class and the hidden injuries of the class system. But there is no way forward for this country until we learn to talk about race and class at the same time—and dream big about a transformed economy that actually does put people first. The Night Out for Safety and Liberation gives us an opportunity to start having that conversation.


RSVP for The Night Out for Safety and Liberation.

Rev. Peter Laarman
Justice Not Jails