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‘We Don't Have the Opportunity to Fail’: 7 Key Quotes From the Square One Project’s Reimagining Safety Virtual Town Hall

Larger social issues loomed over a free-wheeling discussion about policing reform.

As cities and states across the nation debate the future of policing, the Square One Project recently convened a virtual town hall to help craft a vision for this future titled “Reimagining Safety: Policing, Abolition, and the Future of Democracy.” Under the banner of #JusticeIsTheNextNormal, Square One members including Tracey Meares, Jahmal Cole, Pat Sharkey, Ron Davis, Marlon Peterson, Heather Ann Thompson, and Roundtable Manager Sukyi McMahon discussed the social and racial context of police violence, the overuse of policing as a policy response, the definition of true public safety, and what criminal justice reform can learn from venture capital. For those who couldn’t watch live, a video of the roundtable is still available on Square One’s YouTube page.

Here are seven key quotes from the event.

Pat Sharkey, NYU

“Our social policy is not designed to solve big problems. It's designed to allow select segments of the population to avoid those problems, to create separation, to quarantine those problems in particular communities and then to restrict access to areas of opportunity. I think that kind of backdrop, that social policy backdrop, is important for situating all of the events that we've all observed or taken part in over the past few months. Because as a result of all of that there are these very glaring, severe long-standing differences in just the daily experience of living in a majority Black neighborhood versus a majority white neighborhood. And it means that police violence is concentrated. So when for me growing up in a largely white community this was completely unfamiliar to me. It was not clear to me that it was possible for the core institutions that are a major part of my life to fail me, to not serve me. And so police violence is concentrated in particular communities — disease, pollution, joblessness, economic dislocation, poverty are concentrated."

Tracy Meares, Yale Law School

"When you actually ask the people who experience both problems of violence and police excess, they come up with solutions that don't simply rely on sending armed first responders, the national guard, the things we're hearing coming out of the White House today — that's not the solution that they come up with. But it's also the case that we have not invested as much in all of the things that those communities need, and that's been true since the Kerner Commission — well it's been true since before that, but we've known it clearly since the Kerner Commission — and still this country has not actually paid the debts on the situations that it has created."

Dr. Heather Ann Thompson, University of Michigan:

"From my point of view as a historian, you cannot look at the past without recognizing that policing has been really central to maintaining both the racial and the economic hierarchy, to keeping intact protecting both whiteness and capital, to having very little to do with public safety. And this is really an essential thing to reckon with because to begin with this notion that it's about public safety and that somehow that this is where we start and that this is what we need to perfect and that this is what we need to kind of tweak to get it right misses that 400 years. It misses the fact that throughout history, every time that there is a challenge to that hierarchy — you know a bid for true equality, racially, economically — the response is always criminalization. And the response is always to criminalize the challengers, to police them, and ultimately of course to imprison them."

Jahmal Cole, My Block, My Hood, My City:

"You ask somebody, ‘Why does your neighborhood look like this?’ They say: ‘Oh the government's messed up. The city's messed up. The police are messed up. The schools are messed up. The economy is messed up.’ I think that philosophy is messed up. My philosophy is something that took me 10 years to develop but it's really 15 words that I always ask people. Those 15 words are: ‘What’s something simple I can do that will have a positive impact on my block.’ [...] And I’m telling you, you don't have to have a master's degree to make a difference. You don't have to have a law degree to listen. You just have to have a heart full of passion and a good soul. You can make a difference and so I encourage people to do little things."

Sukyi McMahon, Square One Roundtable Manager:

"I do get a sense that it increases safety in our community when people aren't hungry, when there's someone that they can point to and say, 'That person, that group over there, is here to help us. And we don’t have to do anything violent or anything that is illegal to help ourselves.'"

Ronald L. Davis, 21CP Solutions:

"Whoever controls the public space controls the quality of life of people that live in that neighborhood. If gang members and violence control that, people live in fear. If the police control it, people feel oppressed. The only people that can control that public space is the community, and the police should help facilitate that control. I think we do have to reconstruct a system that looks at public safety much larger than crime and violence — that looks at everything from COVID-19 to economic viability to social conditions and really then invest the money where it's going to have the greatest return."

Marlon Peterson, Decarcerated Podcast

"Venture capitalists, they invest millions of dollars in people every day, in projects, and a project flops, and a person comes back and they get another project and the project flops, and they get another project maybe that one works — with no accountability. But when it comes to us in our communities you have to do all this reporting. You know: ‘What are your metrics?’ Why don't we have the opportunity to fail also is what I'm saying. We don't have the opportunity to fail. And I think that's hindering the fullness of us living a self-actualized life. So that's what abolition is — the ability to live a self-actualized life in so many ways. And that also means not only in abolishing the state systems that harm us but also removing the barriers that allow us to properly, to abundantly, take care of our own neighborhoods."