D.I.Y. Community Safety

no prisons, no cops

If our philosophy for community safety is anarchic and decentralized, inevitably the average person will play a greater role than in the society where most of us were raised. Just like we live in a world organized around petroleum, television, race and gender oppression, we’ve been programmed to depend on a hierarchy of authority for safety and legitimization. And, just as we can live well without petroleum, tvs and bigots, we can live safely without police.

Many people, including anti-authoritarians, pride themselves on meeting their needs without requesting or attracting police attention. Communities of color, freaky looking people, people with unconventional gender/sexual expression, people already known to the police, people who like drugs, very drunk people—why, the list of people with reservations about police interaction is endless. Add to this everyone with a do-it-yourself philosophy to life and those in remote areas without access to rapid law-enforcement response.

Why do people—some very often, others very rarely—think they need police, courts, and jails?

  • Resolution or mitigation of a dangerous, violent, or even annoying situation.
  • Dealing with on-going threats or unsolved crimes.
  • Having a procedure for people to seek justice and hold each other accountable.
  • Stabilizing the community amidst social upheavals and natural disasters.
  • Getting into locked cars (your own), writing off fix-it tickets, finding towed cars, etc. (often created by cops, ironically)

It’s not necessary that all of us have every skill for our communities to be safe. I can study the nuances of mediating disputes, while you can learn how to open car doors, and we’re both available to people who need us. But I will focus on situations when a need to protect others is unexpected. This is not a manual on dealing with threatening situations, but some things to consider before you intervene. My purpose here is to reflect on my own experience in unexpected interventions and share what I’ve learned.

Stressful decisions

When you intervene to stop or prevent violence, you will probably act at one of five levels:

  • Run or walk away
  • Observe without intervening
  • Mediate between people, or verbally confront an attacker
  • Put your body in the way, restrain a person, or even threaten consequences
  • Fight.

Observing the situation

Observing is usually a fine option if violence isn’t occurring, and always necessary if you may intervene later. Unlike the police, we may truly feel that a situation is none of our business. If you do stay uninvolved:

  • Observe as much as possible without compromising your need for distance. Remember that people can be confronted or attacked simply for watching.
  • Take inventory of whether you can involve others who can be more helpful. If you choose a solution other than observation, consider how many others are available. By definition, it’s a community solution when more people participate.
  • Consider thoughtfully your feelings as to whether pure inaction or calling law enforcement is the more just choice when you can’t intervene, though of course you would prefer neither.

Verbal intervention

Take a moment to read the excellent list of techniques (see sidebar this page) for diffusing and deescalating a situation. As you can’t keep this list in front of you when talking to people, take note of which ideas appeal to you the most; you may feel most natural applying these. Also keep in mind the basic principles underlying these tactics:

  • Be as conscious as possible of the person you are trying to communicate with, their state of mind, feelings, and what the person needs from this situation. Is the person about to get carried away by a sudden emotion?
  • Be aware of your body. Where it is and what messages it is sending? What is your voice like?
  • Be aware of your emotions, how you’re doing, and your stress level.
  • Distinguish between vital issues, trivial matters, and concerns where an underlying need can be met a better way.

Physical intervention

Keep in mind that physical intervention is undesirable unless verbal intervention has failed or there isn’t time given the danger posed by the situation. The basic points about verbal intervention apply here, as does the sidebar. One difference is that when you become physical, the potential for violence dramatically increases. It is important to state the obvious, calmly name the reasons for your actions and to watch your posture, because the body is not always where the mind is. But at the same time, you need to think about how you will respond to violence. You should also consider that getting involved physically could put you in trouble with the law, if someone else decides to call the cops, regardless of your good intention.

People will escalate if they believe you’re afraid, expecting to meet their demands through intimidation. While respecting your need not to be harmed, it is most important to avoid acting from fear. If you choose to express fear don’t let it be, or appear to be, your dominant motive. Confidence in your ability to defend yourself and others is helpful, and should certainly be cultivated. But physical intervention is always a risk, as everyone can be whooped by someone. Self-assurance serves one’s commitment to doing what is best and life-affirming when we remember risk and consequence. We can create this courage by knowing how our intervention serves community. We all can help stop the cycle of bullshit. Reflect on life and death, and what they mean to you—they will affect your choice of action.

Most situations benefit from having a context. When I have compassion for, or even like a person, or I don’t think the crisis is important enough to come to blows, it turns out better than if I’m acting from preexisting beliefs. If you are a pacifist I don’t think you should lie about that (or about anything) in a confrontation, but it probably won’t diffuse the situation by making the aggressor feel safe. It could even instigate them.

Oops! It’s violence!

I am not a pacifist. I believe violence is acceptable to stop or sometimes prevent greater violence, or in a group process that all parties consent to. I do not believe initiating violence is an acceptable way to process anger. Despite my values, I don’t think I’ve ever had to punch someone to create peace, and only a couple times do I think I should have in retrospect. And my best hope is that anyone inspired by this article succeeds in bringing tension to a halt at an earlier stage.

Suppose reason has failed and you are in an unreasonable situation. Everything is happening in fractions of seconds. There is no logical way to limit how its escalation. Now you have to trust your body and your instincts to do a good job. These are you just as much as your thinking mind.

As I’ve said, this is not a manual. I’m not qualified to teach you fighting techniques and don’t hope to do so in a Slingshot article. Or to make a list of bullet points here. I don’t know what your schedule is like or whether you have time for martial arts lessons or weapon training. I do feel that the more people know in a movement or community about the techniques and technologies of self-protection, the stronger and more self-reliant a people we are.

Community solutions

Networking with your neighbors is a great way to increase the safety of your community. How a network of neighbors, many having different views than yours, may choose to interact with the police is unpredictable but worth the effort. What matters is that a response to violence is created by residents, not the police or municipal government. Be aware of people in your neighborhood showing signs of violence or sociopathy. Support children and youth struggling in the community. Every person’s well-being affects overall safety.

Having alliances with both your neighborhood and radical community can also protect each others’ houses, defend vulnerable and targeted community members, and create coherent community demands and political positions. If there were ever civil disorder because of martial law, rioting or civilian conflicts, knowing who and what are safe is important. Stock up for earthquakes, hurricanes or floods: enough for everybody. A combined effort can save a community.

If you are concerned with how people around you are responding to violence and crime, organize workshops on non-violent action, mediation, self-defense, emotional crisis intervention, intimate violence. Consistently clarify the sense of personal boundaries within the community. At a collective house, one hundred people gathered to confront violent real-estate speculators who were intimidating the residents. Another community developed a phone-tree for collective instant response to police misconduct.

What you do when there’s no time to think depends on what you’re prepared to do and what you’re trained to do, and the agreements you have made with your inner self. Somebody once claimed that the difference between a community and a scene is the infrastructure we create to meet people’s needs. Be serious about your preparations for seriousness.