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Zach Norris Dismantles the Lie of Our Criminal Injustice System That Keeps Us in Fear

Zach Norris
Photo credit: Eurydice Thomas

We’re in a time when the most powerful institutions in the United States are embracing the repressive and racist systems that keep many communities struggling and in fear. As the effects of aggressive policing and mass incarceration harm historically marginalized communities and tear families apart, how do we define safety? It is time to reimagine what it means.

Community leader, Harvard-trained lawyer, and executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights Zach Norris does in We Keep Us Safe: Building Secure, Just, and Inclusive Communities. His book lays out a radical way to shift the conversation about public safety away from anxiety and punishment and toward growth and support systems for our families and the most vulnerable members of society. When he was in Boston earlier this month, he spoke at Brookline Booksmith about it and his groundbreaking new vision.

Norris began the evening by reading this selection:

1823, month unknown

A seven-year-old boy stood on the auction block in Richmond, Virginia. His mother was in the crowd, begging her master not to sell her son. But the boy would fetch a good price. Slaveholders from the Deep South were more desperate for slaves since the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade in 1808, and since the cotton gin, invented in 1794, had allowed the production of cotton to really take off. The prices of enslaved African people had risen. In this period, one in every ten enslaved persons was relocated from the states of the Upper South to the Lower South. They were “sold down the river” into brutally hard labor in the Deep South with no means of staying connected to the families and communities they had known. Slightly over half of them experienced major family separations, meaning children were separated from their parents, or spouses were separated from each other.

The little boy was just at the cusp of his years of highest output too, the ages from eight to fifteen years, according to popular wisdom among slaveholders. Children in these sought-after ages were often bought alone. On the auction blocks, enslaved people were lined up by height, making it even more likely that children would be separated from their parents.

The buyers examined the little boy as though he were livestock, pulling his mouth open to see his teeth, pinching his arms and legs to find out how muscular they were, walking him up and down to detect any lameness, making him bend and stoop. In the end, he was sold to another slave master in Mississippi. His mother followed him to the wharf where he was put on a ship. When the ship launched into the water, his mother was left standing on the wharf, crying. She never saw him again.

The boy’s name was Joseph Norris. He was my grandfather’s grandfather.

Hearing him read this passage aloud drove home the fact that our country’s fear-based discrimination, othering, and punishment goes back. Way back.

He went on to explain that in order to truly be safe, we have to dismantle our mentality of Us vs. Them. The root of this mentality is what Norris calls the “he keep us safe” lie, which is where the title of his book comes from. (His title flips the lie on its head, making it affirming and empowering.) Here’s what he told the audience.

“We live with the lie today. It is the lie of an abuser. It is the lie that would have us believe that our neighbor around the block, our neighbor at the border, our neighbor in a distant land is the enemy, when in fact those folks want the same things for their families as we want for ours. It is an abusive lie, because it tells us not to trust not those closest to us. That’s what abusers do. They isolate us from those who would be our network of support. And the lie also hides the harms the abusers themselves are creating. That’s easy enough to understand when it comes to the president, but what I draw attention to in the book is the way in which the criminal injustice system reinforces that lie. Because our definition of crime is limited and limiting. By that, I mean that how we define crime and how we enforce criminal law tends to reinforce an unjust status quo.

“The police reinforce an unjust status quo rather than not doing so. In addition to that, the criminal justice system has tended to deflect, defuse, and outright ignore both interpersonal and institutional harms. Interpersonal harms that happen behind closed office doors, that happen behind the doors of our homes. Harms that hurt women and gender-nonconforming folks, first and worst. We’ve seen their visibility raised as a result of the #MeToo movement. We’re talking about harms that are also institutional. I don’t mean to pretend that they’re strictly interpersonal, because we’ve seen the way in which powerful men are protected by institutions. But there are other forms of institutional harms unaddressed by our criminal injustice system—harms associated with poverty and inequality; harms associated increasingly with climate change, where people of color and poor people are hurt first and worst.

“That is the lie. But the lie helps explain somewhat paradoxical things. Crime rates are actually at historical lows, but our anxiety is at historical highs. If you understand the difference between crime and harm, that starts to make more sense. We have architects of anxiety, the president being one of them, who stokes racial animus and fear, who scapegoats women and people with disabilities. That’s part of the reason why anxiety is going up. But it’s also because we’re not addressing all the harms. We’re not addressing the institutionalized and the interpersonal harms that are so prevalent and increasing in our society. This is a lie that doesn’t just relate to public safety. It threatens our very democracy. Because the idea that one person would keep us safe diminishes the actions we would need to take to have a democracy. If we’re allowing this president to do whatever he wants because he’s the greatest purveyor of crimes, then we’re basically handing over our safety, our security, our democracy to one individual.”

Real safety begins when we bridge the divides and build relationships with one another. We can dedicate ourselves to strategic, smart investments—meaning resources directed toward our stability and well-being, like healthcare and housing, education and living-wage jobs. It also begins when we hold people accountable for the harms they commit and when we afford humanity and agency to everyone who has been dehumanized and traumatized so they can participate fully in life and society. We Keep Us Safe, with its heartrending case studies and interviews, shows us the paths we can take to get there. Thank you, Zach, for writing such an eye-opening, inspiring, and intersectional book!


About Zach Norris 

Zach Norris is the executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which creates campaigns related to civic engagement, violence prevention, juvenile justice, and police brutality, with a goal of shifting economic resources away from prisons and punishment and towards economic opportunity. He is also the cofounder of Restore Oakland and Justice for Families, both of which focus on the power of community action. He graduated from Harvard and took his law degree from New York University. Connect with him at and on Twitter (@ZachWNorris).