After forty years of mass incarceration and roughly 150 years of police brutality, we are being called to imagine a public safety system without policing. But do our minds even let us go there? Do they let us dream beyond surface-level reforms? Can we envision a wildly new and just infrastructure for peace and protection?
How we hear the call to reimagine public safety is, in part, shaped by whether or not we have experienced the violence and racism of our criminal justice system. Yet there are also many subtle ways that our imagination is policed by white supremacy, the treacherous yet pervasive idea that white people are in any way superior to Black and non-Black people of color.
Across the United States, we have convinced ourselves that people of color, especially Black people, are “criminals” at levels that are unprecedented in human history. Without white supremacy, this level of widespread criminalization would not be possible. If white Americans did not harbor the belief that we are better than Black and Brown Americans, then we would never stand for shipping away Black and Brown beings by the millions. Nor would we doubt the ability of communities of color to build out their own infrastructure for community safety; as we do when we insist that each city’s safety operations needs to be centralized and controlled by an armed force with maximum immunity yet minimum ability to heal community harms. The ideas of criminalization, containment, and centralization—which are foundational to our current public safety system—are direct projections of the superiority, fear, and urge to control that we, as white Americans, all too often harbor in our hearts.
To free us from the ways white supremacy polices our ideas of safety, I propose this list of questions we ask ourselves to free up our imaginations, move past some of our fear, and help to welcome a more effective and healing safety paradigm. I offer twenty-six questions, one per year of life lived by Breonna Taylor, before she was shot and killed by police in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. These can be used when facing a mirror, in a small group discussion, or at a family dinner.
- Do I live in a safe community?
- What role do jobs, housing, food, and health care play in the safety of my community?
- Where do my ideas of safety come from?
- Are my ideas of safety aligned with my larger beliefs about how the world works
- Do I believe there are good and bad people in the world?
- If so, where do bad people live?
- What mental image do I have for people who are bad?
- In my mind, what race / ethnicity are they?
- Do I feel safe driving through communities that look differently than my own?
- Do I feel safe walking driving through communities that look differently than my own?
- If no, how does my fear shape the ways I think about these communities?
- What do I look for in another community to determine whether or not I feel safe?
- Do I believe that our current public safety system supports those who’ve been harmed?
- When I have been harmed, how do I want to be cared for?
- When someone I love is harmed, how do I want them to be cared for?
- How important are counseling, medical care, and supportive community when healing from harm?
- Am I aware of the ways that unhealed harm can lead to future wrongdoing?
- Do I believe that our current system reduces future harm in our world?
- When I have harmed someone else, how do I want to be held accountable?
- What support would I need to keep myself from committing harm again?
- When someone I love has harmed someone else, how do I want them to be held accountable?
- What support would they need to keep from committing harm again?
- Am I willing to help build an approach to public safety that works for all communities?
- If yes, what role or roles would I be willing to play?
- Can I see myself as a peacemaker, healer, connector, or responder in my own community?
- What supports do I need to find to keep imagining a new and more just public safety system?
 For white Americans, like myself, who have never been profiled, harassed, detained, or imprisoned—and never had loved ones endure any of these experiences—the need for a new reality can seem strange and foreign. Conversely, for Black Americans across the country, no matter their level of wealth or achievement, the deep flaws and bias that govern our country’s criminal justice practices are all too familiar, though their full extent can still be difficult to acknowledge.
About the Author
Ryan Lugalia-Hollon is the coauthor of The War on Neighborhoods: Policing, Prison, and Punishment in a Divided City and one of the creators of chicagosmilliondollarblocks.com. He is a long-term champion of restorative justice and has been a part of multiple successful community-based safety projects. He is the Executive Director of UP Partnership in San Antonio, Texas.