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Understand These 5 Systemic Harms to Defund Fear — Part 1

By Zach Norris

Defund the Police Mural Rally, Baltimore, MD, 12 June 2020.
Defund the Police Mural Rally, Baltimore, MD, 12 June 2020. Photo credit: Elvert Barnes Photography

The police state that took George Floyd’s life and countless other Black lives operates on five systemic harms: capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, violence, and trauma. Understanding the harms is crucial in order to work toward defunding the police. Zach Norris identifies each one in great detail in this passage from Defund Fear: Safety Without Policing, Prisons, and Punishment. This is part one of a two-part post. Click here to read part two.


From among all the things that actually harm us, a mere sliver is addressed by our criminal legal system—a term I prefer over “criminal justice system,” because calling it a “justice system” inaccurately links it to justice, as well as fairness, healing, and safety. Generally speaking, the criminal legal system works great at protecting you and keeping you safe if you are a rich white man. It protects your power, prestige, and property, while debunking, debasing, and diminishing those who would question your right to those privileges. If you’re anyone else, it’s a lot less likely to result in justice, let alone healing.

Much of what people go to prison for are actions that were not harmful to anyone. Meanwhile, there are so many actions that are actually harmful that we’re not taking into account because the current criminal legal system can’t or won’t apply to them. In focusing so much on crimes—defined as what’s against the law—we have increasingly lost sight of morality.

Belief systems that have to do with the allocation of power—such as capitalism and sexism and racism—are also the cause of immense harm. In fact, they probably bear the lion’s share of the blame for suffering on this planet. But how do you hold a belief system accountable? Occasionally the criminal legal system can punish individual racists, sexists, or capitalists for harms they have caused (Bernie Madoff comes to mind). Targeting and weeding out individuals doesn’t change a toxic society- wide culture, whether we’re talking about white supremacy, male supremacy, or the supremacy of profit over people.

At the same time, much of the harm that feels most devastating to us individually is intimate and interpersonal: every hurt that gets dealt, inside families, between friends, between parents and offspring, between lovers. We know that the prevalence of child abuse and domestic violence is far wider than what is reflected by reported offenses, let alone arrests or prosecutions. Harms that happen inside the home are largely invisible, occurring in a private sphere behind closed doors. Regardless of whether it happens at home or elsewhere, psychological and emotional abuse almost never gets “counted,” yet causes tremendous damage. The more #MeToo stories we hear about harassment and abuse in the workplace, the more we understand how vulnerable women are—and how they risk retaliation, humiliation, and termination when they do come forward. Some of the most popular stories have been about celebrities, but we know that the reach of sexual harassment and abuse is at least as extensive in everyday occupations.

This is why I focus on “harms” rather than on “crimes.” I’m not proposing that we do away with laws and the criminal legal system. I just don’t think they’re how we generate safety.

Shifting the focus away from crimes to harms means we address actions, policies, and behaviors that are most harmful. Shifting focus would mean we look at psychological harms, environmental damages, and social and economic suffering. Finally, it means that when it comes time to address harms and keep further harms from happening, we involve far more bodies than merely the law; the players include academics, policymakers, community leaders, historians and community members who are involved in arenas such as public health, epidemiology, urban planning, and social policy.


In a system where the primary directive is to promote profit, human well-being will always lose out. Inequality is not an accident, but a central defining feature of capitalism. Capital doesn’t naturally trickle down like part of a watershed—as we were promised for much of the second half of the twentieth century. Instead, what it naturally does is amass and concentrate in the hands of a few. Umair Haque does a great job of explaining the logic of wealth concentration in simple language:

Mom-and-pop capitalism is a healthy and beautiful thing, an economy of a million little shops, bakeries, artisans — but it takes only a modest attachment to a profit motive. But thanks to the rise of massive, global speculation, only aggressive quarterly profit-maximization was allowed. CEO earnings were hitched to share prices, and your share price only went up if your earnings did, relentlessly, illogically, crazily, every single quarter, instead of stabilizing at a happy, gentle amount — and so the only way left, in the end, to achieve it, was to build titanic monopolies, which could squeeze people for every dime. Once the economy had Macy’s, JC Penney, K-Mart, Toys-R-Us and Sears. Now it has Walmart. The story was repeated across every single industry.

Part of that squeezing for every dime involves jobs, of course, which have been moved around as companies look for the least amount of friction with profit, whether that has meant reduced occupational health and safety standards, or reduced rights and wages for workers. Now, in the newest iterations of squeezing, we have automation and machine learning, along with increasing numbers of companies hiring for temporary, flexible, precarious jobs, instead of offering full-time, long-term employment with benefits. It is not so much that employers don’t want stable employees as much as they don’t want to reciprocate with stable hours and benefits. Why would they, if they can get away without doing so, increasing their all-important profit margins?

Meanwhile, the so-called “financialization” of the economy has meant that speculation—investment banks and hedge funds and others making money “placing bets with each other”—has grown to be a huge part of the economy, dwarfing the real economy, where things that we actually need are invented and made and maintained, whether that means food, or the cure for cancer, or a new energy grid.

In 2008, all the house of cards speculation upon speculation led to a collapse, which is exactly what houses of cards inevitably do. And when that happened, it took down everyone. Except that the wealthy few at the top had the resources and connections to allow them to recover; and the rest of us did not, further undermining our already insecure positions. Almost three-quarters of the US population has under a thousand dollars in savings, and a third has zero. This is why a single unexpected expense like a hospital visit or a car repair is all it takes for someone not to make rent. Then they’re forced to make impossible choices: to stop refilling the prescription they depend on, or stop paying utilities, or to skip subway fare and risk getting caught. Even then, it’s often not enough.

An economy that is geared toward speculation with a focus on short- term profits is like a hungry beast that must be fed. A wealthy few refuse to compromise the expansion of their profit, regardless of the impacts on natural resources and the planet, as well as on the majority of people’s well-being and security. When the US government (among others) chose to spend its money propping up this system, it declared the need to make cuts elsewhere. Outside the United States, this gets called “austerity.” Inside the US, some have referred to this framework as “Reaganomics,” but its basic tenets have been enthusiastically endorsed by Democratic and Republican presidents alike. Healthcare, support in old age, the environment, renewable energy—the government decided the budgets for these items could be slashed. Let corporations make money providing them—a.k.a. “privatization.”

That’s where we are today in this stage of capitalism. Most resources are going to a tiny minority of people, while the majority can’t get their basic needs met. Millions of Americans face a constant struggle to keep a roof over their heads. Four evictions are filed every minute.37 Many Americans go without healthcare, given the absence of universal coverage in the US. As a result, the US ranks poorly on key indicators of health, such as infant mortality, and a hundred thousand Americans die each year from causes that were preventable with medical treatment.38 This is really a violation of common decency and dignity, as well as a source of instability and insecurity for us as a society. There’s a tendency to think of capitalism as inevitable, but like all human systems it was created by humans and there are other options.

And because wealth equals power, its concentration in the hands of a few means our democracy is getting replaced by oligarchy—the rule of the few. They make new laws and bankroll elected officials to protect their interests, while geting rid of all the laws and politicians who impinge on those interests. Pretty much everyone else is left suffering and plagued by anxiety about how much worse things can get.


There is no end to the harm done to people of color by the long prevailing belief system that holds that white people are superior to others and deserve more—more resources, more second chances, more of the credit, more starring roles, and on and on; more of all the good stuff. People of color, by contrast, get more of things like asthma, freeways through our neighborhoods, bad mortgages, and jail time.

“When over decades the police, courts, banks, buses, schools, and other parts of society regularly ignore, exploit, and harm non-White people, yet these incidents are largely denied, excused, or blamed on the victims, without being properly investigated, before disappearing from the accounts of history or the evening news or the general discourse: this is white supremacy. The humanity of certain people is made invisible,” writes Native American Edgar Villanueva in his 2018 critique of philanthropy, Decolonizing Wealth.

There are the explicit examples of racism that should be shocking but instead are unrelenting. If you are a parent of black children, your confidence in their safety is likely to be at an all-time low as videos and stories of police misconduct and violence emerge on what seems like a daily basis. Antwon Rose was seventeen. Cameron Tillman was fourteen. Tamir Rice was twelve. Aiyana Jones was seven. “I see mothers bury their sons / I want my mom to never feel that pain / I am confused and afraid,” Antwon had written in a poem that ended up being recited at his funeral.

White supremacy also manifests more subtly in behavior and attitudes, for example as white people believing that everything they’ve achieved is based on merit and hard work, as opposed to a system set up to make their success more likely, which leads to absurd ideas like “playing the race card” or “reverse racism,” or defensiveness and woundedness when white privilege is mentioned—a phenomenon known as “white fragility,” a term coined by the whiteness studies professor Robin DiAngelo.

Most intractable of all is white supremacy that has been baked into institutions, culture, and policies, also known as structural racism, which has served to deprive people of color of resources over the entire history of the United States. These implicit forms of white supremacy are nefarious, making it hard to assign responsibility.

Even when we consider certain threats that appear to apply to everyone indiscriminately, such as nuclear war, natural disasters—people of color almost always bear more harm. Hurricane Katrina is an example. The lack of adequate evacuation plans and disaster relief caused the worst and most immediate hurt to low-income people, people with disabilities, and black people. According to Mimi Kim of Creative Interventions: “People with less power can be more vulnerable to violence because they are an easier target, because they are less likely to be protected, more likely to be blamed, and [have fewer] places to go to get help.”

The harm done is physical, economic, psychological. Physical: this includes police brutality and hate crimes, and the bias in medical care that has thousands of black women suffering, as legendary tennis player Serena Williams did during the birth of her daughter, because doctors don’t listen to them or trust them to know their situation; and the diseases and chronic conditions caused by having highways, waste treatment facilities, and toxin-spewing factories disproportionately located in communities of color. Economic: such as the disparity in wealth between white people and people of color, which doesn’t correlate to education or income level; or the disproportionate impacts of job losses and mortgage crises upon people of color. Finally, psychological: the depression and trauma that come from all the other harms compounded, and from feeling the whole world, or at least the whole nation, considers you as less worthy.

Writing about the historic and intergenerational trauma that Native Americans experience, Edgar Villanueva writes: “Imagine that all your family and friends and community members regularly experienced traumatic events: upheaval, violence, rape, brainwashing, homelessness, forced marches, criminalization, denigration, and death, over hundreds of years.” He goes on, and the next passage can be applied just as much to all people of color: “Imagine the trauma of this experience has been reinforced by government policies, economic systems and social norms that have systematically denied your people access to safety, mobility, resources, food, education, dignity, and positive reflections of themselves. Repeated and ongoing violation, exploitation, and deprivation have a deep, lasting traumatic impact not just at the individual level—but on whole populations, tribes and nations.”


About the Author 

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).