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Understand These 5 Systemic Harms to Defund Fear — Part 2

By Zach Norris

Black Lives Matter/Defund the Police rally in Washington Square Village, NY, 6 June 2020.
Black Lives Matter/Defund the Police rally in Washington Square Village, NY, 6 June 2020. Photo credit: Eden, Janine, and Jim

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 two of the two-part post. Click here to read part one.



Like white supremacy, patriarchy is a system of domination, this one claiming the superiority of the father (the straight male) and granting him more of all the influential and desirable stuff: more political leadership and moral authority, and more rights to own resources and property. As a result, women must get less of the power and the resources. The patriarchy also disadvantages or outright harms anyone who does not conform to heterosexuality or gender norms.

Like white supremacy, patriarchy is baked into our culture. It is in the air we breathe. In the United States, boys are told: be a man, grow some balls, don’t be a pussy, stop crying, stop with the tears, pick yourself up, don’t let nobody disrespect you, be cool, bros come before hoes, don’t let your woman run your life, get laid. I heard variations of these things growing up. Patriarchy imposes such strict norms and expectations on the male experience that men also suffer under it even as they experience the benefits of it. Men are socialized to not display most emotions, to be tough, to resolve conflict through fighting, to see women and all things feminine as less than, to take what they want, to see gender as binary, and to see people who are queer, gender nonconforming, homosexual as being less than and also perverse.

At one point, a friend invited me to join a men’s reading group. The group was reading The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by feminist author bell hooks. Her words undid something inside me: “Patriarchy demands of men that they become and remain emotional cripples. Since it is a system that denies men full access to their freedom of will, it is difficult for any man of any class to rebel against patriarchy.” Reading this book was the first time I felt free of the compulsion to adopt male bravado.

The harms caused by the patriarchal system are as far-reaching as those caused by white supremacy, going back generations and leaving a legacy of intergenerational trauma, while also causing fresh hurts on a daily basis. When our country was founded, women had no formal legal existence apart from their husbands. Women could not sign contracts or own wealth except under limited circumstances. They could not even be the guardians of their own children if their husbands died. Patriarchy’s impacts are different across races because of white supremacy, leading to particularly great harm to women of color and queer folks of color. Colonizers targeted “two-spirit” people and nonpatriarchal tribes with special intensity. Black women were the property of their white male owners, and the law actually sanctioned their rape by making the children of black women the property of white men. While many of those laws were eventually overturned, we still have patriarchal laws in place. As Senator Kamala Harris asked Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court nomination hearings, pressing him on his stance on abortion rights: “Can you think of any laws that give government the power to make decisions about the male body?”

There are numerous ways that male privilege and male supremacy show up in our institutions and personal lives, such as the persistent gap in pay between men and women who perform the exact same work. This is often stated as women earning an average of eighty cents per dollar that a man earns (which doesn’t reflect much lower wages for black and Latina women) but may be as extreme as forty-nine cents, according to new research that compares earnings over a lifetime of employment. Generally, women are more likely to occupy low-wage jobs, they face more barriers to getting hired or promoted, and when a given field becomes dominated by women, the pay in that field drops. Trans women are often excluded from the formal economy altogether.

Money matters when it comes to what women have to put up with in the workplace and with domestic violence. When women have economic power within a relationship, they are less likely to face violence in their homes. Research has found that “decreases in the wage gap reduce violence against women, consistent with a household bargaining model.” This helps us understand a key feature of domestic violence. It is not so much about anger as it is about domination and control. Men are socialized to believe that they should never be in a position subordinate to women.

As domestic violence counselor Michael Paymar describes in Violent No More, “Men are taught to suppress most of their emotions with the exception of anger, which then tends to build more anger and tends to lead toward violence” in their relationships with women in their homes and workplaces.51 Our failure to address domestic violence as a public health crisis is an indication of the pervasive reach of patriarchy in modern society.

The year 2018 witnessed many women coming forward with allegations of sexual abuse and harassment by men in the workplace, events often referred to by the hashtag #MeToo. Although the #MeToo movement had already been around for years—and in founder Tarana Burke’s original vision it focused on harassment and violence in homes and in communities, not just the workplace—#MeToo gained national attention after allegations of sexual misconduct by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein launched an industry-wide reckoning. Revelations about the number of people that helped him facilitate and cover for his abuse shows how engrained in the culture of Hollywood these acts were. The indicators were all around us and in plain sight for decades. As just one example, cultural critic John DeVore describes how Woody Allen’s 1979 film Manhattan—about a forty-two-year-old man dating a seventeen-year-old girl—has been preserved by the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry for its “cultural significance.” If it’s culturally significant, DeVore quips, it’s because it is a “creepy message from the past that explains our awful present . . . the movie is about a society that doesn’t protect young women.”

Although the most recent highly publicized #MeToo stories involved celebrities in media, government, and entertainment, it is clear that sexual misconduct is as extensive, if not more extensive, in less glamorous occupations. A related campaign called Time’s Up (#TimesUp) was launched to move beyond sharing the stories and names involved in misconduct, toward creating workplaces that offer equity, dignity, and safety to all kinds of women.

My wife supports restaurant workers in getting fairer wages and better conditions. She took twenty waitresses to a conference organized by Michelle Obama called the United States of Women. At the beginning of the conference, when they were asked if they had been harassed on the job, almost all of the women said no. By the end of the conference, after doing a training, being in a safe space, and hearing the stories of other women, all twenty women revealed a story of being sexually harassed, assaulted, or raped on the job. Some of them were appalled that they had not previously recognized it as such. Many women have been brought up to be “polite” or “people-pleasing,” or to believe that their bodies and their selves have value only when others take pleasure in them. This makes saying “no” to unwanted advances more complex and often more difficult. Not to mention the fact that women’s livelihood in the restaurant industry is dependent on their tips. Incidents of harassment, abuse, and outright violence against women, queer folk, and gender-nonconforming people are under-reported and under-prosecuted, which further reflects the scope of patriarchy’s power.


I’ve noted the abrupt drop in violent crimes in the US over the past few decades. That’s true, but it doesn’t mean we don’t still have a problem with violence in this country. America still has an extremely high rate of homicides and a fairly high rate of violent crime relative to most of the developed world. For example, US homicide rates in 2016 were about five times higher than in other high-income countries like Germany, Canada, and Japan.

There’s the threat of an “active shooter,” some dangerous individual with a gun intending to kill multiple people in a confined public space. Between 2000 and 2008, there was one of these kinds of events every other month, or approximately five per year. But from 2009 to 2012, the frequency of these horrifying events increased to sixteen per year, more than one per month. Of all those events between 2000 and 2012, 29 percent of them happened in schools. Although school shootings receive a lot of media attention, we should be more alarmed by how many American children are dying from gun violence generally. A 2019 study in the American Journal of Medicine found that guns kill more kids than on-duty police and active military personnel combined.

As for nonlethal violence, in 2014 more than seven hundred thousand children experienced maltreatment, a term that includes physical abuse, sexual abuse, educational neglect, medical neglect, emotional abuse and mistreatment—with those aged zero to three experiencing the highest rates. The majority of children in the US, nearly 55 percent, have experienced some form of physical assault. Experts say that any exposure to violence increases the chances that a young person will experience additional forms of violence and the probability of future victimization.

According to the 2014 National Crime Victim Survey, at least three hundred thousand children are sexually abused each year in the US. Roughly one in ten boys and one in five girls experience sexual abuse before the age of eighteen. Children who have developmental disabilities are sexually abused at nearly twice the rate of nondisabled children. According to generationFIVE, which aims to end sexual abuse of children within five generations, “an estimated 60 million people have survived child sexual abuse and are living with its often-devastating consequences.”

On the other side of the age spectrum, there are threats to the safety of our elders. Elders and all those who are frail or sick have diminished capacity to fight or run when threatened with violence. Between one million and three million Americans aged sixty-five or older have been injured or exploited by someone on whom they rely for protection or care. Women also face a heightened threat of violence. Nearly one in five, or almost twenty-three million women in the United States have been raped in their lifetime. More than three-quarters of female victims of rape (78.7 percent) were first raped before they were twenty-five years old and 40 percent were raped before the age of eighteen.

For everyone, vulnerability increases if a person is female, queer, disabled, darker-skinned, or recognizable as belonging to a religion or culture that gets targeted in hate crimes. Violence against the LGBTQ community, especially transgender people, has been rising. We know that young people of color are at particular risk for brutality and harm at the hands of the police. Evidence of this takes the form not just of the videos shot by bystanders, with which we’ve become more and more familiar; there are also records of stop-and-frisks, car dashcam and bodycam video footage, police reports, and court records. All these reveal pervasive police intimidation and verbal and physical abuse that disproportionately is directed at people of color, especially young men of color.

Experts say most of the above statistics don’t represent the true scope of the problem, because these are just reported cases. There are many instances of violence that don’t get accounted for, let alone find healing, in the current system. Many of these occur in our homes, behind closed doors.

All the real harms described in the previous sections—including capitalism—cause much of the violence. In her book Until We Reckon, Danielle Sered, who leads the organization Common Justice, working to support survivors of violence, writes: “Most violence is not just a matter of individual pathology—it is created. Poverty drives violence. Inequity drives violence. Lack of opportunity drives violence. Shame and isolation drive violence. And . . . violence drives violence.”

The greatest barrier to ending violence, writes Sered, is “the story we tell about violence that precludes the development and expansion of new strategies.”


Having had the sense of safety stolen from us during a traumatic event causes trauma. All of the above forms of harm either directly constitute a traumatic event, as with violence, or are the root cause of traumatic events, like the loss of a home due to predatory lenders operating in our capitalist system. The trauma we are left with then manifests as physical disease, mental illness, substance abuse, broken families and communities, poverty, social instability, and crime.

It is a tragic irony that our current public safety model—the framework of fear—actually causes us harm and makes us less safe because of the role of trauma and cycles of trauma. Trauma is not just the consequence of harm, but also its cause. It is people who are traumatized who commit most violent crimes. Hurt people hurt people, goes the saying, or, “No one enters violence for the first time by committing it,” as Sered has written.

“[The behaviors of traumatized people] are not the result of moral failings or signs of lack of willpower or bad character—they are caused by actual changes in the brain,” notes Bessel van der Kolk, one of the world’s top clinicians and researchers of trauma. Once it’s been traumatized, the brain can easily be retriggered, reading normal circumstances as dangerous. Especially if we are repeatedly exposed to traumatic things, the activity patterns of our brain are shaped by this, thanks to neuroplasticity (the process described as “neurons that fire together, wire together”). We experience the same physical sensations of the past trauma in the present, and ordinary occurrences and conflicts are experienced through a lens of trauma. This makes it harder to see and imagine various possibilities: the only outcomes that seem possible are echoes of what happened to us when we were traumatized. Because of this, of how trauma limits imagination and cognitive functioning, trauma makes it more likely that people will repeat the same mistakes or patterns.

Trauma limits possibilities and the imagination because it locks the brain into certain assumptions about what is likely to happen. Even if the trauma is inherited, passed down your blood lineage, or even if it has been experienced by a group you belong to, perhaps professionally or socially—trauma can have this effect. All of that trauma builds up not just inside individuals, but in our neighborhoods, communities, and institutions, inside of our country. Unaddressed trauma at that scale is a recipe for long-term disaster.


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).