How Community Accountability Makes it Possible To Defund the Police While Preserving Safety

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Photo: Stocky/Ivan Gener
Since May 25, when former Minneapolis police office Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd by kneeling on Floyd's neck until he died, public conversation around police practices have centered on power—specifically who has it, and who doesn't. With many waking up to the reality that police forces in America have been granted too much power within an already racist system, the movement to defund the police has gained steam. It would mean reallocating portions of enormous police budgets to local channels like mental-health services, educational programs, and substance-abuse counseling—and it may help lessen crime and humanize "criminals." But it's also not the only potentially effective strategy for redistributing and, ultimately, reclaiming power. That's part of why a system of community accountability is key—it crucially doesn't require waiting for legislation—like the promising BREATHE Act—to pass in order to get started.

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Community accountability is hardly a new term. For example, in 2003, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence set up a community accountability system to fight gender oppression, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and domestic violence. The more general guiding intention of the system is to empower communities by allowing them to prevent, mediate, mitigate injustices, and help heal from community violence without calling upon police intervention.

"Community accountability is a community-based strategy that takes a group of people—such as a parent group, people at work, or a neighborhood—working together to increase safety and support for everyone in that community and reduce all types of violence," says Michelle Saahene, activist and co-founder of From Privilege to Progress, an organization dedicated to desegregating the public conversation about race. "This will be vital in communities that are over-policed, whereby just encountering police dramatically increases, and so do your chances of experiencing more violence and ending up in prison."

"Community accountability is a community-based strategy that takes a group of people working together to increase safety and support for everyone in that community and reduce all types of violence." —Michelle Saahene, activist

Historically, communities that are over-policed are often in urban areas—cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York City. They're areas where, according to the 2010 Census, the highest populations of Black people live, and both current and historic data show Black people have long been disproportionately incarcerated in America. Results of a 2019 study by Community Service Society, then, should come as no surprise: More than 21 percent of low-income Black New Yorkers said they avoided contacting the police, because it made them feel less safe, compared to 9 percent of low-income white New Yorkers.

That's where community accountability can come in, by allowing for more compassionate methods of problem-solving than calling upon police force. If a member of the community gets caught with drugs by another member of the community, for example, they could be directed to a substance-abuse counselor instead of immediately calling the police. It serves to not only democratize and equalize the criminal justice system, but to chip away at systemic racism by not automatically villainizing perpetrators of a crime. "These groups build trust, connection, and meaningful friendships—all [of what makes] people stronger together," Saahene says.

So how can you practice community accountability in your neighborhood?

Setting up a community accountability program can be a complex process that requires… well, the support of a community. One example is the short-lived police-free Autonomous Zone, aka the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle, this past June. It was an occupation protest in which participants operated communally with one another and independently of the police, cultivating myriad projects such as a community garden, nightly concerts and political rallies, documentary film screenings, street art, and a "decolonial" café. The protest disbanded shortly after a shooting that left one 16-year-old boy dead and another 14-year-old boy critically injured (though protestors say the violence was not associated with the autonomous community). But the spirit of a self-policing safe space lives on with the idea of community accountability.

To start smaller, there are several other ways to create a community accountability program in your neighborhood, housing complex, or spiritual center. And thanks to the internet, a lot of the initial steps can be taken at home. "At P2P we always say to start right where you are," says Saahene. "You could create a Facebook page on a particular area of interest or expertise and invite people in a certain region to the group. Create roles for group members that come along with tasks."

Delegating responsibilities and roles can boil down to a particular person's strengths, the "play to your lane" approach. Someone who has office-management sensibilities can be responsible for organizing weekly meetings and documenting what was accomplished. If you're excellent in a crisis, you can volunteer to be a first responder when incidents of community violence occur. On a more basic level, you can contribute by signal boosting when there might be instances of police brutality in your community, ensuring that attention is brought to the situation and justice is carried out.

To that point, Giullian Yao Gioiello—an activist and actor currently developing an online platform where activists can check-in daily upon completing a daily anti-racist or LBGTQ+ action—recognizes that personal accountability is a huge component of making change on a community level. This includes "actively speaking out and taking action to end injustice directed toward minority groups and BIPOC communities, especially if you are not part of that community," he says. Also, "not letting oneself be fatigued, and returning to passivity because the politics do not directly affect you, and learning to create a lasting lifestyle that contributes to political action, awareness and change."

Finally, if you work with or have children of your own, you could also contribute to the goal of stopping community violence by connecting and intervening with at-risk youth. Black children and adolescents are more at risk for the most physically harmful forms of violence. "If you know a lot of parents of similar-aged children, you can start a group with them to start intervention at the age of the children to help address their hurdles," Saahene says. "You can easily find these groups on most social media platforms."

When you've established a core network of participants for whatever community accountability group you create, you can work together to create a list of guidelines and principles the community will follow. Several websites can provide tools for and outlines of community accountability programs, such as this community accountability database with resources for organizing. But ultimately, the core of having a successful system is having compassion.

"When it comes to interpersonal violence, it's all about making sure the victim is [held up] by the community—heard, and supported, all without victim blaming," says Gioiello. "There also can be a facilitator—whether it be a faith leader, family member, or friend—who can help with the intervention process for the wrongdoer, who needs help in recognizing what is wrong about what they've done, taking responsibility and accountability for their violence. And all this can be done without demonizing them for what they've done."

Handling transgressions internally in a kind, compassionate, and supportive way holds potential to be revolutionary in granting equity to marginalized, over-policed communities. In that way, community accountability can bring power to the people—and ideally, an environment governed with peace and fairness.

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