Safety, not Surveillance

As a kid, I learned in school that the police existed to keep people and communities safe from harm and “bad people.” The term “bad people” was always connected to the choices and actions people in our community made.

Therefore I grew up with the impression that if I behaved properly and made the right choices, it would protect me from any contact with the police. So, if the police existed to keep me safe, why was I so afraid of them? To answer this question, I looked to my parents.

While they never told me directly to distrust the police it was interesting to examine their body language any time there were police around. If we were driving they would sit up, ensure their seat belts were buckled, and avoid eye contact with the police officers that were driving. My mother would place her hands on her lap, and my father would anxiously check his left rear view mirror to ensure the police car had driven off. Tension would drown what was recently a relaxed setting, and I remember wondering, “They’re not doing anything wrong, why are they nervous?” Moments like this made me realize that adults, like children, were not excluded from fear of the police.

In college, I discovered that my feelings were not exclusive to me and my parents. Folks who either had direct experiences with the police, or witnessed confrontations between the police and loved ones, revealed nightmare experiences: harassment while driving, profiling if you went to a high school that had a police presence, and physical violence. Friends shared that it wasn’t uncommon to have people in their neighborhood become victims to the criminal justice system, while others expressed their constant anxiety of having loved ones come in contact with the police because of citizenship status. Learning about these experiences made me recognize certain privileges I had growing up, and oddly enough made me feel lucky to just be afraid of the police.

 

Victor at Night Our for Safety and Liberation 2016 Event in Oakland

Photo By: Brooke Anderson

Joining the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights helped me deconstruct my experiences in relation to safety and the police. I came to understand that my fear of the police was not okay and that I shouldn’t feel lucky to be afraid. In reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness I became overwhelmed by the fact that the police do not just pursue “bad people” that make “bad choices,” but instead have the power to define who is a “bad” person,” and interpret what the “bad choice” is.

The police enforce a system that traps low income and people of color in a cycle of oppression and disables them from opportunities.  It was this realization that made me understand why I had been and continue to be, afraid of the police. These are the reasons for why at 25 I imitate the actions of my elders and sit up straight while I am driving, ensure my seat belt is buckled, and avoid eye contact with any police officers. These are also the reasons for why I help to organize events like Night Out for Safety and Liberation.

Night Out for Safety and Liberation brings community members together to redefine public safety. We collaborate with organizations across the country to host events including community forums, rallies, vigils, and block parties.

For me, the event has allowed me to get to know people in the broader Oakland community through our shared experiences, and have genuine conversations about equality, power, opportunity, and prosperity. The event also initiated my imagination around redefining what safety could be without the police in our community. While I’m still thinking about what real safety would be without the police in our community, I do know that safety is walking in our neighborhoods without feeling surveillances. Safety is driving to the market, and not feeling anxious that you’re going to get pulled over because you look suspicious. Safety is to live without fear of being separated from loved ones and friends.

What does safety mean to you? Join me in Oakland on August 1 at DeFremery Park (1651 Adeline St.) to redefine what safety looks like in our communities. Check out NOSL.us to join the conversation either online or in person at a Night Out for Safety and Liberation event

By,

Victor Velasco Ella Baker Center Member