Reporter’s Note: In building and understanding democracy from the ground up, it requires we examine and interrogate the systems around us –– which includes questioning and discussing alternative solutions to a historically and systemically oppressive policing and criminal legal system. This documentary screening and panel conversation recap provides an opportunity for the community to engage in people-centered conversations about solidarity and about imagining and building a democracy that is rooted in community care and holistic solutions to the problems that plague our society.
Tyre Nichols’ Jan. 10 beating death added to the list of casualties of police violence since the start of 2023. By the end of January, it was reported that police across the United States had killed at least seven unarmed people.
Now, three months into 2023, the number of people killed by police has ballooned to 191, according to the Mapping Police Violence database.
In response, as part of the Week of Solidarity to Stop Cop City –– the 385-acre Atlanta Public Safety Training Center currently under construction with the intent to train and militarize law enforcement officers in urban policing practices –– Memphians convened at Rhodes College on Feb. 23 to view filmmaker Matthew Solomon’s documentary “Reimagining Safety.” Afterward, they heard a panel discussion moderated by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism between the filmmaker, a national scholar in justice and policing and local Memphis organizers.
Along with Solomon, panelists included Alex S. Vitale, a professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center; North Memphis native Shahidah Jones, an organizer with Official Black Lives Matter Memphis; and Joshua Adams, a Whitehaven native who organizes with DeCarcerate Memphis.
Below, we present highlights of that conversation. Comments have been edited for clarity and brevity. The full transcript from the panel discussion is available here.
On reimagining safety in Memphis, the South and the U.S.
Adams: What it means to reimagine safety is to understand what is it that keeps you safe. I learned as a skateboarder in Whitehaven. There was a gang called Goon Squad. They were jumping people randomly, but I learned that it wasn’t the police that were going to keep me safe from those folks. It was my other classmates and peers. [It was] people watching out, people talking to those young folks who were doing those things and building actual relationships, being able to have conversations about why violence should not be used in this manner.
Jones: I think folks should imagine the places where they currently feel safe. Safety becomes about not only where you live, but how you live. To me, it shrinks the conversation when we think about safety, and the only thing we talk about is police because police are actually not there to provide you safety. That’s not in their mission. That’s not how they were trained. So it’s weird for me to talk about reimagining safety, and police are at the center of that. I think that, in itself, is a core issue. I am an abolitionist. Abolition teaches that it’s revolutionary to build. It’s not about deconstruction. It’s about rebuilding. Self-governance is a block-by-block strategy in Memphis. Most blocks and most neighborhoods have a hierarchy in a way that we care for and govern ourselves. Safety and abolition start to come together when we start to build a community that sets community care and self-care at the center. To me, that has nothing to do with police.
Vitale: Part of the problem is the way in which safety has been defined as a particular set of harms that we’ve labeled as crime, and that we resolve by sending the police and putting people in prison. But in fact, most of the threats to our safety don’t count as the crimes that you call the police for. If a corporation pollutes your air, did you call the police to do something about that? If the governor passes a policy that pollutes the water supply, do the police come and arrest the governor? If your employer steals your wages, will the police come and fix that for you? Who are they going to arrest if you call them? They’re going to arrest you. They’re always going to take the side of the employer. Do we call the police when there’s no public transit infrastructure, so then I have to drive a vehicle that’s not well-maintained, that’s dangerous for me, that might be dangerous for others? These are the things that actually produce deaths at much higher rates than what we call street crime.
Solomon: One thing that really stood out to me in the film was [the idea that] the first step in safety is acknowledging that everybody deserves to be safe because we don’t really believe that right now. The ways in which it’s easy for us to other people and to cut them off as, ‘they’re criminals so who cares,’ eliminates any kind of humanity from the equation. What if we cared about one another? For me, [part of the solution is] being able to view each other — and the world — through that lens. My hope with this film is that it could be a bridge for those conversations.
On defining momentum for the community to reimagine safety and policing
Jones: I don’t like to think about momentum tied to Black bodies and death. I think, for far too long, that’s when Black folks get heard, and that’s when other folks join. I think about the current conversations where folks were saying if they were going to watch the [Tyre Nichols] video or not. I think about Emmett Till and the history of what it means to have to always prove and show that we bleed. I don’t think this is necessarily momentum, and I don’t want to connect momentum to the tragic loss of life. We’re still not necessarily digging deeply into the structures, like what this shows us about policing. I don’t think we’re closer to changing policing around here. I would not call it momentum until there’s some actual changes, some legislation and some money that is moved from policing into some other bags. Data transparency, disbanding these [specialized police] units. If those things ain’t passing, that’s not even momentum.
Adams: Momentum moves at the speed of council sessions. The issue for me is the police chief has shown up to two council sessions. She just wants to talk about the crime stats. In some cases, the councilmen say ridiculously oppressive stuff. One councilwoman said, ‘We know the city is bleeding, but it’s gonna have to bleed a little bit longer.’ That’s what’s in people’s minds. So the question becomes when do they change how they think about safety that matches what the people are thinking? That’s, I think, when the momentum will start.
Vitale: Political education is happening. Analysis is deepening. What I see across the country is that there’s been this transformation in what people are asking for. They’re not making the same failed demands that don’t really change anything, [like] another civilian review board, another $20 million for police training, another $20 million to the police for more technology, more money for hiring. Over 40 cities have eliminated their school police departments. That’s a real victory that’s saving lives, that’s changing the nature of how we think about safety for our children. Because groups like DeCarcerate Memphis have been doing this work, in a moment of crisis, they had a set of demands ready to go.
Jones: When we talk about police and talk about what exactly they are doing, the awareness of what it looks like day-to-day on their job, I don’t think folks are still getting it. For me, hearing the Tyre Nichols tape [reminded me]. My daughter was arrested in January on her way from school. She goes to [the Savannah College of Art and Design.] She was driving through Mississippi. She got pulled over for speeding, going like 10 miles per hour over. The guy pulls her over, a white cop, small white town. He tells her he wants her to step outside the car. She says she feels uncomfortable. He says he’s going to break the window to the car. She calls me. I’m in chemotherapy in the hospital in Texas. He threatened to kill her. She’s 18 at the time in a Toyota Hybrid Prius 2005. I heard him break the window and pull my daughter out while she’s screaming at the top of her lungs. There was no reason for that escalation. But that is the way that people are approached by policing. That awareness of what we are actually paying for is missing in the conversation all the time, especially when we start talking about how they operate in Black neighborhoods. I don’t think political education is happening because I think people still want to believe that some parts of this is about keeping people safe, and it’s not.
Adams: If you haven’t, open the book and read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. When people talk about mass incarceration, they think about prisons and jails. Everybody that is under state control is not in prison or jail. A lot of them are out in the community. There’s a lot of people at school with ankle monitors on. They’re on probation or parole. They’re in pre-trial [diversion programs]. A lot of these people are held in this sense of state control, so then they get treated a different way. The other thing that we noticed when it came to looking at traffic stops data is once you’ve been hit with a charge, or once you’ve been convicted, police essentially know who you are. They pull you over constantly, and you’re going back and forth to court. This is dehumanizing poverty. After the Tyre Nichols situation, what’s the rules now for telling Black men what to do with traffic stops? If you’re talking about safety, you’re not safe when you are detained by an armed person. How do you end that type of interaction altogether? Those are the questions we should be asking.
On politicizing the community to expand their view of police as a necessity for safety
Adams: One of the practices I’ve seen is uplifting people who have been directly impacted by the issue. That breaks the veneer easily because you get well-acquainted with the stories, not just of people who have been brutalized, but people who have been constantly arrested and constantly pulled over. Understanding what they need and understanding how to address the problems that affect them breaks the veneer very quickly.
Jones: I think this is where more people like Alex and the film, more opportunity for places like MLK50. Media is one of the biggest perpetrators of copaganda. We got so many people that flew in the first week, so many people that came in to support the families. Now it’s time to push for reforms and many of those people are like, ‘We understand this is a hard situation. We understand. This can’t happen now.’ Well, why can’t it? We’re about to go into a mayoral election. This is budget season. I do think it’s time for the people, for allies, for the media to call out the spread of disinformation. When you leave this room today, if you showed up today because you feel like there’s something for you to do, there is. This is just the start. Folks have got to be committed to doing it for the long haul and fighting and not standing down when met with the fear of conflict and tension.