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A groundbreaking new vision for public safety that overturns more than 200 years of fear-based discrimination, othering, and punishment
As the effects of aggressive policing and mass incarceration harm historically marginalized communities and tear families apart, how do we define safety? In a time when the most powerful institutions in the United States are embracing the repressive and racist systems that keep many communities struggling and in fear, we need to reimagine what safety means. Community leader and lawyer Zach Norris lays out a radical way to shift the conversation about public safety away from fear and punishment and toward growth and support systems for our families and communities. In order to truly be safe, we are going to have to dismantle our mentality of Us vs. Them. By bridging the divides and building relationships with one another, we can dedicate ourselves to strategic, smart investments—meaning resources directed toward our stability and well-being, like healthcare and housing, education and living-wage jobs. This is where real safety begins.
Originally published in hardcover as We Keep Us Safe: Building Secure, Just, and Inclusive Communities, Defund Fear is a blueprint of how to hold people accountable while still holding them in community. The result reinstates full humanity and agency for everyone who has been dehumanized and traumatized, so they can participate fully in life, in society, and in the fabric of our democracy.
About the Author
Zach Norris is the former executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and a current Open Society Foundations Soros Equality Fellow. 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 zachnorris.com and on Twitter (@ZachWNorris).
“An urgent call for safer, more inclusive communities for everyone . . . Highly illuminating account of the changes required to create a more democratic society for all.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Progressive activists, community organizers, and elected officials should take note of this commonsense guide.” —Publishers Weekly
“His call for transforming the justice system into a ‘culture of care’ is clarifying and provides good fuel for debate.” —Booklist
“Bright, talented, compassionate, strategic, and committed . . . Norris’s insights and story will be an enormously important contribution in the effort to advance human rights in this country.” —Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy
“In We Keep Us Safe, Norris masterfully captures our deep yearning for connection and compassion as we navigate the complex issue of accountability and reminds us of our humanity and that we have a choice to do things differently. Even more encouraging, Norris invites us to tap into our resourcefulness and to rely on one another to challenge the failed experiment of the current punitive carceral state and reimagine safety and accountability together. We deserve to live in our full dignity and power and Norris, through this book, shows us how.” —Patrisse Cullors, author of When They Call You a Terrorist
“Zach’s words are a must-read for anyone who cares about a more just and more compassionate future. He shows us the world that might be possible when we lead with empathy, when we humanize rather than criminalize each other, and when we seek restoration rather than retribution. And perhaps most importantly, he gives us hope that it’s a world in which we might one day live.” —Jennifer Siebel Newsome, First Partner of California, filmmaker, and founder of the Representation Project
“Zach Norris [is] among the most promising leaders and thinkers of our time, wrestling with pressing questions at the intersection of racial and economic justice from a human rights perspective. . . . We Keep Us Safe powerfully demonstrates that safety, freedom, and justice come from relationships, resources, and real accountability—not more punishment, police, and prisons.” —Michelle Alexander
“Zach Norris’s powerful book offers an inspiring blueprint for justice beyond prisons and courts—and paints a picture of a brighter future for all of us.” —Sally Kohn, author of The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity
“We Keep Us Safe is a profoundly important contribution to our thinking about what safety is, what’s undermining it, and how to advance it. Norris draws on an amazing array of ideas and resources to show us that it is not walls and jails we need more of, but care, connection, and community.” —Annie Leonard, executive director, Greenpeace US
“A powerful book that is very much in the tradition of Ella Baker’s radical humanitarianism. Rejecting fear-based, revenge-based models of ‘justice,’ Norris’s work pays homage to an entire generation of activists who are not only clear about what they are against but who are collectively creating a vision and a practice of what the future could look like. A must-read.” —Barbara Ransby, author of Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement
“Looking at our moment in time through the lens of safety is a brilliant insight—it gets at what so many of us are feeling every day. By offering real solutions rooted in a new way of thinking, Zach Norris has done our society a great service.” —Bill McKibben, author of Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?
“In his excellent new book, Zach Norris writes with insight, inspiring stories, and a vision that includes everyone—just what we need to move from fear to caring, and from a system of punishment to one of transformative justice. We Keep Us Safe identifies the roots of our fear, insecurity and vulnerability, offers a way forward together, and provides practical, workable strategies for public policy change. Reading this book will alter the way you understand safety, security, and justice. We so need the caring, fierceness, and insight Norris brings us in these challenging times.” —Paul Kivel, educator, activist, and author of Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice
“In this thoughtful and ambitious book, Zach Norris expands the story of justice. . . . He reaches back in time—how did we get here?—and he reaches forward, envisioning a compassionate future that promises much greater safety, particularly for all those who are most vulnerable in today’s world.” —From the foreword by Van Jones, author of Rebuild the Dream