Defund Fear: Safety Without Policing, Prisons, and Punishment
A new vision of a care-based strategy for public safety that overturns more than 200 years of fear-based discrimination, othering, and punishment
Despite the United States’ long-standing tradition of aggressive policing and imprisonment, we still don’t feel safe. It’s clear that our current approaches to justice aren’t working.
They blame our problems on a subset of scapegoats and marginalized Others we’ve been indoctrinated to perceive as criminals, decreasing our societal capacity to hold powerful institutions and individuals accountable. Community leader and lawyer Zach Norris lays out a radical way to shift the conversation about public safety away from fear and punishment 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 each other, we can dedicate ourselves to strategic, smart investments—meaning resources directed towards our stability and well-being, like healthcare and housing, education and living-wage jobs. This is where real safety begins.
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.
Engage with family and friends about the ideas in the book using the Defund Fear discussion guide.
Introduction: Us Vs Them
Can you think of a time when you felt safe? After a break in at his house, Zach says “my theories about safety were tested.” What are your theories of safety? How were they formed? Are they ever tested?
Chapter 1: Who and What Harms Us
Zach talks about “crimes” versus “harms”. What has impacted your life more? Criminal activity, or actions that are not considered criminal, but still harm, like foreclosures, sexual harassment or racism? The book points out the fact that white people get more of the good stuff (second chances, starring roles) and people of color more of the bad (jail time, asthma). This is the result of white supremacy that has long been built into our systems. Who’s responsible if no one person is creating these harms? How can we change these patterns? Has patriarchy helped or harmed you in your life? How would it feel to be free of its assumptions and expectations? What’s the story of violence you grew up with? Who perpetrated it and how? Is that story changing? How do you see the “architects of anxiety” drumming up fear around you? Who are they blaming and scapegoating? Who’s actually to blame?
Chapter 2: The Framework of Fear
Zach reminds us that our nation has treated people as less than human since our founding. How does that contribute to our culture of anxiety? Bill Shishima, who was incarcerated at 11 in an Japanese internment camp said he had always thought he was American. Are you “American”? Why or why not? Who is American and who isn’t? Do you believe there are “good people” and “bad people”? Do good people ever do bad things? Can bad people do good things? How do we deal with that interpersonally? How about as a society?
Chapter 3: Address Harms
Does restorative justice sound “tough enough” to you? When would you want to use it as a survivor? What about when you have caused harm? Zach explains that in a restorative justice framework “rather than stepping away from people in conflict, we are asked to step in.” How can you see that happening in your life? If you could have a building in your community dedicated to improving safety, what would you put in it?
Chapter 4: Preventing Harms
Preventing harm requires resources. But currently prisons, police departments and tax breaks for the rich are costing us a lot. What could we be spending less on to achieve safety? What do we need to spend more on? How do relationships increase safety? What would it look like to turn to each other rather than on each other? Polling says people of all persuasions feel government doesn’t work for them. Do you feel represented by our government? Do you think your elected officials work for you? Zach explains that agency is the antidote to trauma, and democracy is agency at the community level. How could you see the nation healing our collective trauma?
Chapter 5: Allen and Durrell
Allen struggles to guide Durrell and looks to the police for help. Did you struggle as a teen, or as the parent of a teen? What resources were available for you? Allen used Go Fund Me to try and pay for his healthcare. Have you participated in a campaign like that? Struggled with medical bills? Do you have health insurance? How does health care figure into your broader understanding of safety? Which of the recommendations on pages 116 and 117 are the most important to you? What could you do to help make them happen?
Chapter 6: Marlena and James
How has mental health or mental illness affected your life? Have you used drugs? What has the impact been on your life? Have those consequences been influenced by your race, class, gender or other identity? Which of the recommendations on pages 135 and 136 are the most important to you? What could you do to help make them happen?
Chapter 7: Anita
Is your housing secure? Why or why not? Were you surprised to read that encampments are often intentional, self-governed and managed communities? Does that change how you feel about them and the people who live in them? Which of the recommendations on pages 153 and 154 are the most important to you? What could you do to help make them happen?
Conclusion: We the People
Can you imagine life without prisons? Why or why not? Zach notes that the era of incarceration seems to be ending, but the window for what’s next is narrow. What should be next? What should we do now? Zach explains that fascists promise to keep you safe by making you fear others. In a democracy, we recognize we are safer when more of us are participating in making our society. Where are we on that spectrum right now? He says we need to “roll up our sleeves and hold our institutions accountable to all of us.” What does that look like for you?