How a simple Google doc called “What to do instead of calling the police” went viral and why it matters
This year, social justice warriors and those who love to hate them have probably come across the humble GoogleDoc What to do instead of calling the police. Compiled and circulated by New York-based education strategist Aaron Rose, What to do instead has been shared thousands of times on social media, and Aaron estimates that between 200 and 300 people are viewing the document at any one time.
Subtitled ‘A Guide, A Syllabus, A Conversation, A Process’, Rose tasked himself with making the resource as awareness and resistance to the abuse and killing of Black, trans and other marginalised people at the hands of police in the United States, which is now widely understood to be an epidemic and has come to the attention of the public through mass movements like #BlackLivesMatter.
As an educator, Aaron’s skills are in organising, synthesising, and connecting; and so he felt he could provide, in his words, “a jumping-off place” for addressing alternatives to building safety and accountability in our communities that don’t carry the risk of being hurt or killed by the very people whose job it is to ensure that safety and accountability.
Between two noisy cafes in New York and Mexico City, Aaron and I spoke over Skype this month to tease out the reasons for What to do instead’s popularity, the implications of abolishing the police, and the resonances for Australians who are interested in alternative community safety and accountability processes. Whilst our sunburnt country doesn’t have the same scale and complexity of police violence as the United States; racial and cultural profiling, homophobic and transphobic violence, and excessive use of force are all endemic problems in Australian policing. Similarly, where the US has an exceptionally high prison population within which Black people in particular are over-represented, Australia sends Indigenous people to prison 15 times more often than anybody else in the population.
“When someone says ‘police abolition’, people often immediately think of the most dramatic situations in which they think they need the police”, reflects Aaron. So, What to do instead starts the reader off with the everyday moments where we might consider calling the cops — in his words, “your neighbor is setting off fireworks at 3am, or there’s intimate partner violence happening outside your window, or you see someone hit their child in public.” What do you do, he asks, if you’re a person who can rely on protection from the police but you know that protection comes at the cost of the abuse of others?
As we learned in the important Netflix documentary The 13th, in America, the lifetime likelihood of imprisonment for Black men is one in three; compared to one in 17 for white men. One in every 65 deaths of a young African American man in the US is a killing by police. People of colour, gay, trans, working class and other marginalised people are also at a much higher risk of violent treatment from law enforcement officers. As such this is an increasingly serious question for people who want to be allies to those that are mistreated by police but who might also want those fireworks dealt with or that abuser removed.
A particular aim is “to help white people be able to say: even if the police protect me, I reject that protection because it’s predicated on the abuse of other people”. What to do instead is intended to help build solid alternatives within the community for safety, accountability, and conflict resolution. “There are a range of possibilities” for beginning to build these alternatives, says Aaron. “For example, people could take a pledge to get to know their neighbours so it’s easier to talk to them when those fireworks are going off or you’re concerned that someone is being abused.” What to do instead is about “increasing people’s choices in those moments”, as well as “finding spaces outside of the control” of forms of authority that affect marginalised people in such disproportionately violent ways.
Given the long history of police oppression against Indigenous people in Australia (check out some of the testimony in recent tweets #DefineAboriginal), I asked Dr Megan Williams (an Aboriginal health researcher and member of the #JustJustice team) if she thought Australian society would benefit from a similar shift in thinking to that suggested by What to do instead.
“In Australia unfortunately we have had prominent people produce research that shows there is no evidence for racial bias in the legal system, and this seems the dominant view” said Williams.
“That there is no evidence to report also means it is missing; it hasn’t been done. We similarly do not have any evidence published that says the law favours non-Indigenous people, nor that non-Indigenous people use the law to control Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples such as calling the police when they have a problem. So, we are in a difficult position to actually do anything about what we see in the community and what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community members tell us about their experience.” At the same time, “Australia is so diverse so calling police in the situation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people together in a public place in the city is very different to responding to violence in a family in a small town.”
Williams and her #JustJustice colleagues recently launched a book outlining the ‘justice reinvestment’ approach to reducing incarceration of Indigenous people in Australia. An economic strategy, justice reinvestment involves governments spending money on community programs instead of prisons. As the Four Corners investigation of justice reinvestment in the town of Bourke showed in September, it is essential to “have the police at the table” for the strategy to work. In the Bourke story for example, we hear of a confrontation between a group of young people and workers at a local business. The business owners called the police, who in turn called the justice reinvestment team (which is headed by local Aboriginal people), for a justice response.
For Rose, justice reinvestment is “a compelling idea”, and one of many possible “measures [to] reduce police violence and incarceration in the short term.” Now that Donald Trump is the President-Elect of the United States, Rose says: “It’s important now more than ever to resist the structures of white supremacy and state violence in the United States. We know that this is a country founded on racism and violence, and these election results have affirmed how very true that is. The struggle for justice is a long haul, lifelong fight. Our job is to continue the work that’s already cut out for us: to expose and dismantle white supremacy, to create alternatives to state structures, to build the more just world we envision, day by day, moment by moment in our communities.”
As another country founded on racism and violence, it is also worth us Australians considering the role of police in upholding that ugly legacy — from re-thinking why we call the police to supporting approaches like justice reinvestment.