By Lou Fancher
Tragically and profoundly, Zach Norris and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights prove two clichés are not only true, but necessary, prescient and welcome. As a man ahead of this time serving as executive director of the Oakland-based nonprofit whose time has come like never before, Norris and the organization hold frontline positions in social justice efforts to promote civic engagement and the green jobs movement, oppose youth incarceration and disproportionate criminalization, end police brutality and advocate for racial and economic justice for juveniles, low-income people and people of color.
Norris, in an interview, says Covid-19 has placed public safety in stark relief. “It showed us how backwards our understanding of safety is,” he says. “On the backwards side, I’ve been grappling with talk about punishment and prisons versus public health solutions for years. We need a public health response to this pandemic now, but we need to talk about it in terms of racial equity, justice, homelessness and home abuse. Criminalizing people and locking them up doesn’t solve those problems.”
The public safety notions, “He Keeps Us Safe” and “We Keep Us Safe,” Norris declares, represent longtime, opposing perspectives. “‘He Keeps Us Safe’ is the idea that one individual, a strong authority figure, is responsible for our safety. By extension, policing is the path to safety. It’s a divisive notion involving staying away from other people. This vision of, ‘if you see something, say something,’ is based on surveillance and suspicion,” he says.
In contrast, “We Keep Us Safe” is a philosophy of safety that recognizes we’re only as safe as the least among us. The mindset renders it unacceptable that nurses and other health care workers treating patients with Covid are dressed in garbage bags because there is a lack of PPE, while riot police forces have endless supplies of costly military equipment at their disposal. “The pandemic has exposed us to a lack of investment in safety equipment and supplies to healthcare workers,” says Norris.
Despite what he says is “a period of disarray” during the pandemic and worldwide civil unrest and protests that pit the supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement against far-right-wing, white supremacists, Norris finds hope. “It’s all on the table now. There are the same questions that were fundamental in the past. I started this work In 2000 as a law school student and we still had the idea then of the youth superpredators; an idea promoted by a few right-wing people.”
An Oakland native, Norris is a Harvard University graduate, a New York University–educated lawyer and author of We Keep Us Safe: Building Secure, Just, and Inclusive Communities—the February 2021 release from Beacon Press of the new paperback version comes with a refreshed title, DEFUND FEAR: Safety Without Policing, Prisons, and Punishment.
The superpredator logic, he suggests, led to the federal government giving millions of dollars to counties to expand youth jails. “Alameda County wanted to build what would have been the largest facility in the country,” he says. “We were able to stop them in 2001. At the center, we went from the early days of saying ‘books not bars,’ to providing resources for schools, housing support and community-based approaches to drug treatment.”
Broader questioning today—by people on both sides of the political aisle—of mass incarceration rates and of whether or not police officers are always the appropriate first responders in a public safety crisis is a development Norris welcomes. Success for the center’s restorative justice approach to resolving conflict is evident in financial support from the community that establishes the value and ensures the stability of Restore Oakland and Justice for Families, two of the center’s initiatives Norris co-founded. Restore Oakland was launched in 2019 and is an advocacy and training center. Justice for Families is a national alliance of organizations devoted to reducing, if not ending, out-of-scale youth incarceration rates.
“Restore Oakland is still in a good position financially, but we haven’t been able to open the job-training restaurant run by people who’ve been incarcerated,” he says. The program is on hold until a vaccine is available. In the meantime, partnering with the Family Independence Initiative, a national system that since 2001 has invested resources to provide upward mobility to low-income families, provides direct support to the center’s membership. “We’ve been able to give $500 to some of our members,” Norris says.
Other actions in recent years have resulted in significant, successful outcomes. Norris says co-sponsoring AB2542, a bill also known as the California Racial Justice Act, helped win protection in the Fall of 2020. The bill prohibits state prosecutors and court officers from using discrimination based on race, ethnicity or national origin to seek or to obtain a conviction or sentence. An ongoing fight to close the remaining three prisons in an eight-prison-closing campaign that began in 2002 and shut down five prisons by 2012 will anchor the center’s work and community engagement in Alameda County as a go-to model for public safety and youth justice when it succeeds, he says.
“It’s incredibly important timing because we have a national call and awakening around safety and justice,” he says. “People are questioning the true path to public safety. Restore Oakland is like a solar panel [providing energy] for the social justice movement. People are reaching out to us and developing initiatives of their own. They are creating supportive conflict resolution circles that for now, are happening online.”
Asked a devil’s advocate-style question of whether or not slogans like “defund the police” are harmful and feed white supremacy social media firestorms, Norris says the danger is minimal. People who once thought society could preserve public safety by militarizing law enforcement or by not taking care of the public are beginning to recognize that shifting policing resources to public health solutions is the better policy.
“The movement now is to take care of people, to make it more likely people will make the best decisions,” he says. “I’m reading Nudge, a book that talks about cafeteria choices. The person running it, if they put the dessert up front or at the end, all of those things influence what a young person will eat. Let’s nudge people to the right decision in ways that will make young people move in the right direction.”
Counterintuitively, Norris suggests that pushing for new approaches to old problems is less risky than sticking to the normative. “We have rolling blackouts because the way PG&E has been providing electricity is flawed,” he says. “We think we have to have blackouts—but that’s only because the energy companies we thought were taking care of us have not actually been making us safe.”
Providing alternative choices and redesigning the architecture of prisons, schools, governments, businesses and other institutions that display systemic racism is key. Working with youth and adults who are at highest risk, and with people of low income and people of color requires an approach that directly counters racial exclusion. The City of Richmond’s Office of Neighborhood Safety develops community partnerships that offer real-time alternatives to street violence and criminal activity. “Richmond spends $60 million on their police department and only $1 million for the ONS,” he says. “Through their work, they have drastically reduced the city’s homicide rate.” Norris says ONS checks in with youth and adults daily, offers housing support and can move an at-risk person out of a neighborhood to reduce hostility while allowing a young person to be mentored by someone who can improve their outlook.
“We have a choice. We can respond to harms before they are happening, or respond only after someone is shot and then settle for temporarily arresting retaliation,” says Norris.
Despite finding hope in Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential win, Norris sounds a cautionary note. “We have Biden as the architect of the 1994 crime bill coming in,” he says. Criminal justice reform activists say the law authored by Biden led to mass incarceration, more prisons and aggressive policing—especially of Black and brown Americans—in the last 26 years.
“There’s a tendency for people to think things are better because we have someone who’s not Donald Trump,” Norris says. “Someone who’s a Democrat and doesn’t use racist language or trade on the same stereotypes as Trump. But he’s still someone who ran on a sort of ‘lock ’em up’ platform and his vice president, Kamala Harris, is a former prosecutor. The current president says, ‘Don’t trust your neighbor at the border.’ A lot of those folks who did not vote for him will be breathing a sigh of relief. But the road to real safety is a long one and will take a rethinking of public safety.”
Norris, already recognized as a leading activist in racial and social justice reform, embraces his roles as an architect and spokesperson of a new vision for public safety. Despite the limitations of the pandemic, receptivity for his online talks from libraries, tech companies and at national conferences now presented online is on the upswing. The new title of his book, he says, states clearly that the country needs a reallocation away from policing, prisons, punishment and fear-mongering, towards healing and health. Pivoting in a way that keeps the “defund fear” message front and center and following the act of a leader ahead of his time and the mission of an organization whose time has come—or not—demands a decision. It is a choice we must make now. It is a choice that will determine the future of public safety.