Safety and the City: Why Women Have Never Relied on the Police for Protection
Leslie Kern on Rethinking Systems That Put Women at Risk
Women really can’t win when it comes to safety in our cities. We’re burdened with a long list of precautionary advice, which, even when followed, does little to protect us. Our claims about the near-universal experience of street harassment are met with shrugs of #NotAllMen. We’re told to report sexual violence to the police who then label our complaints as “unfounded” or “he said/she said” situations. When cases do result in convictions, the sentences are paltry. All of this against a backdrop where violence against women in public is just the tip of the iceberg, as domestic violence remains the greatest risk to women’s safety.
We’re past due for a major overhaul of the way we think about both safety and danger. As tempting as the idea of curfews for men might sound, that system does nothing about violence in the home and assumes that violence against women is rooted in the acts of individual men, rather than systems. So, what options do we have?
It should be clear after 2020’s mass mobilizations in the wake of police killings that increased policing is not the answer. There is no evidence that policing has improved women’s safety, especially for women who aren’t white, middle-class, cisgender, or documented citizens. Despite billion-dollar police budgets and the ever-expanding prison system, violence against women around the world doesn’t appear to have decreased at all, according to the World Health Organization.
Meanwhile, inquiries into sexual harassment within police forces have shown that these institutions fall short of protecting even their own female members. Police officers can also be perpetrators of violence against women in public, as the shocking murder of Sarah Everard in London in 2021 illustrated. How many Black, Indigenous, or trans women victims of police violence are we unaware of? Furthermore, women who have experienced violence are themselves at risk of criminalization for fighting back. The cases of Marissa Alexander, Bresha Meadows, and Cyntoia Brown are just a few of the more widely known examples where women were incarcerated for killing their abusers.
History tells us, though, that women have never fully relied on the police to keep them safe. When we look more carefully at the ways women have protected, and continue to protect, themselves and each other, we find that starting points for change already exist. Indeed, there is a long history of women developing safety strategies in their own communities, ones that don’t depend on the police, the state, or relationships with men. Perhaps by remembering, reframing, and remobilizing these practices, we can move toward a future where, at a minimum, efforts to end violence against women don’t lead to putting more power and resources in the hands of male-dominated institutions.
In the early days of what was then known as the “battered women’s movement,” women organized secret networks of safehouses for abused women. This kind of violence was not yet fully recognized as a crime or even as grounds for divorce. In the 1970s and 80s, the first official shelters for survivors of domestic abuse opened in places like the US, Canada, and the UK, often staffed by the same women who ran the underground safehouse networks. With the growing cultural and legal acknowledgement of domestic violence as a crime, the shelter movement became more intertwined with the state and reliant on government funding. Police were pressured to take a more active role, with the creation of policies that allowed police to lay charges without needing the victim’s consent. This move was not without controversy. Increasing the autonomy of police was viewed as dangerous by many racialized women who feared that this power would allow for yet more over-policing in their communities.
Sex workers have also always had to rely on one another for safety. Given the lack of concern for crimes against sex workers from police and the public, especially if those sex workers are trans people and/or racialized, sex workers have developed their own safety tactics. Perhaps most well-known is the idea of a black list, where sex workers share the names or license plates of clients who are dangerous. Sex workers may also try to share working space so that they can keep an eye on one another. Unfortunately, laws regulating prostitution often criminalize the things that sex workers do to keep safe, like working out of the same home, hiring security, and hiring drivers.
These examples remind us that long before there was even the hope of police or legal protection, women worked together to create networks of safety. Moreover, many women—especially racialized women, queer and trans women, and women in the sex industry—have repeatedly warned anti-violence and feminist movements against developing an over-reliance on the state. As Lola Olufemi argues in Feminism, Interrupted, the state has little interest in protecting women or truly promoting women’s freedom. She notes that domestic violence legislation does nothing to change the material conditions that place and keep women in harm’s way; at the same time, it often justifies budget increases for policing and prosecution. Similarly, public safety initiatives put forward in the name of women’s safety are often deployed to threaten homeless people, terrorize poor and racialized communities, and harass sex workers.
Feminists rightly point out that campaigns around public safety for women tend to place the onus for preventing violence on victims rather than perpetrators. Memes that swap “How Not to Get Raped” advice for “How Not to Rape” rules attempt to expose the victim-blaming mentality that still underlies much of the safety guidance given to women. As much as we bristle at being told how to dress and behave (I certainly do), I’m interested in reclaiming the collective practices of care, concern, and intervention that women have been using of our volition for decades, if not centuries, in recognition of the reality that no one is coming to help us. We can jettison victim-blaming rape culture while valuing the efforts women make to create a culture of safety amongst ourselves.
What if we connected walking home together, texting one another, and using bystander intervention skills to protect one another from harassment and assault to the vibrant history of women-centered safety organizing? What if we attributed these tactics to women’s creativity, self-empowerment, and independence from police and the state? This reframing provides a foundation for imagining new ways of generating safety from the ground up, while building on older tactics.Rethinking safety means holding accountable the systems that perpetrate the most harm toward women, rather than focusing on the shadowy image of a scary stranger.
The movement for police and prison abolition—nurtured by the tireless work of Black feminists like Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Mariame Kaba—is about reclaiming and fostering community-centered ways of reducing harm and expanding freedom for all. A core tenet of feminist abolitionist visions is that we must organize society around our values, not our fears. I, for one, want to keep hold of the values of care, friendship, and mutual interdependence embedded in women’s ways of looking out for one another. While these alone won’t produce the city without danger, fear, and deprivation that abolitionists imagine, they are critical tools for moving us in the right direction.
In the feminist city, we need to do away with the limited idea that safety is primarily about protection from violent crime. Rethinking safety from a feminist, abolitionist perspective means recognizing that real safety is rooted in a context where everyone has their basic needs for housing, food, education, health care, social connection, and love met without conditions. Rethinking safety means clearly identifying and holding accountable the people, spaces, and systems that perpetrate the most harm toward women, rather than focusing on the shadowy image of a scary stranger. Rethinking safety means recognizing that affordable housing, free childcare, and quality education will do more to decrease violence against women than police and prisons ever could.
When I imagine what safety looks and feels like in the feminist city I one day hope to see, I take inspiration from generations of women who worked together to create their own spaces of safety. I imagine how this ethic of care from the ground up can be expanded to form the basis of a society-wide collective commitment to making each other safe by ensuring we are all secure in our core needs. I believe in a world where when harm is done, we refuse to compound that harm through unjust systems of punishment and abandonment. Instead of spending all our time thinking about what we will do with and to those who might cause harm, let’s rethink and recommit to practices and systems that produce genuine safety by making sure everyone has what they need to thrive. Only then will we make progress towards a world free of violence against women.
Feminist City by Leslie Kern is available via Verso Books.