As we close our six-month deep focus on defunding the police and the eight-week Praxis Circles to understand this call, we are publishing reflections from PPFers on what they’ve learned through this process. This one comes from Alison Wood, PPF’s Accompaniment Coordinator who served as an accompanier in Colombia in 2014. She is a facilitator, advocate, and educator rooted in the U.S./Mexico borderlands who also coordinates the Tucson Borderlands Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program.
Three months into pandemic I stood up from a Zoom meeting and headed to the back porch to take a sunshine break. Just outside the back door, I interrupted a man in the process of stealing my housemate’s bike. Locking eyes with him over the handlebars, we both froze. “Uh, can I help you?” I asked, my brain totally blank. He started talking to me, still holding onto the bike. In that moment, all I could think was oh crap – this is it – if I don’t support policing, I can’t call the police – what do I do? What do I do?
For white folks, this might sound familiar. Calling the police is the easy way to answer the persistent What do I do? that can echo in our heads in dangerous or uncertain circumstances. There are very few accessible institutional alternatives to policing in most places. White women like me often call the police because we’re uncomfortable and afraid. I know that calling the police does not actually make me safer (since police do not prevent harm, only respond to it), and the involvement of police actively harms my Black and Latinx neighbors.
Not having any idea what to do as an alternative to policing, I fell back on what I know: accompaniment. I used what I’ve learned in accompaniment training to calm my body and try to take action with my best self instead of my panicked lizard brain. I took deep breaths and focused on how my feet met the ground. Still talking to the man on my porch, I slowly pulled out my phone and called as many people as I could think of who I thought would be nearby, available, and understanding of why I was choosing to respond to this moment without police.
Accompaniment with PPF takes place in spaces where safety has been disrupted or destroyed. Our accompaniment partners in the Presbyterian Church of Colombia (IPC) and Agua Prieta, Mexico have practiced keeping their own communities safe for decades (for some, generations). They know intimately what it costs to choose not to meet violence with violence. The leaders who allow us to accompany them have made commitments to nonviolence, to building peace both in the “what” of their work and how they carry out that work, building peace for the long term and refusing violence now. In building alternatives to policing in our own communities, and seeking to abolish the police in the United States, PPF has a chance to live up to their example.
It is clear that total system change is needed, to build a world in which many worlds fit. But what do we do in the meantime? What do we do in the now, on our back porches, while we’re working to compost the current world and grow something new?
I believe we can relearn old lessons from accompaniment to help us in this new purpose:
- A critical first step in knowing how to respond to uncertain situations is being able to deescalate ourselves – redirect our energy away from lizard-brain fight/flight/freeze responses and into calm, values-driven, strategic responses. When we are centered and grounded, we can stay in the uncertain moment and make choices from a place of clarity and care instead of panic. This is especially important for white people; most of us have been taught that police = safety, and have been trained for decades to call 911 as a first response. When we embrace abolition and nonviolence, we need clear space in our hearts and minds to counteract that programming and actively, intentionally choose nonviolent responses.
- There is power in community. Accompaniers are trained to stick together, to support each other. Sticking together – the buddy system – being part of a group – however we think about it, being with other people who share our commitments helps us feel supported in our active choice of nonviolence. Being with someone else can help us feel safer, can perhaps keep us safer in certain circumstances, and can allow us to process feelings with each other (which, again, helps us make good choices!).
- While our grounding values and strategies are the same, the practice of safety will look different in different places. Accompaniment as carried out by PPF is rooted in antiracism, non-violence, partnership, physical presence, and the prioritization of local leadership. That local leadership means that the specific practice of accompaniment in each place is different depending on the context. Listening to local experts, responding to local needs, making the post of local resources – all of these things that shape accompaniment responses are key to shaping alternatives to policing, too. We can learn from other places (like PPF learned from our accompaniment experience in Colombia to begin accompaniment in Agua Prieta), but the new structures and communities we grow to keep each other safe will look different in different places.
- Direct action is important in the now, and fuels advocacy for a better future. Accompaniers are asked to share their experiences with legislators and change makers, to support moving the world toward safety for all. It’s a both-and: we need something different now, this moment, even as we create a new system.
This is true for the church leaders in Colombia who ask for accompaniment to deter day-to-day violence while they are building peace with justice after 70 years of civil war;
for human rights defenders on the US border in Mexico who ask for accompaniment to keep violence away from where they are freely giving abundant hospitality to people in transit and advocating for policy changes;
even for me, standing on my back porch in the first pandemic summer, committed to abolishing the police in favor of alternatives and needing help in the meantime.
Within ten minutes of making phone calls, three other people were standing with me on the back porch – accompanying me in an uncertain situation. I didn’t feel magically safer, or protected; my friends didn’t say much or stand between me and my visitor. Instead, I did most of the talking. Standing with other people helped me slow my breathing and stay present in the hardness. I felt supported in working through what was happening to a safe end for everyone.
The most important thing we can learn from accompaniment is the simplest: another way is possible. It is possible to manage uncertain, precarious-feeling situations without falling back on militarized responses (carried out by armed guards, perhaps, in our partners’ contexts – carried out by armed police or armed neighbors here in the US). It is possible to train ourselves to respond differently in a specific moment, to get a different kind of help, and to create a different world.
It is much easier, for a white person, just to call the police. Even in this magical accompaniment experience I’m writing about now, I kept thinking, Oh God, this is so hard. This is so hard. This is taking so long. How do we make this work? This is so hard. Some alternatives exist already (here’s a non-comprehensive list of things communities are trying); many many more will need to be created. We will need to practice staying in our bodies during discomfort, hanging in for the hard work of creating the world we want to live in. Accompaniment offers one way for us to live into that new world before it exists. To truly create safety for all, we must create a world in which it is easier not to call the police, in which the easy answers do not rely on violence.