Last night I went out for a friend’s birthday. I left my apartment in Northwest Washington, D.C. at about 10pm and got home about a quarter to one. It was a 35-minute walk each way. As I was walking home, I thought about how lucky I was to be in this position. My walk was well-lit, there were plenty of people and cars out, and I felt totally safe. I put my headphones in and listened to music, and never felt like I had to look over my shoulder.
It made me think back to times when that wasn’t the case. When I lived in Fortaleza, in the state of Ceará, in Brazil, I wouldn’t dream of doing something so rash. Walking 35 minutes alone, at night, as a young female, was unthinkable. During the day was already scary enough. I thought about this past summer, when I worked in Northeast D.C., in an impoverished neighborhood where I didn’t even feel comfortable listening to music during my less-than-ten-minute-walk from the metro station to the office.
Having the freedom to walk around your neighborhood is a luxury in this world, but it shouldn’t be. My desire to transform that luxury into a right is a huge reason for my interest in criminal justice. When I lived in Brazil and began to feel like a prisoner in my own city – always on edge about my whereabouts, always alert to threats because the possibility of robbery, assault, and worse was always present – I began to ask why it was this way. What makes communities unsafe?
When I started to understand how the criminal justice system perpetuates insecurity, how it fails to promote public safety, I started to get really interested in learning how to fix the system. When a system is marked by impunity, inefficiency, corruption, misaligned incentives, and -isms of all sorts (racism and classism to name a few) that prevents those who really pose a danger from being locked up; locks up people who shouldn’t be; invests only in surveillance and control mechanisms instead of infrastructure likes schools and jobs; does nothing to rehabilitate those incarcerated so that they will have a successful reentry into society; and uses race and income as a proxy for criminality, among other issues, what results is an environment where we are not free to walk in peace.
Living in a dangerous neighborhood transforms your lifestyle into one of survival. You live in nothing short of a war zone and develop defense mechanisms to deal with it, defense mechanisms that further break down community by spreading mistrust and scaring people away from being in the streets.
I realize how lucky and privileged I was that I had the choice to not walk home at night in Fortaleza. I realize how lucky and privileged I am to be able to go out at night on my own in D.C. and feel confident that I will make it home safe. But it shouldn’t be such a big deal. Living in a safe community should be a right. It IS possible to create safe communities. We CAN make systems that help rather than hobble community engagement. I KNOW it is possible to live in communities where I can walk by myself and be ok. Why can’t it be that way for everyone?
Share your ideas of how to make communities safe. What are the elements of a safe neighborhood where people feel free to walk outside, even at night? What works and what doesn’t?