The current resistance and unrest over the killing of George Floyd by a police officer are a stark reminder of why many youth workers refuse to work alongside the police. Policing is fundamentally and institutionally oppressive: racist, classist, ablist, homophobic and transphobic. For detached workers in particular, it has long been discussed that we must position ourselves on young people’s side, on their territory, not as ‘soft police’ or an adjunct to law enforcement. (In fact, this was one of the issues raised in our first IDYW annual conference in 2010, where our steering group member Tania de St Croix, then a detached youth worker, argued against youth workers’ involvement in policing and surveillance of young people).
In recent weeks there have been some discussions of whether detached youth workers should be out on the streets during lockdown, and if so, what their role is. While many of us may feel it is vital for detached youth workers to be where young people are – whether on the streets and/or online (and always putting their own and young people’s safety first) – there seems to have been an assumption that youth workers on the streets at this time should be ‘policing’ the lockdown, telling young people to go home. In contrast, we would argue that youth work starts from where young people are and from a fundamental attempt to understand their perspectives, through (as stated in our Cornerstones of Democratic Youth Work Practice)
“A commitment to conversations with young people which start from their concerns and within which both youth worker and young person are educated and out of which opportunities for new learning and experience can be created.”
Recent events are a reminder to some youth workers (those who have not themselves experienced negative interactions with the police) why it is that so many young people and youth workers do not trust the police. For those of us interacting with young people in these times, it is vital that we listen to what they are saying; this includes engaging in critical questioning, of course, but also just being there to listen, learn, and exercise humility.
It is a good time to educate ourselves – and again, this is especially aimed at youth workers who have not experienced police oppression themselves – on why there is so much anger against the police, and on why many are calling for abolition of the entire police and prison system as it currently exists. As argued in Alex Vitale’s book The End of Policing, the problem is not police training, police diversity or police methods – it is policing itself:
“Instead of condeming the uprisings in Minneapolis and around the country over another police killing of an unarmed black person, we should be condeming the actual looting of public welfare services while the billionaire class becomes $434 billion richer during the pandemic.
As Alex Vitale argues in The End of Policing, recent years have seen an explosion of protest against police brutality and repression. Among activists, journalists and politicians, the conversation about how to respond and improve policing has focused on accountability, diversity training, and community relations. Unfortunately, these reforms will not produce results, either alone or in combination. The core of the problem must be addressed: the nature of modern policing itself. The best solution to bad policing may be an end to policing.”
The End of Policing is currently offered free (in its e-book version) by Verso – worthwhile lockdown reading.
For white people especially, it is also important to educate ourselves on more and less thoughtful ways to discuss these issues (whether with young people or among practitioners). In particular, we need to understand that the endless sharing of videos in which black and brown bodies are suffering can be dehumanising and traumatic, and we should think carefully about how we show solidarity. This is not a comment intended to censor, but rather to remind us that the way in which we experience images differs, depending on our own position and experience. Writing back in 2016 in relation to a killing of another unarmed black man, in an article entitled ‘White people don’t understand the trauma of viral police-killing videos’, Dr. Monnica Williams says,
“If you are a white person, try this simple empathy experiment: Imagine every one of those police killings you’ve seen in the last several years, but change the images. Make the man getting shot look like you, your brother or your son. Make the girlfriend or wife look like your wife, your sister, your daughter. Imagine that these videos unpredictably show up in your Facebook stream, or assault you on the evening news, without warning, week after week. There seems to be no end to them, and there seems to be no way to predict when it will happen. Imagine that you can’t hide them from your son or daughter if you have one, because you’re scared to not tell them about it. Imagine that you feel you have to expose your child to the videos, because they may not be safe if they don’t know what the world is really like.”
While a useful intervention, this idea of white empathy is challenged by Black Youth Project in a blog post entitled, ‘The stories of our struggles are not for white people to consume in an effort to do better‘:
“The day will never come when white folk en masse involve themselves in the eternal struggle of Black freedom…
Even the least radically politicized of us know the visceral fear of having any unwarranted contact with law enforcement. In at least the most rudimentary and natural of ways, we know that anti-Black oppression is inherent to this world, and while we differ on how to rectify it, we know that it’s prevalent and ready to devour us, and that action is needed to defeat it.”
This reminds us of the vital need for youth work spaces for Black young people to come together on their own terms, alongside open access youth work spaces for critical discussion and learning by everyone.