Late last year, in an attempt to address the rising crime rates, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and Charlotte City Council discussed creating “public safety zones,” or “exclusionary zones”. These “zones” would basically make certain neighborhoods off limits to people with past arrests. The proposal was largely viewed as an attempt by law enforcement to restrict the free movement of citizens and was eventually struck down due to opposition from residents.
SAFE Coalition NC and our community partners are proud of this small victory, but we realize that simply opposing attempts to over-police our neighborhoods will not fix the problem of violence. From the Civil Liberties Resolution to the reforming the Citizens Review Board, our coalition has been building people power. We know from experience that for lasting change to happen, it’s not enough to change policies, we must also change hearts and minds.
About a year ago, we began having conversations about restorative justice and what that would look like in Charlotte. Building on the model used by Critical Resistance in NYC and Spirit House in Durham, we began tweaking and adapting the Harm Free Zone concept. Then we called on the expertise of Dr. David Campt who has done extensive work on race relations, including working with the White House. SAFE Coalition NC developed a community engagement plan, identified key program elements, and interviewed local leaders. Now, we are finally ready for the most important piece of the puzzle: YOU! We need your support and commitment for real change to occur.
Harm Free Zone is a concept that is community-owned and revolves around residents taking the lead in identifying and preventing harm. This is a broad term but the framework has helped transform other communities that were experiencing similar struggles. We recognize that there are many ways to solve our problems; the beauty of the Harm Free Zone framework is that it is based on some solid core principles, but communities can create their local project in a number of different ways. The Charlotte project has already chosen to create the Charlotte program around three core pillars: (1) empowering families and individuals, (2) changing community norms, and (3) changing institutional practices and behaviors.
The Harm Free Zone model is about black people becoming more accountable for themselves and their own community. The Charlotte project focuses resources and efforts on a particular community in order to eliminate/mitigate the sources of harm and whatever harm there may be. Rev Corine Mack, one of the main organizers, has explained, “This is about identifying problems and finding solutions. It’s about how do we begin to create jobs in our community? How do we become self-sufficient in our community? How do we have mindfulness and wellness in our communities? So there’s a whole host of things that we are trying to accomplish.”
Reforming police practices and demanding police accountability is important – and the institutional change component of the project acknowledges that. But this project is also grounded in the knowledge that as black folks, we must also create accountability mechanisms in our communities that are beyond the police force. With this project, Charlotte residents will decide how to address community norms, such as how we interact with law-enforcement and each other; community members will also be encouraged to consider what conflict resolution skills might be widely spread in the community to help crime and violence. In our recent interview, Dr. Campt expressed his shock that conflict resolution skills (which he has taught to children and adults) are “underutilized in our schools and society in general.”
He went on to explain that in many cases, police are not receiving effective training on how to deescalate situations either. Thus, says Campt, “The lack of conflict resolution skills is not just a problem in the black community.” While we expect that elements of police community relations will be a part of this project, the community will need to decide how much emphasis they wish to put on policing. In the words of Dr. Campt, “They might just decide that as important as this is, there are other institutional gaps that are more important, and that would not be unreasonable.” Through trainings on conflict resolution, leading peer-to-peer discussions on institutional racism and implicit bias, we want to help residents become more socially conscious and demonstrate their commitment to transforming themselves and their neighborhoods.
We have to be the example, especially for younger people on how we interact and resolve problems. The next leadership meeting is August 11, we invite you to come out and be a part of transforming Charlotte. A few members will share videos about why they decided to be a part of this process and why they want to commit to a harm free zone. Please stay tuned to our website and blog for further details on the location and time. The African-American community in Charlotte has achieved great things by working in solidarity. This project intends to prove that we don’t need outside forces to prevent harms from happening, to address problems when they arise, and to transform our community toward one that fosters more healing.