How To Build A Feminist City: Make It Safe

In this section of our three-part series, we look at what kind of interventions and spending would actually keep women, and every other city-dweller, safe.

An illustration of a city with a women's symbol at its centre.

(Illustration: Kathleen Fu)

This is one of a three-part story on what a feminist city would look like. Read about the idea and find the other sections here

A photo of El Jones.

Idea: Redistribute police funding
El Jones, journalist, poet and activist, Halifax

Making cities more welcoming to women isn’t solely about changes to physical structures, says Jones. It’s also about dismantling the sexist and racist narratives that result in individuals being targeted by police and pushed from public space.

“Space is racialized, space is gendered, space is classist,” she says. “The very notion of public space is contested, right—who gets to listen to their music in public space?”

The current narrative around police and safety, says Jones, is that the threat of social chaos must be held back by “some form of authority, or control, or discipline, or containment.” Policing today doesn’t serve everyone equally, she says, and instead protects people deemed respectable from those on the margins—which traditionally includes sex workers, as well as those who are racialized, Indigenous, queer and/or trans.

That authoritarian approach fails to protect women because it’s male-dominated and patriarchal. That’s a big reason why domestic, gendered and sexual violence is rarely reported, and even more rarely results in a conviction.

“We talk about public safety as [something] maintained by punishing, policing, containing, getting rid of, moving off those other people,” says Jones, who is chair of a committee tasked by the Halifax police board with defining what defunding would look like in practice. “Safety is actually when everybody has a home that they can pay for. Safety is a universal basic income. Safety is having universal child care.”

A graphic about police budgets across Canada.

Statistics from, “Defund the police? This is how much Canadian cities spend,” July 10, 2020.

Those things are expensive, which is where the concept of defunding the police comes in. It’s something that Jones was advocating for long before it gained momentum in the past year. The idea is that public safety is best created by prevention, not cure: that redistributing portions of huge municipal police budgets to social services, housing, mental health supports and direct services for women escaping abuse would prevent people from slipping into the poverty that is often the root cause of crime and violence.

Jones believes that women’s gendered conditioning—being taught to nurture and care for others—can be a boon for organizing but, first, women have to let go of the sexism that also teaches them to neglect themselves.  Meaningful policy, she says, is built from the grassroots up.

“We organize our communities, whether that’s to fight police, whether that’s to fight evictions, whether that’s to advocate for community gardens, whether that’s to get a bus stop with correct lighting,” she says. “We work in a community first. We organize ourselves as women, in particular.”

A photo of Julie S. Lalonde.

(Photo: Taylor Hermiston)

Public involvment in public safety
Julie S. Lalonde, site director, Hollaback Ottawa, Ottawa

Lalonde wants the average citizen to know that they have a role to play in public safety. She also wants them to know that doesn’t mean being ready to get involved in a physical altercation.

“One of the big myths of bystander intervention is that it’s dangerous,” or requires confrontation, says Lalonde. “You can also intervene by creating a distraction.” Making someone feel safe and supported could be as easy as walking alongside a person who is visibly uncomfortable with the behaviours of others nearby; notifying the driver if an incident takes place on public transit; or alerting a bartender if a woman is being harassed.

Hollaback Ottawa is the Canadian arm of an international movement dedicated to eradicating harassment in public spaces. Lalonde offers free online training in how to safely intervene if you see a person in trouble or in crisis, instead of counting on law enforcement as the first and only solution. Some people who experience violence will use the legal system but, she says, that’s a long, isolating process that not everyone views as viable.

Lalonde would like such training to be mandatory in schools and workplaces. “It’s really important that the community rally around, and
that we make it our business.”

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