Community safety beyond economy and security – exploring the complex nature of desires for safety

Exploring the mobilisation of fears of violence linked to public transport exposes a complex picture in which it can be difficult to characterise and approach desires for safety in society. This has significant implications for those concerned with tackling inequalities.

This post is part of the PREPPE blog series. Read Part 1 in the series

In a 2017 speech Elon Musk invoked fears of violence in the public space as an influencing factor in preferences for individualised forms of transport:

 ‘Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people… there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great. And so that’s [part of] why people like individualised transport’

Musk’s assessment of public transport may be a throwaway comment but it touches on a more generalised fear in society of the violence that may occur in the public space and a desire, among some, for a more private space of safety and security. While, for many of us, our main experiences of violence, outside of war, will be within the privacy of our own homes, this fear of violence inflicted by strangers in the public space often takes on a more visceral and powerful quality which can be mobilised for different ends. Approaching questions around fears of violence and desires for safety in the public space through a perspective which looks beyond the distinctions of ‘security’ and ‘economy’ forces us to acknowledge the complexities of understanding and characterising these fears and desires – especially when we consider the ways in which they may fit in with and reproduce existing patterns of inequality.

Although the study of community safety has traditionally been the concern of criminology, the expansion of security agendas and the widening of the field of security studies beyond an exclusively state-centric focus has encouraged criminologists to engage more directly with security analysis – for example, through the study of ‘everyday security’ which has involved consideration of how people understand, practice, and engage in security in their ordinary daily lives. Such research on the question of community safety has also highlighted, at times, the importance of drawing political economy into this picture – for example, studies around citizen security touch on safety in the public space as an essential component of a functioning economy, and work around nodal governance and everyday political economies of plural policing explores the commodification of local security and the changes in the mechanisms that is within the neoliberal economy.

The subtext to the Musk quote, above, suggests another important way in which we can view community safety beyond these disciplinary boundaries, and that is to recognise safety, in political economy terms, as a distributional question – i.e. who gets to feel safe, when, where, how. When Musk highlights fears of violence on public transport and the preferences ‘people’ have for individualised transport he is speaking specifically to the fears that some people have and the preferences or choices that some sections of society may exercise – but who is left out of this picture? Emphasising community safety as a distributional question encourages us to think about this in terms of who gets to feel safe in their community, whose fears get heard, and what the consequences of this may be. At its root it is a question of how experiences of safety are produced by, and reproduce, wider patterns of inequality. Characterising the nature of community safety mobilisations with reference to these wider patterns of inequality, however, presents a complex and often divergent picture.

Light-rail in Baltimore

In Anne Arundel, a mainly white suburb of Baltimore, residents last year began a campaign to close light-rail stops in the area on the grounds that they feel it has made their neighbourhoods unsafe, shipping in crime from the city. This comes alongside the cancellation of plans to extend light-rail lines in Baltimore with funding diverted instead to highway and road maintenance to support private commuters. Critics have argued that these events are underwritten by racialised and class-based prejudice and fears of crime since it is largely working-class African-American people within the city who use public transport to access work, and it is largely white populations in the suburbs who use private transport. NAACP have launched a civil rights lawsuit to challenge the 2015 cancellation of light-rail plans on the grounds of racial discrimination, and local papers have criticised campaigns to limit or close public transport as representing racial prejudice masked in fears of crime.

This example of Anne Arundel supports a critique of community safety in which there are seen to be social costs related to our perceptions of fear and safety in the public space, and to the mechanisms that we employ to secure this feeling of safety. Fears of crime and desires for safety are, here, social constructions mobilised as mechanisms of control which manage wider boundaries of inclusion and exclusion and contribute to the reproduction of existing inequalities through racialised and class-based perceptions of safety and crime. The feeling of safety for some, here, comes at the expense of marginalised others who are stigmatised and excluded as a result. As Black Lives Matter campaigns highlight, mechanisms which bring the feeling of safety for some (e.g. ‘reassurance policing’) may produce the very opposite in others who experience discrimination and violence at the hands of these same forces. This tends towards a wider understanding within critical security studies in which security contains, at its core, a logic of exclusion, control and violence. This shows how security and economy in ways that are often missed, as attempts at providing safety inevitably intersect with existing inequalities.

RMT campaign: Keep the guard on the train

An alternative picture of the mobilisation of fears and desires around safety in the public space is represented, however, in the RMT campaign: Keep the Guard on the Train. This campaign has focused primarily on the role of train guards in maintaining safety in different ways, including through the management of public fears around real or perceived threats of violence. The ‘Unguarded’ videos produced as part of this campaign, for example, draw on passenger accounts of everyday insecurities on trains without guards – emphasising through this the way in which these insecurities fall disproportionately on women, ethnic minorities and other marginalised groups. The message implicit in campaign materials like ‘The safety critical role of the guard’ is that these insecurities may impact negatively on the freedoms of these groups within the public space since it forces them to alter their behaviour towards, and use of, public transport.

This example shows a concern with the way in which feelings of insecurity are experienced in unequal ways which tend to fit in with and reproduce wider inequalities in society since those who are able to access private spaces and private forms of consumption are able to access the real or perceived security that may come with this (e.g. individualised transport, gated communities, private leisure spaces etc.). Further, as public health research indicates, feelings of unsafety in the public space, which are experienced in a disproportionate way by marginalised groups, are associated with wider negative outcomes in society in terms of poorer physical and mental health, reduced environmental mobility and social connectedness etc. In this example ideas of safety are mobilised in a way which seeks to challenge aspects of dominant power relations by contesting this unequal distribution of safety. It therefore is closer to an alternative understanding of security – also present within critical security studies – in which it is seen as a precondition of human emancipation which enables individuals to participate and flourish fully in society.

Managing the tension

These questions of the form and character of community safety mobilisations have gained particular relevance in the context of pressures on public policing through austerity which have seen an advance in alternative forms of producing local security through third-sector interventions, civilian patrol groups and private security firms. In seeking to characterise these alternative forms and mobilisations of community safety a potentially divergent picture is presented, as suggested in the examples above, which drives at wider tensions within critical security studies around what security is or should be – i.e. security as control vs security as emancipation. Managing this tension, from a critical security studies perspective, may involve a recognition that discourse, understandings and practice around security can have a different character over time and space, and in the hands of different actors – in other words, rather than a fixed and universal security logic, a historically and socially constituted logic reflective of the wider political economic relations in which it is embedded. An analysis of fears and desires around community safety beyond economy and security, then, should place an emphasis on what these mobilisations do in practice and how this interacts with wider patterns of inequality in society – capturing the ‘everyday security’ emphasis on the way in which real-world securitisations, daily security practices and everyday understandings of security may interact with dominant discourse in complex ways.

This blog is part of a PREPPE series. Read Part 1 here