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“The meaning of safety is being rewritten”: Robyn Maynard presents at the 2020 Snider Lecture

Black feminist writer, activist on the mainstreaming of police, prison abolition
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Robyn Maynard, the speaker at UTM's 2020 Snider Lecture. COURTESY OF STACY LEE
Robyn Maynard, the speaker at UTM's 2020 Snider Lecture. COURTESY OF STACY LEE

On October 6, UTM invited Black feminist writer, activist, and intellectual Robyn Maynard to give a lecture for its 2020 Snider Lecture, a series dedicated to learning, questioning, and reflecting on important issues. Maynard is a PhD student at U of T at the Women & Gender Studies Institute, and the author of Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present.

Maynard’s lecture, titled “Abolish the Police, Abolish Prisons: Black liberation in a time of revolt,” took place over Zoom, with attendees from UTM and around the world.

Maynard began her presentation by highlighting the cultural shift that has taken place in recent months, with conversations surrounding police abolition at the mainstream level. She discussed how the legitimacy of institutions like the police and prisons are now being questioned and how definitions of safety and violence are being made not just within scholarly spaces where they first materialized but also in the public domain.

“We’re living through a time in which the meaning of safety is being rewritten — in which the meaning of violence and the place from which it originates is being massively shifted in the public realm,” said Maynard.

Maynard discussed how the pandemic has exposed the varying vulnerabilities of different racialized groups to death, noting how the COVID-19 pandemic was not the great equalizer of our time, as many people — from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to Madonna — had posed. Rather, Maynard highlighted that Black and racialized communities have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, revealing historic and ongoing patterns of inequality that are now widely being deemed unacceptable.

Maynard further discussed how people are becoming more knowledgeable about the disproportionate rates of police targeting, attacking, and killing members of marginalized communities. Hence, people see that there is not only violence “at the hands of the police, but… [also] the police itself is a kind of violence.”

This understanding of racial violence and inequality perpetuated by police is something Black communities have known for generations, expressed Maynard.

In recent months, however, she notes how this understanding has reached more levels of society. “We’re seeing a massive shift in the broader public’s understanding of the actual function of police versus their perceived function that many of us have been socialized with,” said Maynard. She discussed how this shift came out of earlier organizing in March and explored the trajectory of activism surrounding racial violence and COVID-19.

In March, activists organized, expressing solidarity with incarcerated people, including those held in prisons and in detention and immigration centres across North America during the beginning of the pandemic, due to their high-risk situations. Starting then, Maynard said that “there was a critique not only of captivity in our society, but [also] a massive show of solidarity, of mutual aid and care, that is so much a part of the Black radical tradition.”

She detailed the roles that incarcerated people, and the activists working closely with them, play in shaping the critical narratives that call the police and prison institutions into question, “So much of the thinking of this is coming from people who’ve experienced violence firsthand,” Maynard said.

She also emphasized the importance of recognizing the work of Black feminists — especially Black abolitionist feminists — whose works have pushed forward many of the ideas circulating in the public sphere today. “There has been work happening for decades, often behind the scenes at times that don’t look like organizing because they’re not in the newspapers,” Maynard said.

“[Those activists have] been steadily working… to create the kind of conditions in which we could finally actually question the necessity of these institutions, of the institutions of police and prisons.”

Marnard closed her presentation by highlighting the point of abolition — that it is not only about dismantling the police and prison institutions from our societies, but also about “building safety and understanding safety differently.” She discussed how the current climate of abolition is “actually a time of enormous world building.”

Finally, she explained how revolutionizing our way of understanding safety — and of understanding institutions like the police and prisons who claim to keep people safe — is what gives us “a chance to build something new.”