Defund Fear

Common Read 2021-22: Defund Fear by Zach Norris

In Defund Fear: Safety Without Policing, Prisons, and Punishment (Beacon Press, 2021), Zach Norris shifts the conversation about public safety away from fear and punishment and toward support systems for our families and communities. The book explores what has gone wrong, and why, and who has been most harmed by repressive and racist policing systems. Norris offers a new blueprint for public safety that holds people accountable while still holding them in community.

Defund Fear book title on orange graphic background with UUA logo

Norris is a lawyer and community organizer who until early 2022 served as Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, CA. Learn about the Center’s work and read his bio.


The UU Common Read began rolling out resources for Defund Fear in 2022 to support the UUA Side with Love team in their focus on Decriminalization, one of the UUA’s intersectional justice priorities.

  • View a recorded conversation (Vimeo, 1:10:00)  moderated by UU World executive editor, Roger Santodomingo. Author Zach Norris engages with a panel of religious professionals on ways the book resonates for Unitarian Universalists. The conversation calls us to respond individually and collectively with prophetic, faith-based participation in our shared public safety.
  • Hold a one- or three-session Common Read discussion.discussion guide, for any UU congregational group (Word, 59 pages), offers a single 90-minute session and a three-session option for online or in-person gatherings.
  • Use guide questions (below) to deeply read this book. While reading Defund Fear on your own, use the “Guidance to the Reader” (below) to activate self-awareness of your place in your community and the world and find your place in our shared public safety story.
  • Move forward into practice on your own or with your Common Read or congregational group. Find entry points in the document, "Defund Fear: Next Moves for UUs" (Word, 4 pages).

Guidance to the Reader: Defund Fear

Defund Fear invites us to respond to public safety in the U.S. today through a lens of faith. The book calls UUs to grapple theologically with big, tough questions about who we are and the meaning and purposes of our lives.

To illuminate society’s “punish first” public safety practices and their consequences, Norris introduces individuals who have shared traumatic and dehumanizing experiences with him for the sole purpose of opening minds and hearts to bring change. Reading some of their stories may be triggering for some readers. UUs of color, in particular, are encouraged to ensure they have pastoral and/or caucus support before engaging in a UU Common Read of this book.

Remember that our values call us to approach this book with humility toward these stories shared and appreciation of the tellers’ generosity and purpose. Everyone has a place in the stories Norris offers. Bring self-awareness of your place in your community and the world to seek your role in the stories and in the challenges they call forth.

For your care, for your growth, and for the care and growth of others in your community with whom you will discuss Defund Fear, it is strongly recommended that you enter this book with these questions by your side:

  • What is my connection to the stories told and the harms named? Where am I in these stories? In what ways have the system's "punish first" responses either benefitted or harmed my community?
  • What is my story of public safety? In what ways has fear shaped my assumptions and experiences about public safety?
  • What is my complicity? Does my sense of safety help to create "un"-safety for someone else? What shape does, or could, my accountability take?
  • What support do I have and what do I need, in bringing my raw self to this book and the faith questions it asks me?

A Conversation with "Defund Fear" Author, Zach Norris

For the 2021-22 Common Read, Defund Fear author Zach Norris and four UU religious professionals took a deep dive together. Join Rev. Ranwa Hammamy, Rev. Jason Lydon, Rayla Mattson, and Carey McDonald for a one-hour-and-ten-minute conversation moderated by UU World executive editor Roger Santodomingo: What is the UU call to an anti-racist, equitable community safety system that truly protects all?