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Matthew Solomon
Matthew Solomon, director of Reimagining Safety

569. Rethinking incarceration, policing subject of new documentary

Matthew Solomon grew up in Los Angeles, surrounded by people who didn’t look like him, watching them get treated differently, against the backdrop of the Rodney King beating, the LA riots and the OJ Simpson double homicide trial. 

While Solomon intended to be a rock star, his college courses at the University of Southern California prepared him to take that upbringing against a civil rights backdrop and combine it with the sociology and anthropology courses he took, trying to make sense of the world around him.

“I was at USC as a music student and studying these classes when all this social unrest was happening. Systemic racism was playing out in front of me. I took that with me as I went through music,” he says. 

After doing a little acting, Solomon began writing and directing, but that got sidetracked by the pandemic. Instead, he went back to school, finishing his bachelor’s degree in liberal studies with an emphasis in conflict resolution and later earning a masters degree in public administration. 

“Through that course, during COVID, post-George Floyd, Black Lives Matter protests, the backlash against Critical Race Theory, the Capitol building insurrection, with all of that going on, I’m applying our coursework around sustainability and what makes communities work and how to bring people together, I was applying all that to issues surrounding policing and incarceration and politics and governance,” Solomon says. “When it came time to do my final masters thesis, my academic advisors suggested I do a short documentary.” 

That documentary is now a full-length one, “Reimagining Safety,” exploring the same tenets of whether policing, as currently practiced and imagined, actually moves the needle toward protecting and safeguarding society. 

“I knew I could make a documentary with just activists and it would provide that perspective, but I wanted it to carry weight. I knew I wanted to have varying perspectives and lived experiences and statistics, things that were quantifiable and qualitative, all of that, so there weren’t a lot of holes that could be poked in it,” he says. 

Among the 10 interviews Solomon conducted for the film is a prosecutor who chose to ask for a teenager to be sentenced to rehabilitation instead of jail; the prosecutor ran into that young man a decade later and learned he’d gone into banking and turned his life around. 

“The main thing I was finding when writing papers through my masters program was there wasn’t a lot of academic material on what abolition is, what that looks like, or restorative justice, the alternatives to policing. There’s a lot of work on the harms done, especially to Black and Brown people, there were a lot of statistics — a government agency said policing can be considered a mental health issue for certain communities,” Solomon says. “I wanted to really get to, ‘If we don’t do policing and incarceration, what do we do?’ That’s the question that always comes up.” 

For generations, the messaging has been that police equal safety and protection, that more officers are better and that “the only way to solve crime is with police,” Solomon says. But even those experts who have advocated for improved and a greater variety of training and tools have come to see that that isn’t always the effective answer. 

“Abolition, restorative justice, is about our care for one another, on a deep level, as human beings,” Solomon concluded through his research and the interviews for the documentary. “It’s a humane approach. It’s not about punishment and retaliation, it’s about care, care for our communities and for one another. We’re not taught how to do that. … It’s about love at a deep level, it’s about our commitment to each other, our care for each other and, if we really cared about each other, how would we approach being in community.”

Editor’s Note: Matthew Solomon’s documentary, Reimagining Safety, will be screened at The People’s Film Festival in Harlem, New York on June 1. Decarcerate KC is also hosting a June 14 screening in Kansas City. More information about where to to see the documentary is available online.

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