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What it means to defund the police


Whenever we are engaging difficult issues in a complex and multicultural world, vocabulary and language can either help us understand one another — even in our disagreement — or fail us, and add to misunderstandings. When it comes to the issue of “re-imagining” policing or “defunding” police forces, language is failing us.

Fact: Who we are and how we move in the world strongly affects how we view police in this country. I am a Black woman who often moves in and out of different spaces. I am a Pastor who leads a beautifully diverse and multi-ethnic church. I am 61 years old, and I have lived on the west coast, the east coast, and in the midwest. My experience and my faith lead me to one conclusion: we must defund the police. Here are 9 truths from my life that lead me to this conclusion:

Like many people in America, I have had amazing relationships with law enforcement. As a child, our community policeman — Officer Friendly — was a frequent visitor in our school and on our street. As a teen, I called our community police when I thought someone was breaking in to our house while mom and dad were on a trip. They were loving, supportive, and came back to connect with us the next evening.

As an adult, I have been rescued and deeply helped by police officers when my car broke down, when lost in a new city, when concerned about a neighbor. My adult nephew was caught outside my dad’s house, altered and belligerent. The community police checked his ID, cautioned him, and walked him to the door. RJ is supertall, handsome, mouthy and Black. He was treated with dignity in that event and in another at his family home in NC.

As an activist and a movement builder, I have enjoyed amazing collaboration with police officers — to prep a marching route, to be sheltered from counter-protestors, to have my street shut down for fun and for organizing, to respond to community crises, even to be “gently” arrested, while sharing the same vision for while I was protesting.

I also personally witnessed the brutality of some police officers against my neighbors when I was a child, against protestors, and against too many citizens living while Black.

I do not think all police officers are bad officers; I deeply believe there is something structurally problematic about the way policing works in Black, Brown and poor communities.

Policing works better in the suburban neighborhood in which I own a house. We never see the police, until we need them. And they arrive with kindness and concern, assuming the best of me and my household. Working here one summer, our son Joel — white, like his father — cut himself badly. Sitting on the steps outside our door, nothing identifying him as our son, he was not frisked, not harassed at all. His word got him an ambulance, and a swift ride to a hospital for help.

As a clergy in New York, I have witnessed both kindness and brutality from police officers.

I am against police brutality. I am against the militarization of the police. I am against the racism that is at the root of the violence against Black folk, against Brown folk, against anyone who deserves to be protected but is instead frisked, searched, beaten, crushed, shot, killed. This violence is rooted in a violent and racist culture. It is not new. And it must be dismantled.

I imagine many ways to dismantle what is happening between citizens and officers of the law; much of it would involve shifting resources and shifting attitudes. I imagine we can train police officers in tactics of de-escalation. I imagine we can create stronger relationships with police, like the ones we at Middle Church enjoy with our allies at the 9th precinct. I imagine that the first response to mental health issues, domestic violence issues, loitering or just hanging around can be totally reframed if we create coalitions between police, government officials, congregations and community groups to define what policing should look like in that community, and reduce resources currently reserved for police departments and shift funds to:

a. Mental health resources

b. After school programs

c. Art in the schools

d. Jobs for young people

e. Improving neighborhoods where people of color live

f. Redeploying remaining resources from tanks and rubber bullets and those bean-bag bullets and militarization toward

g. Recruiting more police of color and more women

h. Training police in anti-racism

i. So many other ideas about which I can only speculate but wise people know

‘Defund police’ is provocative, loaded, radical and hard to hear. Like “Black Lives Matter.” But it is a conversation we need to have. I want to be in the conversation as a Black woman, as a wife, as a pastor, as a grandmother dreaming of a better world for my grandchildren. I WANT to be in the conversation. Do you?

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