Yesterday, I had the great opportunity to hear from some incredible young voices in the fight for Black Lives. At the protest organized by My Brother’s Keeper Cambridge, there were powerful and personal arguments made for a deeper and more systemic approach to dealing with racism that exists even within a liberal bastion like Cambridge, MA. In the wake of the George Floyd murder, this systemic change is specifically aimed at police and we heard multiple times from speakers and the crowd that even with black leadership and community engagement, trust in police is tenuous at best. There is difficult work ahead for this city. Much of the national dialogue among protesters has turned to the clear message of “defunding” the police, and this language is here in Cambridge as well [ Cambridge City, MA — Policy Order — POR 2020 #133]. It is no wonder that with a $4.1 million dollar increase to the police budget, residents are challenging where else this money could be spent to actually make real change.
Let me be clear, I understand the complexity of what is being asked. At the same time, I don’t disagree with defunding police. Nor do I disagree with police abolition or dismantling. I think the idea of being “policed” is against every value of a modern, technologically advanced and global democracy. It is certainly against my spiritual beliefs and my work in ministry. As I see it, just like Big Brother (the one from the George Orwell novel and not the TV show) “policing” can only result in societal failure: failures of trust, failures of agency and as we’ve seen all too tragically and all too often, failures of judgment and failures of racial bias. Why must we be treated with the equivalent of a lethal nanny cam, where we are taught to grow up paranoid and compliant out of a sense of fear for our lives and not out of a sense of connection to the rest of the human race?
The only place that I find myself at odds with the excitingly progressive goals of defunding, abolishing and/or dismantling police is in the means to achieve the end. And even at that, I think I may ultimately be in agreement with youth who are driving this policy. It is a simple inversion of the communication. Instead of focusing in the message on what we don’t want, why not focus on what we do want? Why get caught up only in “defunding police”, when we could redirect our energies (and finances) toward “funding comprehensive public safety”? I’ve written about the difference in semantics between “policing”, “criminal justice” and “public safety” before. What I’m trying to clarify here is that making this shift from the destructive to the constructive, invites us to also redefine public safety as something more broadly, systemically comprehensive and people driven. This would craft policy that connects law enforcement directly to the ways in which people are asked/forced to live, not as a punishable inevitability but always as a tool to build community safety and relationship. Through this strategy, there is no ethical need for “policing” in language or in function.
If cities like Cambridge could re imagine their public safety policies with the goal of generating health and security across the broad spectrum of our communities…there would be no need for “policing” as we know it.
Right now, the logical conclusion of our system, specifically for blacks, is lethal “policing” whether that is lethal in terms of ending a life physically or civically through disenfranchisement and restrictions in employment. It begins with poor birth outcomes, and navigates through underfunded education systems, arrives at poor housing and access to nutrition, and dies young of a lack of access to healthcare. Combine these with historical trauma, mental health and addiction disparities amplified by racism and we end with “policing” where there is only a cursory, performative or adversarial relationship between law enforcement by government and law engagement by citizens.
If cities like Cambridge could re imagine their public safety policies with the goal of generating health and security across the broad spectrum of our communities, factoring in answers to historical racism and marginalization, there would be no need for “policing” as we know it. Does this mean there would be an end to crime? No. Human beings will always be human beings. Does it mean that there will never be injustice? No. But it does mean that instead of being automatically funneled into a system that intentionally feeds on black lives in a vicious and sometimes inescapable cycle, all people are first dealt with in terms of the systems that have not supported their outcomes (including but not exclusive of racism) instead of as solely individual, expendable failures in need of “policing.”
I would argue that the broken and dangerous arrangement of policing black lives that we currently have is actually not a “system” at all, but a series of 400 year old silos, the last of which is either a cage or a coffin. Each element that adds up to another dead black person on a street is taken individually and unaccountable to the other elements and the result is a history that has never had to account fully for itself in terms of the connections between racism as health policy, racism as education policy, racism as employment policy or racism as housing policy, and has only just recently re-awoken to the idea of racism as policing policy.
But the solution we are seeking cannot also be a silo. We have to work with the system like a river that is connected by multiple streams and rivulets. We cannot defund police so far downstream that this one action is ultimately vulnerable to being breached by future floodwaters of rampant poverty, lack of access to health care, etc. driven by racism as they flow mightily downriver. We’ve got to work at both ends of the river, way upstream and way down stream simultaneously, to redirect the richness of black lives through generators of prosperity, wholeness and safety ultimately letting them flow freely to the sea.