Respect the Dignity of Every Human Being: Changing Policing in America

Offered by Rev. Dr. Gayle Fisher-Stewart

I’ve had to truly re-think what it means to be Black and Episcopal, particularly in these times of civil uprising, racial unrest, and falsehoods coming from the President of this country being accepted as truth. What is the role of the Church, the Episcopal Church in speaking out, advocating for the humanity of her Black members?  Where is the church on the conflict that continues between the police and African Americans those who are Episcopalians and those who are not? There are times, most times, when I find myself conflicted, particularly when it comes to the issue of policing and its role in maintaining a racist society. I am conflicted because I spent twenty years as a police officer in Washington, DC, and the next thirty, studying, teaching, and consulting on police and race. I am conflicted because I am Black and get nervous when I see a police car behind me. I am conflicted because I have a Black son and nephews with whom I have had “The Talk.” You know, “the talk,” how to be Black in America and survive an encounter with the police. The talk, a conversation the majority of white parents never have with their children.  And so, while I speak out against policing as it was created and continues to function—to surveil and control black and brown bodies-- I must also face my role – knowingly and unknowingly -- in maintaining that system – a system that has disproportionately and continues to negatively affect the life chances of people who look like me. I must ask how my faith now guides any discussion of what must be done.  

“Respect the dignity of every human being”—Book of Common Prayer

Respecting the dignity of Black people and seeing Black people as human beings has never been part of the mission and goal of American policing. From slave patrols to Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin (who murdered George Floyd) to mass incarceration, black people have been the fodder of the American criminal justice system. From what was considered a crime (running away from the plantation was theft), to initial contacts with the police (driving, walking, breathing, sleeping while black), to processing (sentencing disparities for Blacks and whites), to mass incarceration (slavery has just evolved according to Equal Justice Initiative Bryan Stevenson), the aim of the criminal justice system has been to maintain white supremacy, to keep white space white (President Trump’s not-so-veiled attempt to garner support from white suburban housewives by poorly hinting that he will keep those suburbs white), to ensure that Blacks were not (are not) seen as human beings and therefore have “no rights a white man is bound to respect.” And, yet, we as Episcopalians are called to “respect the dignity of every human being” and perhaps therein lies the problem. Do the mass of Episcopalians see Blacks as human beings, the carriers and reflectors of God’s image? Somehow, we must see each other as fully human and live in a way that makes God truly visible. It is more than going to church; it is more than beautiful liturgies. To respect the dignity of every human being, we must eliminate any and all barriers that keep God’s people from being all they can be; break down all barriers that keep God’s children of ebony grace from being fully human. We are called to destroy any barriers that keep any of God’s children from being able to live full lives and to be free to love others as Jesus loves us. Retired bishop John Shelby Spong offers, “I experience God as life. The God who is the source of life causes me to worship God by living – by living fully. The more fully I can live, the more I make God visible and I experience God as the source of love calling me to love, freeing me to love. The more fully, the more gracefully I can give my love away, I believe I can make God visible.” The Church is being called to be make God visible by destroying a system that denies humanity to God’s black and brown children; that keeps them from living fully, from loving fully.

There have been calls for the abolition and/or defunding of American policing.  American policing denies the humanity of God’s black and brown children. American policing is a barrier to living fully; to being fully human; therefore, it must be abolished. The problem with either word -- abolition or defunding is that people jump to their own conclusions and/or definitions of what the terms mean. To abolish the police does not mean the elimination of policing. There are people who make decisions not to play by the rules society has established and when those rules are broken, they must be stopped; that’s what arrest means – to stop. Abolition in this context means to abolish the police as they were created (to surveil and control black and brown bodies) and continue to act (to surveil and control black and brown bodies) and establish a system that serves and protects all. It is difficult to change direction if you keep going in a straight line and that is what has occurred over the years under the mantra of police reform. The decision must be made to “stop” and then create a system that is truly based on justice. It is not easy; however, it can be done. Community policing was an attempt to do this; however, community policing was overlaid on a diseased system and became diseased itself.

Part of abolition and re-creating American policing is de-funding, although a better term would be re-allocation of funds. Defunding, like abolition frightens people because it has either not been defined or applied in a manner that invites failure. There are any number of tasks or functions the police perform that do not require law enforcement authority. The problem is that for most cities, the police are the only agency available 24/7. As we look at re-creating the police in a manner that serves all, an analysis of the functions of the police is undertaken and those tasks that do not require law enforcement authority are diverted to agencies or organizations that are better prepared to handle them. Once those tasks have been identified and the agencies/organizations prepared to assume those functions (to include possible 24/7 response), the police department budget is then adjusted and those monies identified with the tasks transferred are re-allocated to the receiving agencies/organizations. Is it easy? No. Can it be done? Yes. What is usually missing is the will to change and that pressure must come from outside policing because police departments are not change agents – they are to maintain the status quo and, in this country, it is a racist status quo.

As a person of faith, who truly believes in what I promised to do – to respect the dignity of every human being -- -is it imperative that we dismantle a system that has at its core the dehumanization of black and brown people; that denies the imago Dei. This must be a priority for the church. In addition to marching, praying, and preaching; we must be engaged in dismantling a system of oppression.  Whenever God’s justice is being denied to God’s people, whenever it is being perverted, the church, the Body of Christ, must be in the forefront of changing that system and the time to start is now.

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