In 2017, 1,147 people were killed by police in the United States. Americans have all witnessed the brutality inflicted on black communities by police forces that seem to be acting above the law. We have seen the destructive impact of white people calling the police when they perceive black people to be dangerous or committing crimes when they are, in fact, just trying to meet someone in Starbucks or take a nap on the couch. “I am not what you think!” wrote Antwon Rose, a young person recently killed by a police officer.
These recent events have catalyzed a movement, inspired by the leadership of members of color at First Congregational Church in Oakland, Calif., to encourage churches to divest from police. This means churches will stop calling the police and will start hosting activities to promote alternatives, such as restorative justice circles, self-defense classes, and mental health de-escalation trainings.
In a statement to Fox News, First Congregational said:
Ultimately, our safety is going to come from our commitment to looking out for each other across all lines of difference. What we are asking of each other, concretely, is that we get proactive about building a community network of individuals, congregations, and other organizations who will work together to keep each other and our larger community safe without relying on the police. It’s important to say that we are not "anti-police" but pro-community. We recognize that police officers are human beings, many of whom joined the police force because they earnestly wanted to serve their communities. However, the role of the institution of policing is to “preserve law and order,” and in this country, the prevailing order that is being preserved is one that serves white people at the expense of people of color.
My church is just a few miles away from First Congregational. When I first heard about their plans, I absolutely believed they were taking the wrong approach. But over time, I have watched First Congregational Church persevere and deepen their commitment not only to ending their reliance on the police, but to increasing their reliance on each other.
I recently talked to Nichola Torbett, a lay leader at First Congregational and one of the leaders of this movement, about their vision and their hopes for this new initiative.
Dani Gabriel, Sojourners: How are things going at First Congregational?
Nichola Torbett, First Congregational Church: It’s been interesting. As much as we know the scriptures where Jesus says they persecute me and they will persecute you, we didn’t realize what a nerve we’d hit. We have gotten a fair amount of hate mail, and calls, and emails, and Facebook posts, and nothing quite prepares you for that.
Gabriel: How are you dealing with that?
Torbett: Turning to community. I feel most afraid when I think I have to respond on my own. So many times I’ve gotten an email and had my little freak out, and then shared it and that really helps.
Gabriel: How are you feeling about it, personally?
Torbett: I feel, I would say the word is hopeful, because we’ve had a lot of churches reach out to us to get involved. There is a community there that wants to show up for each other. People really want to do something different.
Gabriel: What has been the most challenging part of this work?
Torbett: I think the most challenging thing has been acknowledging my own and others’ white liberal ingenuousness and blindness when it comes to policing. Intellectually, most of us white folks at First Congregational know that the police have killed thousands of black and brown people without cause, and still, experientially, we think the police are basically good, because that has been our personal experience of policing. It’s so important that we really, really believe these testimonies that are outside our own experience — testimonies of our own church family members of color — and be willing to step out on our belief.
Gabriel: What has been your greatest learning so far?
Torbett: I’m just blown away at the ways white women like me have internalized our own powerlessness and come to believe that we need to rely on armed men to protect us from other human beings. We have been stripped of our agency and power in the service of patriarchy and white supremacy. I am excited, and a little bit daunted, honestly, at the opportunity we have to take our God-given power back.
Gabriel: How has this changed relationships within your congregation, and within your neighborhood?
Torbett: Well, we’re just getting started, but the first thing that has happened is that we have become just a tiny bit more trusted by the most disenfranchised people in the city, and that’s huge and so, so humbling.
Gabriel: And what’s your next step?
Torbett: We are now turning to the organizing and actually doing the work, and I feel excited and hopeful for that.
Gabriel: What sort of activities are you planning?
Torbett: This week we are hosting a workshop led by POOR Magazine called “How to Not Call the Police Again, Ever.” The folks at POOR are creating intentional community among unhoused and poor people in deep East Oakland, amidst incredible levels of trauma, so they are walking the talk under very difficult circumstances, and we have much to learn from them. We are also planning self-and community-defense trainings, de-escalation and violence prevention trainings, mental health first aid, and conflict resolution training that will be open to our members, members of other faith communities, and our neighbors.
Gabriel: What would you say to someone who says “this approach won’t work?”
Torbett: I would say that we will never know that until we try. My intuition says that it will take churches coming together with each other, as well as other neighbors and organizational neighbors to really work together to reduce the need for policing.
Not every church is going to commit to never calling the police but this movement is a bold and radical re-envisioning of the possibilities. It is a light in the darkness. We are never going to see an end to police brutality, or to the disproportionate impact of policing on people of color and mentally ill people, unless we believe that there is another way to relate to our siblings and until we create alternatives to calling the police. This is not going to be solved by retraining the police. We have to retrain ourselves.