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Defunding Police: Human Dignity and Black Lives Matter

The momentum and solidarity within the movement to defund police and create a new system of public safety has been significantly growing, especially in the United States. After a summer of police violence (including the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others) and widespread demonstrations for justice, on August 23rd in Wisconsin, Jacob Blake was shot 7 times in the back by police as he opened his vehicle door while his young children sat in the back seat. He is now paralyzed.[1] This led to the Milwaukee Bucks professional basketball team boycotting their playoff game, and the rest of the National Basketball Association following suit for a couple days to bring awareness and develop more plans to address these issues of racial justice and police violence. This boycott also spread to the Women’s NBA and other major sports. The Movement for Black Lives and Showing up for Racial Justice groups have been getting significant support, volunteers, and funding to help advance their vision for a new system of community protection.[2]

In the July edition of the CTEWC Forum, Michael Jaycox articulated “A Catholic Case for Police Defunding and Abolition.”[3] Jaycox drew on voices of Black women to illustrate the urgent need and make the case for such a program. He pointed out how some proponents focus on how the “social function of the police has been to maintain white supremacy and anti-blackness.” As Catholic ethicists, it is crucial to point out the focus on social function, which may or may not be consistent with intentions or stated purpose. In turn, Jaycox goes on to argue that the approach to defund the police and in the long-term abolish is more consistent with the common good. Building off his work, I will argue in this essay that such an approach is also more consistent with human dignity, as an entree to help explore some alternative community protection mechanisms. A vital opportunity for Catholic ethicists is to help develop the moral capital and praxis for such transformation.[4]

As Catholics, a sense of our sacred human dignity arises from being given life, loved by God, created for love, and made in the image and likeness of God. The de-humanization of Black persons in the U.S. is a rampant, pervasive, and systemic issue. This is why in part, “anti-blackness” has become such a common point of contention and has shown up again in the movement to resist police violence. Other phrases such as “I am human,” “respect us,” and “Black Lives Matter,” also illustrate this cry for an illumination and recognition of human dignity. The pervasive killing of Black persons by police is also inconsistent with human dignity by obstructing empathy, failing to be a gift to others, devaluing the sacred gift of others, and creating ongoing trauma in the parties directly involved as well as other community members.

Lisa Sowle Cahill argues that killing “involves an offense against the dignity of human life,” even in difficult, “dilemma” situations.[5] She also points out that “killing is patently incompatible with love of neighbor and the example of Jesus, even if Jesus’s example and teaching also urge us to take risks to help those in mortal danger.”[6] Pope John Paul II also argued that “violence destroys …our dignity,”[7] while Cardinal Ratzinger, soon to be Pope Benedict, argued that “violence degrades the dignity of the victim and perpetrator.”[8] And Pope Francis calls us to “respect our deepest dignity and make active nonviolence our way of life.”[9] In turn, it appears increasingly clear that the violence of police killing is also inconsistent with, distorts, and obstructs our sense of sacred human dignity.

When we approach the issue of policing from perspectives of the most affected, the common good, and the fullness of human dignity; it helps illuminate why reform arguments may often have good intentions and may also need a deeper systemic analysis. For example, former police officer Tobias Winright identifies helpful insights that police are “not supposed to dominate and be adversarial;” they need to be “preventive;”[10] a shift in model is necessary;[11] and he offers his own confessions related to white privilege.[12] It is also likely that police in general need more than “just an attitude adjustment;”[13] and minority communities are often critical of a community policing model that increases the prevalence of police, i.e. experience of surveillance in our communities, even if they are walking or on bicycles. Thus, the issue may be even more systemic and the pattern of harm to Black communities is horrendous and consistent over time in the U.S., including too often in “community policing” models.

Therefore, in addition to his helpful insights, it seems we may also require a commitment to the vision of transforming our deeper system of community security and even defunding the police to move more investments elsewhere, which at least 13 U.S. cities have signaled.[14] Philip McHarris and Thenjiwe McHarris,  a strategist with the Movement for Black Lives, help make this point regarding the police department involved in killing George Floyd:

“More training or diversity among police officers won’t end police brutality, nor will firing and charging individual officers. Look at the Minneapolis Police Department, which is held up as a model of progressive police reform. The department offers procedural justice as well as trainings for implicit bias, mindfulness and de-escalation. It embraces community policing and officer diversity, bans “warrior style” policing, uses body cameras, implemented an early intervention system to identify problematic officers, receives training around mental health crisis intervention, and practices ‘reconciliation’ efforts in communities of color.”[15]

Around a similar time, the Movement for Black Lives wrote this piece on the topic critiquing reform efforts on “use of (violent) force regulations” and arguing that, “It’s quite simple: the way to reduce police violence is to reduce the scope, size, and role of police in our communities.”[16] They call for a shift of focus in how we imagine and practice community security.

The Catholic sacramental imagination can contribute to and accompany this creative process. For example, as Catholics reflect on the more general need to protect all life in the context of salvation history, we might more clearly envision healthy protection mechanisms through the lens of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is God’s expression through Jesus of nonviolent love, risking and offering life for others without killing. Jesus risks his life to save and protect us from the ultimate death of being disconnected from God, and thus models for us ultimate and sustainable protection. When we participate in the Eucharist, we are empowered and called to embody this kind of risking of life for others. This re-presents Jesus’s saving work to the world and thus draws us all further into the way of salvation, which is the authentic protection of our lives and the illumination of our sacred dignity. Pope Francis comments, “In the silence of the Cross, the uproar of weapons ceases and the language of reconciliation, forgiveness, dialogue and peace is spoken.”[17] With this focus on risking of life without killing, Catholics would promote the saving of every life as the constitutive orientation for any institutional mechanism focused on protection.

Drawn by this vision of human flourishing, there are proven and existing alternative security mechanisms we could analyze and promote to help transform the system of policing.[18] For example, there are more than 40 organizations in over 20 countries practicing unarmed civilian protection. The Nonviolent Peaceforce is the largest, with a local and international team of over 200 persons deployed in South Sudan as well as funding from the U.S. government, UN agencies, and other countries.[19] In a civil war, they have directly saved people’s lives by refusing to leave 14 women and children as armed actors threatened them; and they prevented sexual assault by armed actors through their direct accompaniment to gather firewood and water.[20] Cure Violence takes a public health approach to violence which they assess as functioning like a contagious disease. By hiring credible messengers to interrupt transmission, they have reduced shootings and homicides on average from 40-75% in over 25 U.S. cities as well as abroad.[21] Another example is the practice of relying primarily on unarmed policing, which is found in about 19 countries such as Britain, Ireland, Norway, New Zealand, Scotland, Iceland, Maritius, Botswana, and most Pacific Island countries.[22] Unarmed police find this allows them to build better trust with the community, better de-escalate threatening situations, and better prevent crime.[23] In terms of steps or phases of such systemic transformation, Black Lives Matter offers these three initial steps and here is an extended phased approach for consideration.[24] They have also proposed national legislation, called the Breathe Act.[25]

As Catholic ethicists, let us help create the moral architecture and praxis for this deeper systemic transformation in solidarity with the cries and vision of many of our Black sisters and brothers. In this essay, I offered a contribution toward this moral architecture by drawing on voices from Black Lives Matter, human dignity, the Eucharist, and unarmed strategies to help us re-imagine community protection mechanisms. Exploring this conflict with the Catholic themes of integral ecology and mercy may offer some fruitful next steps for reflection.

[1] Christina Morales, “What we know about the shooting of Jacob Blake,” in New York Times, Sept. 10, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/article/jacob-blake-shooting-kenosha.html.

[2] Movement for Black Lives, https://m4bl.org/, and Showing Up for Racial Justice, https://www.showingupforracialjustice.org/.

[3] Michael Jaycox, “A Catholic Case for Police Defunding and Abolition,” in CTEWC, July 1, 2020, https://catholicethics.com/forum/police-abolition/.

[4] Jonathan Haidt, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion,” https://tinyurl.com/y2jg4qfm.

[5] Lisa Sowle Cahill, “Blessed are the Peacemakers: Pacifism, Just War, and Peacebuilding,” (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2019), 125, 153.

[6] Lisa Sowle Cahill, “Catholic Tradition on Peace, War, and Just Peace,” in A Just Peace Ethic Primer: Building Sustainable Peace and Breaking Cycles of Violence,” (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2020), 42, http://press.georgetown.edu/book/georgetown/just-peace-ethic-primer.

[7] Pope John Paul II, quoted in Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church (London: Continuum, 2004), 496; and in “Holy Mass in Drogheda, Ireland,” The Holy See, September 29, 1979,

http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/homilies/1979/documents/hf_jpii_hom_19790929_irlanda-dublino-drogheda.html.

[8] Sacred Congregation, for the Doctrine of Faith. “Instruction on Certain Aspects of the Theology of Liberation.” Aug. 6, 1984; section xi, paragraph 7.Online: http://www.newadvent.org/library/docs_df84lt.htm.

[9] Pope Francis, “Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace,” World Day of Peace Message, 2017, http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/peace/documents/papa-francesco_20161208_messaggio-l-giornata-mondiale-pace-2017.html.

[10] Tobias Winright, “A Better Way to Serve and Protect,” U.S. Catholic, April 2015, https://uscatholic.org/articles/201605/better-way-serve-and-protect-30656.

[11] Tobias Winright, “Faith, Justice, and Ferguson: Insights for Religious Educators,” Religious Education 113, no. 3 (May-June 2018): 244-252, https://www-tandfonline-com.proxygw.wrlc.org/doi/pdf/10.1080/00344087.2018.1450608.

[12] Tobias Winright, White Privilege—A Confession.” The Tablet 274, no. 9456 (June 13, 2020): 4-5, https://reader.exacteditions.com/issues/88498/page/4.

[13] Tobias Winright, “A Better Way to Serve and Protect,” U.S. Catholic, April 2015, https://uscatholic.org/articles/201605/better-way-serve-and-protect-30656.

[14] Jemima McEvoy, “At Least 13 Cities are Defunding their Police Departments,” in Forbes, Aug. 12, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jemimamcevoy/2020/08/13/at-least-13-cities-are-defunding-their-police-departments/#33358c4229e3.

[15] Philip McHarris and Thenjiwe McHarris, “No More Money for the Police,” in New York Times, May 30, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/30/opinion/george-floyd-police-funding.html.

[16] Movement for Black Lives, “Defunding Police: What it Takes to End Police Violence,” in Medium, June 5, 2020, https://medium.com/@m4blcomms/defunding-police-what-it-takes-to-end-police-violence-bb164a70e89b.

[17] Pope Francis at Vigil of Prayer for Peace, Sept. 7, 2013, https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/homilies/2013/documents/papa-francesco_20130907_veglia-pace.html.

[18] Shanti Sena Network, “Alternative Community Security Brief,” July 6, 2020, https://mettacenter.org/shanti-sena/about-the-shanti-sena-network/.

[19] Nonviolent Peaceforce, https://www.nonviolentpeaceforce.org/.

[20] “NP workers Andres Gutierrez and Derek Oakley on their experience of the violence in South Sudan,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_WcFwpcIMcE&feature=emb_logo.

[21] Cure Violence, “Our Impact,” https://cvg.org/impact/.

[22] Kara Fox, “How US Gun Culture Compares with the World,” in CNN, July 19, 2017, https://edition.cnn.com/2017/07/19/world/us-gun-crime-police-shooting-statistics/index.html.

[23] Jon Kelly, “Why British Police don’t have Guns,” in BBC News Magazine, Sept. 19, 2012, https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-19641398. Ross Hendy, “Routinely Armed and Unarmed Police: What Can the Scandinavian Experience Teach Us?” in Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice, Apr. 15, 2014. This research indicates that routinely arming police does not “necessarily equate to increased safety.”

[24] Shanti Sena Network, “Alternative Community Security Brief,” July 6, 2020, https://mettacenter.org/shanti-sena/about-the-shanti-sena-network/.

[25] Movement for Black Lives, “Breathe Act,” https://breatheact.org/.