Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Message: "Divest/Invest: The Discourse on Defunding Police"
Movement for Black Lives Series
Scripture: Psalm 91
We continue today in the series focusing on the platform pieces of the Movement for Blacks Lives, putting these particular calls for justice in biblical and theological context. Last week we focused on the platform plank to “Respect and Protect Protestors” at the same time that reports were beginning to come out of Portland of militarized federal agents in camouflage and in many eyewitness reports, without proper identification. In response to this shocking display of aggression, a group of Portland moms showed up to respect and protect the protestors. Chanting, “Feds stay clear, moms are here” and “Leave our kids alone!” they created what is being called the “Wall of Moms”
But let’s be clear, Black moms have been standing in the gap together between their kids and violence for centuries. One of the more recent examples is Moms Against Senseless Killings who started in 2015, and interestingly uses the acronym MASK, M-A-S-K. These moms really seem to have their finger on the pulse of what will keep us safe! Originating in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago, their model of providing community safety through presence and resource distribution has been adopted in cities across the country. Kofi Ademola, Chicago Black Lives Matter Lead Organizer said, "We see what MASK is doing on a grassroots level by bringing communities together. …We want to help uplift them whenever they need help. Things happen when violence isn't looked at as a public health issue."
In the current uprising, many veteran organizers and activists have said that this time feels different, saying that the change sought for decades and centuries feels more possible. When asked why, various reasons have been offered but now we know the reason, one that even every schoolyard bully knows not do so they can keep bullying: The police and federal agents have drawn the attention of the Moms.
And now, the wall of moms is facing off against federal agents and Portland police in support of activist leaders of color who have been in the streets 50 consecutive nights since May 25th. Many are new to activism and reported surprise when tear gas and flash grenades were used against them. Sadly, this has been my experience and what I have witnessed in protest: the presumption that somehow my white privilege will protect me when I choose to step into protest space has been met with swift and surprising violence from agents of the state, even though nonviolent protesting is a civil right.
I will never forget standing in the frontline of protestors on the anniversary of the death of Michael Brown who was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri. US Marshalls who had been holding the police line were replaced with St. Louis county police who were armed with guns and active tazers. We all knew that they were not inclined to show restraint. A few hours later, many of us were arrested, without resistance and fortunately without tazers or lethal force. We were held into the evening, only released when we allowed our DNA to be taken through a cheek swab.
On that day we were protesting that though the US Department of Justice report that had confirmed the violation by Ferguson police of first, fourth fourteenth amendment rights, it had not been acted on for over five months. To be clear, the violence coming from police toward Black and Brown bodies, sometimes lethally, has been at the center of the current movement for Black Lives since the beginning. Since May 25th, over 10,000 protestors, the vast majority nonviolent, in 140 cities in all 50 states have been arrested by police. Often protestors on the ground report violence instigated by police through aggression, flash grenades or tear gas.
Today we focus on the movement platform plank of Divest and Invest which reads: “We demand investments in the education, health and safety of Black people, instead of investments in the criminalizing, caging, and harming of Black people. We want investments in Black communities, determined by Black communities, and divestment from exploitative forces including prisons, fossil fuels, police, surveillance and exploitative corporations.” The part of divestment I want to center this morning is one that we are moving toward in Berkeley and Oakland and have been struggling with for some time: the call to “Defund Police.”
What does it mean to “Defund Police?” Is it simply a zeroing out of a line item in a city or county’s budget? And if we were able to liberate all or some funds, in what would be invested? The words “defund”, “divest” and “invest” make us think that this is primarily an economic question, but that’s very misleading, so I want to caution you on that assumption. This is about something much bigger than that.
The activists at the center of the campaign to defund the police call themselves abolitionists. It is not so much the money going toward city police departments that they want to abolish though the appropriate use of funds to further security is part of the equation. It is about the whole structure and mindset around policing in this country that purports to offer safety and security to all people but for Black persons and other communities of color and marginalization, enacts terror, control and traumatization.
When abolitionists say “defund” or “reform” the police, what is being called for is an engagement with what it means for everyone to be safe and well, enjoying true freedom and the pursuit of happiness. Defunding and divesting from the police is a strategy that looks different in every city and requires participatory engagement from the community, as well as a long-term approach to systemic change.[Movement for Black Lives: The Time Has Come to Defund the Police Messaging PDF]
The choice of the term “abolitionist” is intentional and harkens back to the abolitionist campaigns to abolish slavery in the US from the early 1800s through the civil war. When abolitionists began to call for the immediate and full emancipation of all persons who were enslaved in the US, they were often met with objections such as, “we can’t do that, the economy of the US would collapse.” Or, “we don’t even know how to do that.” Or “that’s impossible.” Today’s abolitionists calling for a dismantling of the system of policing and incarceration are often met with the same objections. But when we look back at the objections thrown at the abolitionists in the 1800s, we have to ask, were these objections right? Were these objections even true? And we see, no, the reasons given to continue with the institution of slavery were neither right nor true.
And please let me be clear, in talking about defunding police, I am not condemning individual police officers. I have three brothers in law who are police officers. But in observing the toll that our system of policing takes on police officers and their families, I don’t think this system is working for them, either.
What keeps us safe? Well, it certainly isn’t the perpetuation of systems of inequality. Inequality makes us less safe. One fear over defunding police is that those with resources, who are largely white, would hire their own private armed security detail while others without resources would be at the mercy of a lawlessness making them less secure. But this is a false conclusion based on the racism and privilege embedded in the current system. Inequality makes us less safe. The goal of Divest and Invest is to dig deeply to imagine how we might truly take responsibility for the well-being of each other. This doesn’t mean we would be naïve about the reality of mental illness, brokenness, or even evil in the world that creates unsafe situations. But that we wouldn’t place the responsibility of responding to these challenges of society on a group of people armed with lethal force embedded in a system that has been shown to be deeply biased and flawed.
Our scripture for today is Psalm 91, a Psalm sometimes referred to informally as the Psalm of Security. It begins,
“Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.[a] I will say of the Lord, “God is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”
And then it continues
If you say, “The Lord is my refuge,” and you make the Most High your dwelling, no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent. For God will command God’s angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
When we ask the question, “What will make us safe?” this scripture provides two key answers for persons of faith. First, God is our refuge and our shelter. Does this mean that God will keep any terrible thing from befalling us? No, we know this isn’t how God has set up the world. God has given us all free will and in the bad choices persons have made and cumulative brokenness that results in such evil as systemic racism, we remain responsible for the gift of free will. And we know there are accidents and disasters that come from nowhere.
The truth embedded in this Psalm is not that we won’t face violence or evil or suffering but that if we remember that we are enfolded in the love of God, we can never be without shelter, we will never be without a refuge. In this sense, security is a spiritual issue.
But in another, very real way, security is also a present and urgent issue. The potential of experiencing harm, or needing mortal assistance poses another more immediate challenge to answering what makes us safe. And here we come to the second answer embedded in the scripture, “For God will command God’s angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” This is a call to the community, both heavenly and earthly, to be safety for each other. This is what the Moms Against Senseless Killings and Wall of Moms are doing. We are each other’s angels when we recognize each person as our neighbor, and our sibling. We are each other’s keepers and have a multitude of ways to organize ourselves so that particular needs are responded to with particular kinds of help. What makes our community safe? With God’s help, we make our community safe.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, the city council there has voted to dismantle and reform the city’s police department. Activists I know there could not believe it when the vote was taken. And now the city of Minneapolis is joining other communities across the country who are doing the essential work of putting other structures in place to keep themselves safe, which includes much more attention to investing in health and wholeness on the front end than policing and punishment on the back end. This will be a long process but it can be done. The abolitionists of the 1800s are nodding. Let’s commit to the long haul and do this work well, and in the process insure that each person and each community is secure and well. Amen.