Systems and Silos

MBK Cambridge, #TheMovementContinues – June 7, 2020

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.


Cambridge Day Article summarizing the MBK protest in Cambridge, June 7, 2020

The Face of Racism…

Senator Rand Paul (R) Kentucky (c) US Senate

The face of racism is unassuming.  It is not an angry cropped hair white 20-something holding a torch screaming “you will not replace us!”  It is not a barrel-chested gun toting self-styled militia guy wearing a Confederate flag.  It is not the “Becky” or “Karen” calling the cops.  The face of racism is any white person in a position of power and influence who prioritizes their need to parse their interpretation of words over the lives of black people and other non-whites.

The Senate of the United States has been closer this year than ever to finally making lynching a federal crime [S. 488 – Information about the bill and its companion H.R. 35 – Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act].  It has already been passed by both houses.  This would create a law that makes lynching, of any kind, a federal crime.  This would be justice for every black person, every white person, every Latin-x person every, Native, Chinese, Japanese and Jewish person and every LGBTQ person who was ever lynched.  This would mean that when a gang of people hunt down and kill another transwoman of color, there would be some kind of federal recourse for their crimes that needs to be considered.  It would mean that that the gang rape, torture and murder of a woman who is trafficked would have larger consequences.  It would mean that a group of men, regardless of their professional position as police, when they detain and forcibly pin down an unarmed and compliant man and do not listen to his cries for air and he dies, would have a federal violation to answer for.  It would be justice for George Floyd.

But the Rand Pauls of the world are like too many white people that I’ve experienced when the conversation turns to codifying the definition of racism and creating substantive policy to prevent it.  They get uncomfortable.  They turn to wordsmithing in order to avoid “unintended consequences” and they reason for “common sense”.  Meanwhile, black people and those who do not benefit from whiteness, but who are always at its mercy, are forced to attend another senseless funeral, another tear streaked vigil, another protest, another march.  How dare anyone call for a “common sense” response to rampant, historical, lethal racism wielded as a bludgeon against innocent people?

I echo Senator Cory Booker’s statement in the clip below that there is nothing any white person can tell black people about lynching.  Senator Rand Paul is trying to “amend” this bill so that it is more “specific” and that someone can’t be accused of “lynching” by giving someone a ‘bruise’.  As Senator Kamala Harris says, this is offensive.  But what Paul is doing is actually straight out of the playbook of the Southern Democrats who blocked similar legislation from 1918 – 1922 (Dyer Anti Lynching Bill).  Too often when policies are crafted to deal with racism, white fragility rears its head and asks that these corrective measures “don’t go too far” and that they “show restraint” and that they don’t create a punishment worse than the crime.

There is no crime worse than racism that kills.  Racism is born of pure hatred and holds no redeeming or justifiable purpose.  Racism deserves no defense or assumption of innocence.  End racism.  Racism doesn’t see itself and it doesn’t hear itself.  Racism is a white ophthalmologist who stares blankly in the faces of two black attorneys and tells them about writing law.  Racism is a white man arguing publicly about race with three black people and defending what he knows about lynching.  Racism is a white guy talking about a bruise in a conversation that begins with the many ways black people have been hung, burned, disemboweled and castrated.  Given every opportunity in the world for redemption, apparently racism is also still the United States.

And sadly this seems to be Senator Rand Paul.  But he works for us.  Please let him know what you think.

I am urging all of my colleagues and friends in Kentucky to please call Senator Rand Paul’s Local and DC office to get him to withdraw his proposed amendment immediately and clear the way for this historic legislation.  The time is now.  End racism.  Senator Paul is literally holding the lynch pin that could put at least one piece of the racism of the United States in its long awaited grave.

Contact Senator Rand Paul

Bowling Green
Main State Office
1029 State Street
Bowling Green, KY 42101
Phone: 270-782-8303

Washington DC
167 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington DC, 20510
Phone: 202-224-4343