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

A Failure of My Faith

white wooden boat adrift at shore under grey cloudy sky
Photo by Trace Hudson on

I have now watched the date that marks 400 years since Africans were first displaced to this continent in bondage come and go with no substantial acknowledgment by the Unitarian Universalist Association (well, we rang bells…that’s nice.)  I serve this denomination as one of all too few African American ministers and this lack of action is yet another reminder that in many ways, this is not my faith.  But I am not deterred.  In fact, I am determined that because of this minimal action, I will not let the same thing happen next year with regard to marking 400 years since the start of the aggressive and pre-meditated displacement in 1620 of Native people from the place that we now call Massachusetts.

I believe that the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ as the modern-day religious descendants of the Puritans who arrived here in 1620 must make a public acknowledgement of their role in initiating the devastation of Native people.  I also believe that as the religious body that formed and structured what would become the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the modern government of the commonwealth must join these two denominations in a public act of witness.

By 1620, Native tribes had already been poisoned by European disease.  But it was the Puritans who were then able to take advantage of this weakened position to squat on villages that had been previously cleared by dying tribes and to wield firearms (somethings never change) as a threat of lethal force to build their precious “city on a hill.”  Native people did not lay down without a fight (Pequot War, King Phillip’s War, etc.) but they were ultimately repressed by the English colonizers who had little or no interest in the original inhabitants’ continuing to survive according to their own customs let alone thrive.

…talk is cheap; repentance is dear.

There are those who will hear this call to action and resist any effort to acknowledge this history as a crime of humanity; and they may simply chalk it up to “progress”.  They may ask, how can we do this without then taking account of every one of the conflicts posed by European settlers to Native people.  They  may also retort with “but there was violence from both sides.” Frankly, I don’t give a damn because I’m tired of accommodating white fragility around this history.  I also know that if these three powerful (and supposedly liberal) entities continue to tacitly accept the forced removal, enslavement and genocide of the original inhabitants of this land as “progress” we will never get to a place of true progress; we will never truly recognize or resolve the ongoing violence of the Atlantic slave trade or the troublingly persistent second-class status of women.  In order to accomplish anything at all, we must begin at a beginning.

New England talks a good game on liberal values.  But talk is cheap; repentance is dear.  It is time for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the descended religious bodies of the Puritans (UUA & UCC) to pay up.

Inspired in this moment by the Jewish High Holy Days and the season of atonement, and the actions of the Collegiate Church of New York in 2009, the following is my imagination of what a joint declaration from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association addressing their role in Native displacement and murder might look like. Just to be clear, I am not Native or Indigenous identified and I cannot express the specific needs of those communities and I don’t intend to represent myself in that way.  But I am a minister in the lineage of the leaders who created this devastation and it is my obligation to call that legacy to account if my faith is ever to live up to my standards of racial, social and cultural equity:

A Declaration for 1620 Atonement

May it be understood:

The early colonizers of the region now known as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts intentionally sought to displace the original inhabitants of this land.

Motivated by their Christian faith, the colonizers approached their project of settlement with an assumption that their “work” was ordained by God.

The religious basis for the colonizers’ social and political organization was foundational to their efforts and created a justification of entitlement to their actions in peacetime and in war.

The Puritan movement created the principle social and political order for the colonizers.

May it be resolved:

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association (primary descendants and chief beneficiaries of the Puritan colonial project) recognize the year 2020 as a year of mourning and the beginning of atonement for the loss of life, the destruction of a way of life and for the stolen cultural autonomy of the Native people in this region.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association acknowledge their direct connection to the brutality inflicted on the Native people of this region.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association will seek reconciliation with the descendants of the displaced, enslaved and murdered original inhabitants of this land, but there will be no expectation of or obligation for this reconciliation to be accepted by the modern tribes.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association will collectively explore in consultation with Native people a system of full enfranchisement based on the needs and wants of the Native people.  This system may include but is not limited to financial, land and or educational reparations.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association will incorporate in their respective governing and spiritual documents an acknowledgement of this unrepayable debt owed to the Native inhabitants and moving forward will approach their efforts of government and faith development with humility and recognition of their role in the near destruction of the original people of this region.


PDF Version: A Declaration for 1620 Atonement