I was driving to Eve’s softball game yesterday when the verdict was pronounced for former officer Derek Chauvin. While I never rejoice at anyone going to prison, it was a relief that he, and perhaps the system he served, was held accountable for the murder of George Floyd. But I don’t think it would have happened without the people, or that bystander video.
When I arrived at the game I had a series of texts from a group of clergy and organizers noting that, right around the time of the verdict, a Black girl had been shot and killed by a Columbus police officer. In between the extremes of doing nothing and responding with deadly violence are a whole host of options we seem blind to as a society. I am increasingly sickened by this.
Today I received a link to a brand new online curriculum produced by Mennonite Church USA called Defund the Police: An Abolition Curriculum. It centers the voices of Black and queer persons and, I believe, represents the best of what our tradition has to offer to this work. It can be used for personal, family, or adult or youth Sunday school purposes. It is a gift that helps frame these matters in Anabaptist theology.
Tomorrow I’ll be part of a meeting that Faith in Public Life has set up with Columbus City Council President Shannon Hardin to discuss divesting some funds from Columbus Police and investing in resources that better serve public safety. Below is a draft of what I plan to say as a part of the opening to that meeting. Let’s continue to pray, act, and learn together for the common good of our community.
I want to highlight that we are having this conversation on Earth Day. This is a time each year when we acknowledge the increasing urgency of reimagining our relationship with this planet, our one home we share with plants and creatures and our fellow humans.
We on this call feel a similar urgency for reimagining relationships in our home of Columbus around public safety and the common good. We greatly appreciate City Council’s naming racism as a public health crisis, tracing this sickness in our body politic all the way back to our national origins. History shows that policing in our country is also part of this persistent sickness. Which means that the violent and deadly police actions which disproportionately target communities of color and the poor are not a sign that the system is malfunctioning, but a sign that it continues to function as it was designed to function.
To draw from an analogy from the natural world which Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount: “You shall know a tree by its fruit.” While much of the conversation around policing focuses on whether individual police are good or bad apples, we are convinced that the tree itself is ill, producing a harvest of trauma and distrust.
Meanwhile we keep asking more and more of an overburdened police department that is even less equipped to deal constructively with situations involving mental illness or the unhoused.
And like our troubled relationship with the air, soil, and water, we are convinced this is not a time for small changes or incremental reform when it comes to policing. Merely having better training or better technology or better hiring practices is like dumping more and more fertilizer on a tree. It does a good job of making the tree grow bigger, but it doesn’t change the kind of fruit it produces.
When we use the language of divesting from the police, we are talking about investing that fertilizer (money, staffing, material resources) in different trees that will produce different fruit. Trees that will produce the shade of public safety, help detoxify the soil of systemic racism, and lead to a harvest of trust and restorative practices.
In light of all this, we believe our asks today — about the Mobile Crisis Response program, housing for the houseless, a mental health living facility, and education — to be modest, and well within the realm of the possible. We’re not asking you to come up with more fertilizer. We’re asking that the right trees get fertilized with the nutrient-rich, organic materials we already have in our community. We seek your leadership on these matters, Council President Hardin, we offer you our prayers, and we are ready to support these efforts with our time and influence.