By Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, Director of the Office of Public Witness PC(U.S.A.), and Langley Hoyt, Fellow for Domestic Issues
In the weeks following the death of George Floyd, as protestors continue to fill the streets with largely peaceful demonstrations, police continue to retaliate with shows of force and militarization. The violence police use against Black Lives Matter protestors stems from a long history of police attacking marginalized groups advocating for their rights. This is the modern-day iteration of a historical pattern of police violence against peaceful protest. To protect the civil rights of the American people, the police must be reoriented to adopt more appropriate measures in response to demonstrations which pose no threat of violence.
Rather than moving to protect the rights of peaceful protestors, lawmakers in various states have passed 23 laws criminalizing and restricting the right to protest. These laws further protect violent police forces while allowing the prosecution of Americans for practicing their first amendment rights. This is a move in the wrong direction as local police departments must be de-militarized. De-militarization calls for an end to the transference of military equipment along with additional levels of staff training in de-escalation. Police should be accompanied by experienced staff with expertise in de-escalation as well as mental health proficiency. Officers should be able to deliver first aid assistance to those injured by their actions and undergo an independent investigation whenever deadly force is used. Information on officers with a history of violence towards the public should be shared if they are fired and reapply elsewhere.
The use of police violence to silence dissenting voices of protest is a pattern woven into the history of our country. In 1917, suffragettes who were peacefully picketing outside the White House were arrested, tortured, and imprisoned until the following year. Peaceful labor protests were suppressed by violence for over a century from 1874-1974. On July 28, WWI veterans, the Bonus Army, were battered, beaten and murdered by the U.S. Army when they set up tents in Washington D.C. demanding bonus pay. From Montgomery and Birmingham (Alabama) to Albany (Georgia), Civil Rights protests were met with violence and death. On “Bloody Sunday” in 1965, police attacked Civil Rights protestors in Selma, Alabama with high-power hoses and dogs. Martin Luther King Jr. described the Birmingham police force as using “gestapo-like” methods to combat protestors. After his murder, Lyndon B. Johnson pleaded with local governors and mayors to curtail police violence. According to the Smithsonian, he said, “I’m not getting through… They’re all holing up like generals in a dugout getting ready to watch a war.” Police killed a total of 9 college students and wounded 48 others during peaceful protests at Orangeburg College (February 8, 1968), Kent State University (May 4, 1970) and Jackson State College (May 15, 1970). In 2016, the police used pepper spray and tear gas against unarmed Indigenous activists protesting the Dakota Access pipeline. State-sanctioned violence against protestors has continued seamlessly from the early 1900s, through the Civil Rights Era, and into the current decade.
We must de-militarize the police to prevent the future mistreatment of peaceful protestors. This can be achieved by cutting funding to police budgets that provide inadequate training and military-grade weaponry. The money saved can be used to fund community programs proven to reduce crime and provide greatly needed resources to communities. Alex S. Vitale, professor of sociology, coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, and the author of The End of Policing, recommended in The Guardian, “The alternative is not more money for police training programs, hardware or oversight. It is to dramatically shrink their function. We must demand that local politicians develop non-police solutions to the problems poor people face. We must invest in housing, employment and healthcare in ways that directly target the problems of public safety. Instead of criminalizing homelessness, we need publicly financed supportive housing; instead of gang units, we need community-based anti-violence programs, trauma services and jobs for young people; instead of school police we need more counselors, after-school programs, and restorative justice programs… Instead of giving them more money for pointless training programs, let’s divert that money into building up communities and individuals so we don’t ‘need’ violent and abusive policing.”
Jesus himself de-escalated a violent encounter in the Garden of Gethsemane as he was arrested by Roman soldiers. Matthew 26:50-56 says, “Then (the soldiers) came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.’”
As peaceful protests continue to be met by police violence, it is essential for Christians to recognize that they follow a person of color who was arrested and killed by Roman keepers of the law. Even as he was being led away to be crucified, Jesus encouraged those he met to be peacemakers rather than resorting to violence to solve the problems of their time. Jesus’ message translates clearly into a calling for the current day: we must not use violence to uphold the power of the state, and we must advocate for a just world where peace is a reality for all.
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