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Punishing the Poor

Rev. Douglas Taylor


Sermon video:

I remember a Junior High school curriculum our congregation used a decade or two back as part of our Religious Education program. It is called “Living in UUville” written by Rev. Jeff Liebmann. In this curriculum, students work together to build a town based on our Unitarian Universalist principles. It involved a little roleplaying which was an extra bit of fun. The students actually create a school first, a town in later sessions, and work up to creating a country and ultimately a global community – all based on our UU principles and values.

Each class had to figure out different things together. What laws would we put in place? How would we structure your school system? What would our tax policy look like? How would our values of interdependence and compassion play out in creating UUville? It is interesting to think about.

Would we have a police department in UUville? What would we do with lawbreakers, with liars or murderers? What training would our UU principles and values require of people becoming police officers? What obligations would law enforcement have in UUville? How would we deal with fear-mongering or disinformation campaigns? What would it be like to be poor in UUville? It is interesting to think about.

In our reading this morning, Dr. Takiyah Nur Amin, a lay-leader in Unitarian Universalism and scholar of dance in her work-life, reminded us that:

“In every moment, life is giving us an invitation. I really believe that; I really believe that in every moment, life is giving us an invitation to do the things that are the most loving and life-affirming.”

She says we have this invitation from life and that our Unitarian Universalist faith calls us to respond to this invitation in a particular way. She writes:

“That is a part of the call: the mandate of what it is to be Unitarian Universalist: to figure out how we live together in loving, equitable, just relationship with each other.”

As we ponder what laws we might create and what a police force may look like in UUville, we will do so with a goal of “liv[ing] together in loving, equitable, just relationship.”

We are not the only ones looking at our police departments and wondering if there might be another way to do that work. Since the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor last spring, there has been a call to defund the police. Defunding the Police is a slogan and it means slightly different things depending on who is saying it. In some versions Defunding the Police is just an effort to halt the acquisition of military grade equipment. In other versions, it is a step toward abolishing the police altogether. Most people are aiming for something in between. More than a solution for a single problem and less than burning the whole thing to the ground.

Ultimately, however, all versions of this rally cry are rooted in a recognition that something is off, something is broken in our police departments, something needs to be done to realign our police with our better values as a nation.

In his influential book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes this about the police:

“You may have heard the talk of diversity, sensitivity training, and body cameras. These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend that there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them. The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies—the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects—are the product of democratic will.”

In short – the situation we are in is not an aberration.  Our situation is the product of the principles and values that were in place as we created the modern policing system. What we need is a systemic transformation, to reset the way we do things. And, that is a lot to expect. It is almost impossible to make that level of change. Yet that is what we really need.

So, when I find myself in the middle ground on this conversation, I am still aiming for systemic transformation. I am not ready to throw in with the call for full abolition of the police departments. And I don’t want to stop at just halting the radical militarization of our police. That militarization in both attitude and in equipment concerns me. But that’s not all I think we need to deal with just that is not enough. So, I am in that middle camp calling for defunding.

There was a scene in one of the recent Batman movies, I don’t recall exactly which one, but the bad guys are making a move on Gotham City and they come in with a tank and the police are like “Oh, no! They have a tank!” And that’s why they needed Batman to come in and help them. But it’s ironic because so many city police departments have their own tanks now. It is as if the police departments are trying to equip themselves better than Batman.

It is interesting to notice, the original TV Batman in the late 60’s featured a superhero who was super not because he could fly or had a ‘magic lasso of truth’ or could turn into a big green monster. He was super because he had amazing gadgets. So, what do we do fifty years later when the average city cop has access to the same level of equipment?

The Binghamton Police have a tank. How much longer before they have armed drones? Ponder that for a minute.

Armed military drones have had a dramatic impact on how our modern military operates, as well as on the devastating levels of civilian casualties. It was reprehensible during the Obama administration to witness the normalization of drone warfare. And predictably, during the administration after that, the use of armed military drones escalated dramatically. And now, with Biden, already the casualties from drone attacks are in the news. But for today, my concern is less about which political party is worse on this count. I have an opinion about that, but that’s not my point. My concern is more about how long before our police departments are using armed drones.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against drones per se. We could use drones and traffic cameras to eliminate the need for police to physically issue traffic tickets. Imagine how many black and brown people would be saved if we didn’t need human beings pulling people over. We could just send a ticket in the mail the way they do on interstate 90 if you don’t have an EZPass. I’m not against better technology. I just don’t want our police officers to be decked out with tanks and armed drones. Dictators use their military against their own people. When we arm our police in the manner of a military, we are courting dictatorship.

But that’s just the starting point. Defunding the police, in my mind, is not just a call to halt spending on certain equipment, it is also about what we do want to spend the money on instead – better training, more unarmed responders for non-violent situations, more community-building and trust-building efforts. It is about a cultural change in the attitude of officers and the public in general.

There is a split along racial lines about how the police are generally viewed. It is like there are two different experiences of the cops – white people like me tend to view the police as a source of protection. People of color tend to view them as a source of danger and oppression. It is as if the police have two different ways to dealing with the public.

I heard one analysis suggesting the Police are behaving more like warriors and less like protectors. A protector would seek to keep all the people safe – at least that’s the way I hear the distinction in this analysis. Our UU values call for protectors. Warriors, on the other hand, are out to get the bad guys – the goal for them is to catch someone and punish them for wrong-doing. That is not in keeping with our UU values. In UUville, we would train our police to be protectors, not warriors.

Listen to this way to draw that same distinction but with different words. Aberjhani, an American historian and poet, has said:

“On either side of a potentially violent conflict, an opportunity exists to exercise compassion and diminish fear based on recognition of each other’s humanity. Without such recognition, fear fueled by uninformed assumptions, cultural prejudice, desperation to meet basic human needs, or the panicked uncertainty of the moment explodes into violence.” (Aberjhani, Splendid Literarium: A Treasury of Stories, Aphorisms, Poems, and Essays)

Some of the most exciting possibilities in this conversation about Defunding the Police is the talk of funding social workers to respond to non-violent calls. Even the violent calls, as Aberjhani suggests, could benefit from a mindset of compassion and recognition of each other’s humanity, But how much more so for the situations that are not a threat to begin with, but when an armed cop shows up, things easily escalate.

Across our nation over the past year, partly in response to the pressure from activists and protestors, and partly as part of decades long work to change the systems, several cities did cut or reallocate funding from police departments. Austin, Minneapolis, San Francisco, New York City, Chicago, and Baltimore, along with dozens of others.

The exciting shift is to see the impact when the work is shifted away from armed police officers over to other agencies that deploy social workers to respond to situations involving homelessness, mental health crises, and drug addiction related issues.

I certainly understand the critique that taking money away from the police departments will not magically create better police officers. But that critique is based in fear and a seemingly intentional misunderstanding of the goal. The point is not to make the police continue to do everything with less money – it’s not like we are saying we will treat them like public school teachers. No. The message is that we want to move the funding to better align with our values.

So let’s talk about getting rid of Qualified Immunity and watch what happens in Colorado as they work through that reality. Let’s look at the budget of our city and our county and talk about reallocating funds. Let’s debate some of the pros and cons – but let us always keep in mind the values we are using to create this society together. Let us acknowledge that the problematic and harmful conditions in place when we began this country and later when we established what we know as police departments today.

Our Unitarian Universalist values and principles compel us to not just hunker down and hide in the privileges we currently have. Our values and principles compel us to not simply go along with whatever is happening in society around us. But let us not be tricked into thinking our whole faith is merely an argument against the establishment. We are called not be of or against the world around us. Instead, we are called to be transformative. We are called to participate in and advocate for the better values among us to foster transformation around us.

Step into the conversation. Ask more questions. Drill down to our values of compassion, justice, peace, and love. Let those values focus your thinking and your actions. We are called to be transformative. We are called to participate in and advocate for the better values among us to foster transformation around us.

In a world without end

May it be so