Police Divestment: A Step to Addressing Police Violence

First Congregational Church of Oakland made a radical policy change: to never call the police.

In April, I was on KPFA's UpFront radio show with First Congregational Church of Oakland volunteer and community leader Nichola Torbett talking about alternatives to calling the police in the wake of Starbucks, Waffle House and Walmart incidents that led to the arrest or killing of Black men and women. Recognizing the grave danger for marginalized and communities of color when fraudulent or unnecessary police calls, the church made a radical institutional policy change: they would no longer call the cops. Today, the Los Angeles Times ran a story about their decision to divest from the police. From the LA Times:

At First Congregational, which is part of the United Church of Christ denomination, the decision to avoid police has generated a variety of responses. A regional body of the United Church of Christ in Northern California endorsed the effort. Elsewhere in the nation, churches have scoffed.

Conservative media have accused the Oakland church of being anti-police, and questioned its commitment to safety. ("All I got to say is ‘Oakland, California’ and immediately you know we are talking about nutcases,” one commentator said during a YouTube broadcast).

Some nearby houses of worship, including a Presbyterian church and a Reconstructionist Jewish synagogue, have asked how they could join. Locals, curious about the church’s announcement, have started to stop by on Sundays. On Facebook, dozens of people are signed up to attend a July workshop at the church. It’s called “How to NOT call the PoLice (Sheriffs & Kkkorts) Ever.”

“We’re taught to turn to police for so much, even simple disagreements between people,” said church member Sarah Pritchard, who is also white and is setting up trainings such as the July workshop. “Why can’t we resolve issues among ourselves?”

“We need to be there as a community for one another so we can provide safety for our congregation without police,” she said. Pritchard said the ban wouldn’t apply if there was a shooting or other life-threatening violence. But nearly everything else is fair game.

After the story was published, Torbett received word that Fox News would be running a segment about police divestment mentioning the church. She took to Facebook to share the statement she gave them but wasn't sure they'd use:

"First Congregational Church of Oakland is a multiracial church, and some of our own members have been followed, harassed, and even sexually assaulted by police officers. In addition, we live in the middle of an urban area experiencing an extreme housing crisis, so there are many unhoused people on and around our campus, some of whom struggle with mental illness and addiction, and the statistics show that Black and Brown people suffering from mental illness and addiction are among those most at risk of being shot by police even when unarmed.

Faced with this reality, in combination with the onslaught of stories about unarmed Black and Brown people being killed by police, we finally realized that we couldn’t claim to love each other or our neighbors if we continued to rely on an institution that was creating so much trauma in our communities. We recognize that Jesus himself was a brown-skinned man who was considered “crazy," surveilled, targeted, arrested, and killed by state forces with the willing help of religious people, and that recognition called us to take a stand with Jesus.

What we are asking of each other, concretely, is that we get proactive about building a community network of individuals, congregations, and other organizations who will work together to keep each other and our larger community safe without relying on the police. Starting in July, we’ll be offering monthly trainings on various topics, including antiracism training, violence prevention and de-escalation, conflict resolution, restorative justice, mental health first aid, and self- and community-defense. In the meantime, we are reducing our reliance on the police with the goal of not calling them, period. So far, our larger community has been incredibly supportive and eager to join in. We have gotten a few critical calls, emails, letters, and Facebook comments, but Jesus himself warned that that would happen (Mark 10: 29-31).

It’s important to say that we are not "anti-police" but pro-community. We recognize that police officers are human beings, many of whom joined the police force because they earnestly wanted to serve their communities. However, the role of the institution of policing is to “preserve law and order,” and in this country, the prevailing order that is being preserved is one that serves white people at the expense of people of color, and wealthy white people more than anyone. This is a horrible tragedy that we believe harms police as well as those they could end up harming. We love the human beings who wear police uniforms by working to dismantle the systems of white supremacy, including policing, that hold them and us captive."

The Church's Facebook page has already been attacked by trolls leaving negative reviews admonishing their decision never to call the police. But Torbett and her community are not wavering in their commitment to end their participation in a flawed system.

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