I am five years old and in the back seat of my parents’ car on a sweltering summer Friday evening, deep in the sprawling Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. We’re in line for a drive-in spot at the Whataburger. From my limited vantage point, I can see the fast-food chain’s orange- and white-striped A-frame looming over us. My older brother sits across from me in the back seat. Intermittently, arms fly out between us to deliver or deflect a blow, while our seatbelts restrain us from fully joining in battle.
From the front passenger seat, my mother makes a sound of surprise. I strain to get a better view through the windshield. Ahead, there are two men facing each other, circling at a distance of a few feet. Suddenly they close the gap in a flurry of movement, and then a second or two later they are apart and circling again. I see patches of red on their arms and torsos, exposed by flaps of fabric that billow like banners as they lunge and dodge.
My mother is urging my father to drive away, but he’s unable to easily do so. The lines of cars have turned into a tangled mess, as some move to get a better view and others try to leave. Meanwhile, the fight continues without interruption. The blades are too small, or too thin, or it’s too dark for me to see them, so it is not until many years later that I realize that the men were tearing each others’ flesh apart with something other than their bare hands. Finally my father is able to slide into an opening between cars, and I can no longer see the combatants.
“If they’re brothers, they won’t be able to live together anymore,” I say. My parents solemnly agree.
This memory has been replayed in my mind’s eye many times over the years. I never see how it ends, but it’s possible that one—or even both—of these men sustained fatal wounds. Did I witness a homicide in progress? Why were they fighting? Why weren’t they stopped?
Photo by Tony Wan on Unsplash
The Purpose of Police
Adults sometimes resort to violence, and sometimes there is nobody present who is willing or able to separate them. There are times—like the January 6 insurrection earlier this year—when what we think of as the norms of human conscience simply malfunction, from a variety of possible physiological, evolutionary, sociological, or other causes that we may never fully understand. In these situations, where prevention or de-escalation has failed and while harm is being inflicted, liberal Quaker witness has remained largely inert. We have clung to a particular interpretation of the peace testimony that is as misguided by our intuition, and ultimately as inhumane, as was our Society’s participation in the adoption of solitary confinement in the American penal system. We have clung to it because letting go is hard, as is wading into new and morally ambiguous territory. But in so doing, we’re refusing to face the more complex truth, and are complicit in fostering ongoing harms that are the consequence of our inability to act.
Lucy Duncan’s “A Quaker Call to Abolition and Creation” (FJ Apr.) mentions visiting a peace village in Burundi where transformative healing from the Rwandan genocide was taking place. It is left unsaid that these survivors were healing from the failure of the international community to intervene in a situation where civil authority had vanished. One in seven Rwandans who were alive immediately before the slaughter began were dead within a span of 100 days and were never granted the opportunity to heal. This is a ghastly homicide rate that far exceeds that of the English Civil War from which Quakerism emerged.
Previous articles in Friends Journal (“Police Power for Peace” by William L. Hanson, Aug. 2004, and “Responsibility to Protect” by Jack T. Patterson, July 2008) have noted the common purposes of international peacekeeping activities and domestic policing. They have also noted Friends’ insufficient engagement with the questions of when we should support the use of coercive force, and how to differentiate that force from violence and fighting in war. As Patterson wrote:
It is when peaceful options seem to fall away that we are most acutely aware of the difficulties of continuing to act in ways that are meaningful to those who are the targets of such violence.
He urged Friends to consider the 2001 Responsibility to Protect framework from the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty that describes three sequential responsibilities: to prevent, to react, and to rebuild.
Lucy Duncan later asks: “What would it mean for us to stand fully with the calls to abolish the police and fully fund community needs instead?” To me, it would mean that we have been persuaded to forego our responsibility to protect and care for the most vulnerable among us. We need to admit, to ourselves and each other, that fully funded community needs include a trained and trusted civil authority capable of interrupting violence, whether that authority is called “the police” or any other name.
We have clung to a particular interpretation of the peace testimony . . . because letting go is hard, as is wading into new and morally ambiguous territory. But in so doing, we’re refusing to face the more complex truth, and are complicit in fostering ongoing harms that are the consequence of our inability to act.
What Communities Want and Need
A September 2020 survey of Black voters in the U.S., commissioned by Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza’s Black Futures Lab, showed “strong support for police reform measures, much lower support for divesting or defunding police.” One hopes that Friends who support the right of all persons and communities to self-determine would pause and reflect on this. Is calling to abolish the police throughout the entire nation or world what the Spirit is leading us to do at this moment in history, in the name of racial justice? We need to test such a leading not just with intuitive feeling but with the three other main tests that Howard Brinton spoke of: authority, reason, and results.
As far as authoritative voices on policing, I have found few more weighty than Swarthmore alumnus David M. Kennedy, whose Operation Ceasefire/Group Violence Intervention has repeatedly shown positive results, reducing gun violence in cities nationwide. His recent testimony “State Violence, Legitimacy, and the Path to True Public Safety,” grounded in firsthand experience, supports an “irreducible role for state power in public safety.” Yet he recognizes the scale and intractability of our problem:
A lot of reforms have made a difference, but they have not transformed the institution that is American policing. . . . In my organization’s violence prevention work, we tell police: communities need policing. They just don’t need the policing they’ve been getting.
In “The First Step is Figuring Out What Police Are For,” Tracy Meares and Tom Tyler of Yale University’s Justice Collaboratory note how intuition and emotion continually lead us astray in the realm of public safety:
Police executives and government leaders engage in a recurrent pattern of reacting to immediate perceived crises and public panics with quick fixes guided by guesses and intuitions, many of which are found to be erroneous at best and counterproductive at worst. These unproven solutions cannot substitute for careful analysis and testing of a variety of strategies for addressing core issues in policing.
Photo by David Von Diemar on Unsplash
The Hard Work Ahead of Us
It is true that the history of policing in the United States, particularly in the South, is deeply intertwined with slavery. But we should not confuse the seed with the soil, and each new generation has the potential to evolve to be different from the original seed. Many police leaders who are working to reform this system from within choose to put down roots in different soil. Some reference Robert Peel’s Policing Principles, nine statements that have guided the Metropolitan Police Force in London since 1829. The seventh principle follows:
To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
Qualified immunity and other hindrances to police accountability that are embedded in collective bargaining agreements between governments and police unions have worked against this principle, giving police greater protection than members of the public. Similarly, militarization of the police in recent decades has blurred the line between the maintenance of civil order and military repression, but it is, at least in part, also a function of the militarization of our society. Police in England and many other countries are much more likely to be unarmed, but this is within an ecosystem where the public possess guns at a far lower rate.
[It will require] an urgent re-dedication to the traditional Quaker disciplines of hard and sometimes dangerous work, recognizing and accepting the imperfections in ourselves and others, applying reason and science where appropriate, bridging divides, and listening to the Inward Teacher.
Quaker abstinence from the profession, alongside low participation from progressives in general, certainly does not help counter these trends. I expect police to put themselves at risk more often than they currently do; I even expect them to sacrifice their lives in the line of duty, in order to avoid applying lethal force. Indeed, police are killed less often than are persons in a number of other occupations. But can we make such a demand, when we ourselves wash our hands of this work? What could a Quaker academy for officers of the peace, and more Quakers on patrol, accomplish? Those who appear to have gone the farthest in this discussion are the Fellowship of Friends of African Descent, who proposed in 2016 (and reaffirmed in 2020) action items on policing, including the following:
The training, support and employment of a “peaceforce” consisting of police officers and community based peacekeepers, none of whom are armed. . . .
The development and support of “peace centers” in our communities which will provide safe havens and educational, cultural and recreational opportunities for young people in our communities. . . .
Police training will be ongoing and consistent including sub-conscious bias training that is not just academic but rather is community based. . . .
We must also remember that we are contributing to this public discourse as Quakers in a non-Quaker society. As I think about the path forward, I am reminded of this passage from Frederick Douglass’s 1876 “Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln”:
Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.
Demilitarization and disarmament, reducing the footprint of police and prisons, and strengthening communities’ control over their police are all tangible avenues for change as part of a popular movement based on universal moral principles. I don’t see this as something that requires a revolutionary new creed, but instead an urgent re-dedication to the traditional Quaker disciplines of hard and sometimes dangerous work, recognizing and accepting the imperfections in ourselves and others, applying reason and science where appropriate, bridging divides, and listening to the Inward Teacher.