The weeks since George Floyd was murdered by former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin have brought continual uprising nationwide, and brutal state violence. Vast swaths of Americans led by black organizers have marched boldly for an end to systemic racism and police murder of Black people despite law enforcement repeatedly attacking Americans in our streets, parks and public spaces. As public opinion moves in favor of the movement for Black lives, the president encourages violence. He even had protesters attacked across the street from the White House to clear a path for him to walk to a nearby church for a photo op.
As a pastor, I see protesters as prophets. In the Hebrew Scriptures, prophets were people sent by God to rebuke rulers who disregard God’s call for justice. According to renowned theologian Walter Brueggemann, the first step of prophecy is lament—crying out in the midst of suffering and injustice. Lament breaks through numbness and hopelessness. “How dare you crush the faces of my people into dust?” shouts the prophet Isaiah.
Our present-day prophets’ outcry has broken through. The constant nationwide demonstrations show that numbness has dissolved into resolve. Another function of the prophet is to bring hope. The policy changes and popular support already won by the uprisings provide ample reason to believe progress can be made as long as we continue to listen to the cries of those in the streets. They know first hand the problem. And they have outlined radical solutions that reimagine policing. Let’s hear them out.
The Minneapolis City Council unanimously disbanded the city’s endemically racist police department last week. With continued vigilance and boldness, prophets and activists in the Twin Cities can ensure that what replaces this unjust institution protects instead of persecutes Black people and communities of color. (The approach of disbanding led to remarkable progress with the police department of Camden, New Jersey.) In Los Angeles, $150 million has been moved from the police department’s budget into health, employment and trauma-treatment programs for L.A. youth.
Much work remains to be done, and continued protest can set the stage for major legislative progress. The Civil Rights Movement’s most iconic protests were necessary precursors to historic federal legislation. It is hard to imagine passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 without the March on Washington, or the Voting Rights Act of 1965, without protesters bravely marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the face of Alabama police officers’ brutal attacks on Bloody Sunday.
While some political commentators fret about the messaging of “defund the police” today, the train of justice has left the station. This development is critical. When less than 40% of African Americans trust police, campaigning for less than a fundamental overhaul of the scope and role of law enforcement brings to mind the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “They dress the wounds of my people as though it were not serious; ‘peace, peace’ they say, when there is no peace.”
As progressive candidates look to tap into the moral energy of the protests, they must heed the well-known Proverb, “without a vision, the people perish.” Campaigns must resist the temptation to try to wedge this moment into conventional election strategies or political narratives that were set in motion before George Floyd’s murder. If merely voting were the answer, we wouldn’t be in this situation. If incremental tweaks under the banner of reform worked, we would have fixed this already. Minor changes are unequal to the moment and fail to reckon with the sins of the past. We must start over with a new vision of public safety.
The evil of racism is deeply embedded in both parties’ DNA. Mass incarceration and the violent “tough on crime” approach to policing are bipartisan policies, and blue states are not bastions of peace and harmony where law enforcement treat communities of color with respect. While President Trump is an unabashed white supremacist, the devaluation of Black lives started with the arrival of the first slave ship in 1619, not the election of 2016.
Protesters’ specific policy demands vary from state to state and group to group, but an expensive, overdue bill must be paid everywhere. I mean this literally. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In city after city, the police budget is the biggest municipal expenditure. This has always been an investment in keeping Black people down. It is time to put our tax dollars instead into uplift. That’s what I hear in the prophets’ cries of “defund the police.” I pray that those who aspire to office have the wisdom to heed their call.