Several years ago if you had showed me a protest sign with the words “Defund the Police” written on it,
I would have thought that the person who wrote that sign was a little extreme. Maybe even a radical.
Just five years ago, if you had tried to tell me that we should close all the prisons in our country, I would have thought you were crazy.
I would have said, “Where would we put all the bad guys?”
I would have said, “Who will protect us from the rapists and murderers?”
I would have conceded that maybe we need to reform the police and the prisons.
I would have agreed that the police need to be trained to not act on implicit racial bias.
I would have said that we need to do better at holding police accountable, but I would not have imagined a world in which we do not have police or prisons.
In 2014, I watched from my home in Scotland as police in riot gear attacked protesters in Ferguson. It was the first time I felt that perhaps the police did not actually exist to protect and to serve.
Then in the fall of 2015, I read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.
In his book, I read story after story of Black brothers and sisters being imprisoned without trial, many without guilt, and at shockingly increasing rates.
This one book set me on a journey of reading about Mass Incarceration in the United States. (It has now been made into a movie and is free to watch for the month of June on all platforms.)
After I read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis, I began to imagine a world without prisons. I looked at how other developed countries rehabilitate people who have committed crimes instead of locking them up and forgetting about them.
The next year (2016), the documentary 13th was released on Netflix and confirmed for me what by then I already knew in my heart: that I want to live in a world where the police (including ICE) and prisons no longer exist.
By the year 2016, I would have called myself an abolitionist.
Not because I was working tirelessly for the abolition of police and prisons, but because even though I could not quite clearly see the way forward, I knew in my heart that the current system, one which was built entirely on white supremacy, must be dismantled in order for there to ever be true equality in our country.
So I joined racial justice book clubs and marched with the Poor Peoples’ Campaign. Every time another Black man or woman had their life stolen from them by police, I lamented over their names, turned into hashtags for a movement that seemed stuck in molasses.
And then finally,
Now, in 2020, I have had the benefit of sitting for several years with the knowledge that the police force came into existence to capture runaway slaves. And after slavery was abolished, prison labor evolved to continue the institution under another name.
In this moment, I am watching in horror as police who are armed to the teeth attack protesters all over the country, inciting violence even where there is none. I am horrified, but I am not surprised.
The violence that I see police enacting on my brothers and sisters in the streets is born of a violence that is also running through my DNA. My ancestors believed that Black bodies were not worthy of the same love, dignity and status as white bodies.
We now know (because science) that we store trauma in our DNA and pass it down to our children. (The stress of generations of racism is causing Black women to die in childbirth at higher rates in our country, regardless of their current circumstances.)
As white people, when we read slave narratives or stories of white mobs lynching Black men and women, we usually either look away or we think: How could they do that?
In the same way that we think we would never have sent Jesus to the cross or Jewish people to concentration camps, we think that we would never have owned, tortured or killed Black people.
But we don’t always stop and think about the hate, anger and shame that a person must allow to take hold in their hearts in order to enact such horrors. And as “good white people,” we are wholly unaware of how that same hate, anger and shame is running through our own bodies. These days I call that hate, anger and shame what I think it is: white supremacy.
White supremacy cannot be reformed. And though reading and studying is a help, white supremacy cannot be “read” or “studied” away. (Believe me, friends, if it was possible to eradicate white supremacy from within your heart by reading the right books, watching the right movies, and listening to the right podcasts, I would know.)
I am growing in an understanding of how I can move the trauma of my ancestral history of white supremacy out of my body, but I am still a baby in this work. As a life-long reader and thinker, the entire field of “body work” has not come easily to me, but I am learning from many teachers, including trauma therapist Resmaa Menakem. He teaches about using body work specifically for racial trauma. (He explains the research of how we store trauma in our DNA in this podcast and he is a guest on Krista Tippet’s podcast here, and then his book My Grandmother’s Hands is full of exercises that help us sit with and move the trauma out of our bodies.)
But the longer I live and wrestle with my place in the world with regards to racial inequality, the more I am convinced that the way forward is to lose everything.
To un-build all that has been built. To let go of all that I am holding onto.
It’s funny that somehow I am surprised that the way forward in eradicating white supremacy is also the way forward in following Jesus.
To commit to a life of downward mobility.
To lose my life in order to save it.
Often in our spiritual lives, we have to let go of something before we get to see what comes next.
We almost never get to just trade one thing for another.
We have to make space by releasing.
And then waiting.
Maybe asking who is going to “save our lives” if we let go of policing and prisons is the wrong question.
Maybe we could ask instead if we are willing to release the unjust system we have now, in order to make room for something else to unfold.
And then we wait.
Allow the space to imagine something new.
I will not fight to protect things that have been built. I only want to protect people.
And I want to start with the lives that we have oppressed for over 400 years in the US.
I want to start by reframing my white body to know all the way down to my DNA that Black Lives Matter.
I believe a more beautiful world is possible, but first I think we have to let go of the one we have built.
We have a lot of tearing down to do.
But as the honorable Dr. Rev. William Barber
and Dr. Rev. Anika Whitfield of Little Rock have taught me to say (or rather to sing),
We have nothing to lose but our chains.