Law and order: Race, police and protests

June 16th, 2020


Beginning in the early 17th century, the concept of race as we know it was used to help justify and legally enforce the theft of land and labor from black and indigenous people in the European colonies of the Western hemisphere. In the 400 years that have followed, our political, economic, judicial, educational, healthcare and cultural systems in the United States have continued to evolve and grow from these colonial roots. Though some of the most egregious methods of oppression used against people of color have since ended, many of the most deeply ingrained, insidious and invisible aspects of these systems remain. As a result, race, much like paper money or even our system of law, is a social construct with very real consequences for human lives. 

While people of many races and ethnicities experience racism in different ways, the context of our current national conversation centers around black lives, and this article will focus on racism against black people. The murders by police of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade and other black people are vivid reminders that the ultimate consequences of white supremacy are not “hurt feelings” but the loss of innocent lives. 

Yet, police shootings and white supremacist terrorism are not the only ways that racism kills. Due to massive racial inequities, our judicial system executes black people at a far higher rate than white people and tears apart black families with unjust prison sentences. Similarly, our healthcare system fails black people at all levels, including maternal health. black women are three times more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth than white women. Educational inequities contribute to high rates of violence in many black communities and the sheer stress of experiencing interpersonal racism results in measurable negative health effects, including to the immune system. On top of this, enormous economic disparities exacerbate all of these issues while lessening opportunities to seek out healing. 

As the Black Lives Matter movement has taken to the streets again in 2020, the conversation about racism in the United States has focused largely on issues of policing and related issues of racial injustice. Calls to divest from policing over time and reinvest in communities force us to ask hard questions. Is it appropriate to send people with weapons, trained to apprehend criminals, into every situation from domestic abuse to suicide risk, from noise disturbances to burglaries, from addiction crises to constitutionally protected peaceful assemblies? Can we imagine more beautiful solutions to these problems for communities and for officers?


The video of George Floyd’s killing highlighted the systemic, nationwide problem of unequal policing outcomes across race. Black men in the U.S. are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men. In the past, conversations about racialized police violence have focused heavily on implicit bias, or the unconscious assumptions people make about one another. Addressing implicit bias against black people, it’s sometimes assumed, can help individual police officers make better decisions in specific situations. 

However, the problem of individual racism or bias is sometimes used to sidestep broader and more deeply rooted systemic issues. The 2020 protests have focused more on the ways racism is embedded into police departments as institutions and into our societal conceptions of what the police are “for.” When entire communities, across the country, live in fear of police, we must investigate the underlying reason. As one criminal justice researcher says, “The first police forces were overwhelmingly white, male and more focused on responding to disorder than crime.” Might that still be the case for many police forces today? 

The mass protests around the country have only increased the urgency of scrutinizing the police as an institution as many cities have seen their police forces threaten peaceful protests with displays of militarized force that, all too often, lead to escalating tensions and violence. While many police officers choose their careers with intentions to protect, serve and keep the peace, these reactions to protesters indicate that they are supplied with few tools for doing so apart from the threat of violence.


Amidst a tumultuous reckoning with the terrible legacy of racism and current stories of police violence, the widespread Black Lives Matter protests offer a sign of hope. This movement, largely youth-led, demonstrates that more people than ever are committed to taking action to end police brutality against black people — and even to ending white supremacy in the United States. 


NASHVILLE - June 15, 2020: Black Lives Matter demonstrators gather on the front lawn of the Tennessee State Capitol after being removed from the plaza directly in front of the building. (Video by Shane Raynor)

Since the protests began, on the day after George Floyd’s killing, the officers involved in Floyd’s death have all been fired and charged. Confederate statues have been removed in Maryland, Virginia and Alabama. Police reforms have been introduced by attorneys general and city councils in New Jersey, Los Angeles, Denver, Michigan and New York. Congress has introduced legislation to limit police access to military equipment, and the Minneapolis city council has committed to introducing community peacekeeping measures and disbanding the current police force over time. 

Mass protests can create short-term results, but can also fuel longer-term movements. Nonviolent direct action is a strategic choice and largely came to prominence in the United States during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, which built on the philosophy and strategy of Mahatma Gandhi. One key part of this strategy is civil disobedience, the choice to nonviolently break laws as a means to disrupt complacency. In other words, as the 2015 Black Lives Matter movement put it, civil disobedience is a deliberate transgression against “business as usual,” otherwise known as systemic injustice. 

As Independence Day approaches in the United States, it is worth remembering that the Fourth of July commemorates an act of high treason, and in some places even entails a reenactment of the Boston Tea Party — when protestors destroyed property worth over 1.5 million in 2020 dollars.


Learning and doing 

The black church has been leading Civil Rights movements and investing in community care for generations. Predominantly white churches that want to invest in the work of anti-racism can begin by committing to learn together while also taking action together. While learning from books, films and podcasts is an absolutely essential step, it can’t teach someone everything and it doesn’t explicitly lead to improved outcomes for people of color. On the other hand, taking imperfect and humble action allows us to embody Jesus’ justice and love, learn through relationships, and make steps toward repairing harm that has already been done. 

In many cities, networks of faith communities organize to work with local politicians on solutions to community issues, including economic justice, racial justice and policing. A congregation can usually join, offer support, and learn as a community even without much prior knowledge of community issues and politics.

[Editor's Note: This article has been edited to correct a factual error. The original version included Ahmaud Arbery among the names of Black people murdered by police. Mr. Arbery was, in fact, murdered by armed white residents of a South Georgia neighborhood. We regret the error.]

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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