Nichola Torbett has been thinking a lot recently about what it means to be safe and who gets to feel safe.
“I feel, as a white woman, a right to feel comfortable, because the world is kind of made and designed for white people,” Torbett said. “So when I don’t feel comfortable, I think oh my gosh, I’m not safe.”
Torbett is a lay leader at First Congregational Church of Oakland, a progressive church in California, that has made a decision to try to stop calling police, especially on people of color.
The church — which calls itself First Congo, for short — announced its decision around the same time as a wave of news stories broke about white people calling police on people of color. That included a now infamous incident at Oakland’s Lake Merritt, where a white woman called the cops on two black men who were barbecuing.
One of the men who was cooking out that day, Kenzie Smith, describes the moment when he realized police had been called on him as terrifying.
“In my mind I thought I was going to die,” he said.
“This is how it ends,” he said to himself, while he watched the woman on the phone with 911 dispatch for hours. Smith said as a large black man, having police called on him felt no different than putting a target on his back.
A sign, a shrine, and a conversation
First Congo has no formal pastor, instead they invite congregants to take turns at the pulpit. Their dialogue about turning away from dependence on law enforcement began several years ago, long before there were national headlines about police being called on a grad student for napping, or on Native American teens for attending a college tour, when white people got nervous, or felt they didn’t belong.
Church members were talking about putting up Black Lives Matter signs following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and other similar cases.
The church wanted to show solidarity with the movement. But Vanessa Riles spoke up, asking fellow congregants to consider what displaying that sign actually signified.
“As an intentionally intercultural congregation, and an intentionally interracial congregation,” she said, “we can’t just put up a sign like that, and not have it mean something.”
Church members began to talk about what it really meant for black lives to matter. For Torbett that meant also trying to understand how white people, like herself, can confuse safety with comfort.
“There are times we are called on to be uncomfortable, in the service of being in conversation with our neighbors, and that doesn’t mean we’re not safe,” she said.
A giant Black Lives Matter sign now hangs on the front of the church. Inside, in the chapel, lit by stained glass, stands a shrine to victims of police killings.
Some you may have heard of, such as Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old shot by police in Cleveland, in 2014. Or Oscar Grant, shot in 2009 by a BART police officer while restrained and lying on his stomach. The officer later claimed to have mistaken his gun for his taser.
Other faces and stories are less familiar, such as Demouria Hogg. Hogg was asleep in his car, when Oakland police officers tried to wake him. He was shot after an officer said she saw him reach towards a gun in the front seat. The city of Oakland paid $1.2 million in compensation to his family, but admitted no wrongdoing in his death.
Riles said that Black Lives Matter is, in large part, about confronting the deaths of black and brown people like these at the hands of police. So if the church was going to hang the signs, Riles asked, what else were they going to do?
“Because as a black person, if I see a church with a sign that says Black Lives Matter, the first question in my mind and in my heart, is what does that really mean?” she asked. “Are they just putting up a sign because it looks good, and it makes them look good as a congregation?”
Riles was raised in a once almost entirely black Oakland neighborhood where police were not welcomed as beacons of safety.
“I haven’t grown up feeling like the police are my heroes and they’re going to rescue me,” she said. “I’ve grown up feeling like the police don’t come when you call them, or they don’t really do anything, or someone calls them on you and your friends when you didn’t do anything.”
So First Congo congregants started to talk about when they had called police, and why. Although they didn’t call police often, they realized when they did, it often was on homeless black men.
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