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    Acting Justly, Loving Mercy, Walking Humbly

    A Roundtable Discussion on Reforming Police and Strengthening Communities

    Heinrich Arnold

    June 29, 2020
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    This article is part of the Arc of Justice series, responding to the killing of George Floyd and the international movement it has sparked.

    In the aftermath of the death of George Floyd and as protests swept across hundreds of cities, the Bruderhof convened a virtual meeting with local leaders in our neighboring town of Kingston in Ulster County, New York. Pastor Heinrich Arnold moderated the conversation with Reverend James Childs, pastor of a Kingston nondenominational church; Ulster County Sheriff Juan Figueroa; Dr. Edward Lawson of the Department of Black Studies at SUNY New Paltz; Pastor Malcolm Johnson, of the Bruderhof’s Kingston community house; Colonel Jerome M. John, superintendent of the Ulster County Jail; and Ian Winter, director of the Breaking the Cycle program. The following is an edited transcript of this conversation, which took place on June 11, 2020.

    Pastor Heinrich Arnold: As we know, our country is going through upheaval as we face issues of racism following the death of George Floyd, murdered in Minneapolis by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer. A movement of protest against racism has swept our country, accompanied by unrest, rioting, and an outcry against law enforcement, including calls to defund police.

    Today we’d like to have a conversation about how these issues affect us in our different communities. More importantly, we want to ask: What is our responsibility as people of faith? How do we come together and address urgent issues, and also heed the call to unity, to healing, to love?

    James Childs

    James Childs, a Kingston native, has served as pastor of the Pointe of Praise Church in Kingston, New York.

    Reverend James Childs: The video of Mr. Floyd’s murder sent shock waves around the world. It touched off a storm of protest like none that I’ve seen, and I’ve been around a long time.

    I’m encouraged, because I think that perhaps for the first time people are getting it. I’m encouraged because I see young people leading many of these protests. Not to be destructive, but to say there have to be changes and we won’t be restful until we make them.

     

    Juan Figueroa

    Juan Figueroa served in the US Marine Corps and the New York State Police and in 2018 was elected Sheriff of Ulster County, New York.

    Sheriff Juan Figueroa: I was elected to make change, and the people who put me in place here did so because they want to have a seat at the table. And that change has begun.

    I come from both sides of this argument. I’m a career law enforcement officer, and a person of color. I’ve served in the military as well. We’ve long recognized the issues that exist between law enforcement and communities of color and the underprivileged. But it’s also the case that there are a lot of great men and women who work in the sheriff’s office, many of them African American and Latino. What happened more than a thousand miles away doesn’t necessarily reflect the people that work here. Our training is different: a lot of the training that people are asking for from other police departments, we’re already doing.

    Malcolm Johnson

    Malcolm Johnson, who lives in Kingston, New York, is a videographer and pastor of the Bruderhof communities.

    Pastor Malcolm Johnson: I think we’re coming from the same angle, to some degree, Sheriff. I’m African American; I’ve been living here in Kingston as part of the community, helping out providing services to the inner city. But I’ve also had plenty of occasions where I’ve done an invocation or a benediction for a gathering of law enforcement. What I see from my experience is that we need more engagement and more conversations on both sides. Martin Luther King Jr. said it: “I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.”

    I sense this fear in Kingston, especially among young African Americans, but I think the more we get to know one another, the more we can find common ground. I’ll tell you, as a young person in high school, in Jackson, Mississippi, I never dreamed that later in life I’d be happy to give an invocation at a gathering of law enforcement officers. But I got to know them, and their families and their children, and I got married, I had children of my own. It makes you realize that behind the badge, there’s a human being.

    Ian Winter

    Ian Winter is director of Breaking the Cycle, a nonviolent conflict resolution program for schools and youth centers that is affiliated with the Bruderhof. He lives in the Kingston area.

    Ian Winter: In the work of Breaking the Cycle, we’ve seen that forgiveness is at the heart of nonviolent conflict resolution. It is not an easy task, and it doesn’t leave aside the need for justice, but its power is unparalleled.

    Reverend Childs: There’s no question that forgiveness is the Christlike way. There is no way forward otherwise: without forgiveness, we’re trapped. And to do that, we need to acknowledge what’s happening. The only reason that there’s an uproar about what Chauvin did is that now there are cameras all over the place. But what he did is not a new thing; it has happened over and over and over again. As a result we people of color have to tell our children something different than what white people have to tell their children.

    Probably 99 percent of our officers are decent people. But when someone within any group – police, clergy, whoever – acts wrongly, it impacts those who are doing the right thing.

    That’s why it’s crucial that people speak out, why it’s crucial that those in authority and others have a clear moral voice, to call wrong wrong. Christians must have a consistent moral voice against evil.

    We’ve got to start changing. And I believe change is going to take place because what we’re seeing is people all over the world, of all kinds, saying “This is too much. We need to stop this.”

    We should not be condemning all police, and we can’t let go of forgiveness. But we still have to call out wherever evil is ­– in the police or anywhere else. Putting on a uniform, or putting on a clergy collar, doesn’t make people moral. If they are immoral before they put it on, they’re immoral after. We’ve got to call a spade a spade; problems continue to be covered up when good people don’t say what they need to about evil.

    Of course I’ve experienced this stuff. Years ago, when we were just married and my wife had just gotten out of nursing school, we wanted to buy our first home, here in Kingston. And I heard my secretary talking about how a black guy wanted to buy a home on the street where her parents lived, and the other people on the street got together and stopped the real estate agent from selling that house. She didn’t know that she was talking about me.

    Things like that are still happening now, and I think a lot of people of color say: How long must this go on? How long before the church stops being silent and speaks out against evil? How long will police officers not speak out against their brothers who are doing wrong?

    Sheriff Figueroa: Pastor, I know what you’re talking about. I’ve seen that herd mentality in police departments, that failure to speak out, the desire to protect your own. At one point, we had a big case involving identity theft. I was on the wire because I spoke Spanish. The day of the arrest, we went down to the location on the warrant – Roosevelt Boulevard, just where the L tracks pass overhead.

    When I got there I saw that orange netting you see at construction sites blocking off an entire block. Next thing I saw were police officers from all different agencies, the NYPD, the Marshals, flushing everybody out of the stores on that block. And I was absolutely amazed. I’m like, “Why are we doing this? We have pictures of the suspects.” They were putting flex cuffs on everybody who came out of the stores. I went up to the detail commander of the search warrant and I said, “What are you guys doing? We had a game plan and this isn’t it! Would you do this on Wall Street?” You know they wouldn’t do that on Wall Street; they were doing this in a poor and predominantly Latino neighborhood. So I said, “I’m not taking any part in this.”

    That’s why I became a police officer, so I could have a seat at the table, so when I see something wrong, I say something. I call it out. Sure it costs me a lot of overtime, probably cost me a promotion, but I didn’t care. And there are a lot of us within the ranks. The only way to make the change is to have a seat at the table.

    Edward Lawson

    Edward Lawson, JD, teaches at the Department of Black Studies at the State University of New York–New Paltz and leads the Healthy Marriages and Relationships Initiative of the Nepperhan Community Center in Yonkers, New York. Through his role with the National Training Institute on Race & Equity, he provides implicit-bias training to educators and law enforcement.

    Dr. Ed Lawson: In the broadest sense, what we’ve got to do is strengthen communities. Part of that is reforming law enforcement and other public bodies, and my organization has just taken on a contract to do implicit-bias training in the Kingston Police Department. But that’s not enough. Another aspect of the work that I’ve spent the last couple of decades doing is promoting fatherhood, strengthening families. To help raise the next generation, we all have to show up whole, not broken. What we want to do is to create wholeness. We have to all feel valued, represented, so when we do get together, we can talk in terms of what keeps us together, as opposed to what separates us.

    Sheriff Figueroa: Step one of course – it goes without saying – is to hold all law enforcement officers to the highest standards of conduct. Without that, there will be no trust. At the end of the day, law enforcement officers are meant to serve the community, and are on the front lines of helping to keep our neighborhoods safe.

    Step two, though, is to be representative of the community that we serve. If we’re not, we lose that understanding, that bond of trust, between us and the people we are serving. Here, through our cadet program, for example, we’re recruiting more officers of color.

    I’d love to talk with Dr. Lawson more about how strengthening family structure can also help this sense of community solidity, this sense that kids are not just out there by themselves. Fathers play such a big role in our communities. My mother had seven sisters, and three or four of them had kids out of wedlock, or their husbands were gone. And I saw the difference between my own upbringing and that of my cousins, how important that leadership was to me, how hard it was for them.

    In that context, we need to think about imprisonment. I’m going to give you the numbers. Colonel Jerome John, here, runs the county jail. We have forty-five fathers in that jail right now. Between them, they have 148 kids. Think about how that’s going to affect those children if we don’t get these men help, to support their families, once they’re out; to help get them jobs, training; help them learn how to interview. Dr. Lawson, can you talk more about this aspect of these questions?

    Dr. Lawson: Sure. One of the things we’re working on is using a federal “fatherhood grant” to work with the men in the prison to promote healthy marriages, to talk about why you might want to get married, to talk about things like the fact that married people live longer, and so on. We’re also talking about parenting skills, and what it means specifically to be a father. The grant also goes to help promote economic stability and mobility.

    The goal is to help men who are incarcerated with all aspects of rebuilding their lives – if they’ve fallen into substance abuse, if they have a sense of helplessness, we will do our best to address that. And by serving them, we will impact their families outside.

    In terms of promoting economic stability and mobility, we’re aiming to help get incarcerated men industry-recognized skills certifications. We want to help these guys to become economically self-sufficient. And the way we do that is help to find out what their assets are, what their interests are, what they’re great at, and then provide them with the resources to be able to build on those interests and talents.

    That’s the approach we have in Kingston. Let’s address poverty, work – what it looks like to do good, adequately rewarded work. That changes the conversation because we’re beginning with the end in mind, saying, “What problem are we trying to solve?” Well, we want to try to solve the problem of incarceration. And how do we drive that? We drive that by giving men alternatives to incarceration. If I can go and make a living wage, if I can establish myself in a career that’s going to make me successful, that’s going to help me found and support a family.

    There are so many models of this. People are doing projects like this all over the country. In Ohio, the Ridge Project works with inmates to get them commercial driver’s licenses while they’re still incarcerated. When they walk out, they walk out into $20, $25 an hour jobs; that project has also established its own not-for-profit trucking business. In LA, Homeboy Industries started in 1992. Now they’re international; they’ve got a bakery, a T-shirt making arm, a tattoo-removal business, restaurants – all of which hire people who were formerly incarcerated.

    What I want to suggest, gentlemen, is that we are the cavalry we’ve been waiting for. The resources, the assets, what we need to change our community in a positive way, it’s already in our community.

    Reverend Childs: To turn back to the question of policing: we have to change both the reality and the image of what policing often is in our communities. The image of police is that they’re there to punish, in some cases to punish unjustly. But that wasn’t always the case. As I came up, the police would be involved in activities in the community. We knew them in a personal way. When they had to speak to us as police officers, we listened to them because we knew they were concerned about us; they were on our side. We’ve got to be able to bring that back into our community so that our young people will see the true value of police, will see police at their best, and not only encounter police as their enemies. That’s going to take a lot of change. But once that respect is rebuilt, it’ll happen. I’ve got a grandson in the cadet program right now. That’s something I never thought he would want to do, but he’s seen officers he’s impressed with, he’s seen the good it can do. He’s seen officers who hold themselves to the highest standards, truly decent men who do not abuse their power. That’s what made the difference.

    Jerome John

    Jerome M. John, a Bronx native, served twenty-nine years with the New York State Police and is now Superintendent of the Ulster County Jail.

    Colonel John: This change has to come from the inside out, in the communities, in the officers, in everyone. We need to give young people authority figures worthy of respect to help them learn reverence towards something greater than themselves. We need to take responsibility for that.

    Dr. Lawson: The flip side of the importance of having a trustworthy father in the home, having a good solid background like that, is that even if you don’t, that does not need to shut down your future. It makes it harder, and we don’t have to pretend it doesn’t – it is a loss to grieve. But Barack Obama was from a single-parent household. He became the president of the United States! And so we need to give young people the best start they can have, and then care about each person in particular, to build on the strength of each one. We need to help them live out their true potential and stop just surviving but instead start thriving. Not just life, but life more abundant, as it says in the Bible. That’s what we are talking about.

    Let’s start asking: What problem are we really trying to solve? What is the root issue that we really want to stamp out? Do we just want to stop chokeholds? That’s thinking too small. What’s the principle behind all that, what’s the vision? Do we want to live in safe, healthy, and happy communities where all people can reach their full potential, all people are economically stable and mobile? That’s what I think we really want.

    We shouldn’t be satisfied with the low-hanging fruit of change. If after all this is done, all we’ve accomplished was to change some police policy, I don’t think that’s enough. I think we need to change hearts. We need to deal with the hurt; we need to mend and become reconciled. That’s what we really want. So let’s work to do that.

    Pastor Arnold: One aspect of our goal, it seems to me, has got to be respect. Respect for all people, as creations of God.

    Reverend Childs: That’s what the statement “black lives matter” is getting at, from my perspective. It’s often misinterpreted. It’s not saying that all lives don’t matter – of course they do. But often black lives have been treated as though they don’t matter, and so we need to get to the place where we truly do, as a society, act as though black lives matter.

    We know that we ought to love our neighbor as ourselves. To say that black lives matter, to make that statement, is to say that we want to love our neighbors as ourselves.

    Violence is not a necessary part of the movement. For the most part it has been peaceful, but like in anything, the devil will lash out, try to ruin what’s good. We need to move forward on the basis of nonviolence, to help people begin to realize that lives really do matter. You teach people that their lives matter by teaching them who they are. And I believe we are who God says we are. To teach people who they really are is to teach them that they are someone created in the image of God, someone God loves, and there’s no shortage of that love. That’s true of each of us and it gives each of us what we need to go forward. And then to say black lives matter is simply to say, “Hey, listen, I am a human being. I am somebody that really is worth being here on earth, because I’m made in the image of God.”

    Pastor Johnson: I was privileged enough, earlier this week, to sit in on a forum with Dr. John Perkins, as well as Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative – awesome men. I’d just like to share here at the end a passage that we closed with in that forum. It’s Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Those are words for myself and for each one of us, whether law-enforcement or people involved in other initiatives, to show those acts of love, by acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.

    Dr. Lawson: We’re talking about justice. This is not one side against another; this is not a zero-sum game.

    Because we can’t all engage in this continued combative fight for rights, as though there’s not enough respect in the world to go around, not enough dignity, so we have to fight each other for it; we can’t live this way. We have to seek the humanity in each other. And that’s why I really appreciate the brother’s quotation of Micah. Acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly lead to self-understanding, a solid grounding in who – and whose – you are.

    Contributed By Heinrich Arnold Heinrich Arnold

    Heinrich Arnold is a pastor, physician assistant, and teacher at the Woodcrest Bruderhof community in Rifton, New York.

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