Posted on May 30, 2018

A California Church Flirts with an Unusual Social Experiment: To Never Call Police Again

Jaweed Kaleem, Los Angeles Times, May 30, 2018

Standing on the front steps of First Congregational Church of Oakland late last month, Nichola Torbett issued a declaration.

“We can no longer tolerate the trauma inflicted on our communities by policing,” Torbett, a white church volunteer, said in front of churchgoers who held photos of African Americans shot dead by law enforcement. The church, she promised, would never call the cops again in nearly every circumstance. Dozens of members had agreed to do the same.


As videos of the aftermath of white Americans dialing 911 on African Americans for taking part in innocent activities have repeatedly gone viral — two black friends meeting at a Starbucks, a black grad student napping in a Yale dormitory common room, a black family having a barbecue just blocks from the Oakland congregation — members of this small church are taking extreme measures in response.

They call it “divesting” from police. The church is part of a tiny but growing movement among liberal houses of worship around the nation making similar vows. They include another church in Oakland, one in San Jose and one in Iowa City, Iowa. It’s mostly white ministers and majority white congregations leading the efforts, which come as debates over racism, stereotypes and the role of law enforcement hit universities, businesses and neighborhood councils across the U.S.


At First Congregational, which is part of the United Church of Christ denomination, the decision to avoid police has generated a variety of responses. A regional body of the United Church of Christ in Northern California endorsed the effort. Elsewhere in the nation, churches have scoffed.

Conservative media have accused the Oakland church of being anti-police, and questioned its commitment to safety. (“All I got to say is ‘Oakland, California’ and immediately you know we are talking about nutcases,” one commentator said during a YouTube broadcast).

Some nearby houses of worship, including a Presbyterian church and a Reconstructionist Jewish synagogue, have asked how they could join. Locals, curious about the church’s announcement, have started to stop by on Sundays. On Facebook, dozens of people are signed up to attend a July workshop at the church. It’s called “How to NOT call the PoLice (Sheriffs & Kkkorts) Ever.”

“We’re taught to turn to police for so much, even simple disagreements between people,” said church member Sarah Pritchard, who is also white and is setting up trainings such as the July workshop. “Why can’t we resolve issues among ourselves?”

{snip} Pritchard said the ban wouldn’t apply if there was a shooting or other life-threatening violence. But nearly everything else is fair game.

First Congregational began 158 years ago {snip}. Today, a Black Lives Matter banner hangs from the church’s facade. Inside its sanctuary, black and white banners spell out “truth,” “freedom,” “justice,” and “equality.” Its worship space features a memorial to black Americans who have died in police encounters or custody.

At most, a few dozen people usually show up for Sunday service. Members are largely lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer; about half are white. Its leaders are mostly women, many of whom work in nonprofits, social work and education. Because there’s no paid pastor, members take turns preaching and make all decisions collectively. It took around two years of planning before announcing the police ban.


Marcia Lovelace, a volunteer worship leader, spoke about training church staffers about what to do when people won’t leave the building.

The church, which sits on a small hill just north of downtown Oakland, frequently opens its doors to the homeless, mentally ill and those who struggle with drug addictions. It offers a food pantry, transit cards and a place to nap. But it draws the line at hosting people overnight.

“We once had a street person who needed mental health care and wouldn’t leave,” Lovelace, who is 70 and white, said as she described an incident before new policy. “Police were called and church members who fit the description were hassled by police. For those of us who have the skin color that keeps us from having those experiences, it made things real.”

According to current guidelines, church members would not call police if such a situation arose again. In lieu of police services, the church has secured a $10,000 grant to train its members and other community groups on de-escalation tactics and self-defense.

Carol Robison, another volunteer church leader, proposed an idea for dealing with burglaries. The buildings has no security, and thieves have taken purses and backpacks. {snip} She suggested going “to the police station to file a report instead of having the police come into your neighborhood.”

The conversation turned to another aspect of policing: deterring and solving crime. Church leaders said they could prevent crime by forming better relationships with neighborhood residents. Their theory, put simply: Friends won’t steal from friends. But if crime still happened, church members prayed they could make peace between victims and perpetrators directly without police or courts.


The Police Department has not responded publicly to the church’s stance. A spokeswoman said Chief Anne E. Kirkpatrick was unavailable.

But Barry Donelan, president of the Oakland police union, said he wasn’t bothered by the church.