Our church is in a multi-cultural suburb that is located right between the cities where Philando Castile and Jamar Clark were killed by police officers.
And our church was asked to host a Police and community listening session which was being facilitated by a Multi-Cultural Advisory Committee to the police in our city of Columbia Heights, Minnesota. And I was asked to be a facilitator.
To be honest I was scared. I tried to look calm, but my mind was racing with all the ways this night could go wrong.
Our state has been struggling for two years in the wake of police shootings of Jamar Clark and then Philando Castile. Protester encampments, tear gas, shouting, Facebook rants… And while our city police had not been involved in either shooting, there is a growing consensus that our local police are much more quick to write a ticket to our neighbors of color.
As I sat next to 20 of our local police, most of whom were white and a dozen Multi-Cultural facilitators, half of whom were also white I tried to get a sense of where this might lead. We sat listening the white police chief and the Asian American seminary professor who were leading the event. They were emphatic that we were not to get into arguments or take anything personal. We were just there to listen.
My stomach was tied in knots. I had been to protests for Philando Castile and Jamar Clark, written articles, and was wondering if any of the police officers had looked me up before that night. I felt like I was waiting for someone to uncover my bias and ask me to leave.
I also was nervous about who would show up. I kept looking at the front door, half expecting to see protesters shouting outside our front door. Wondering what I would do if they started shouting at me to join them.
But as the room started to fill, I realized that we had invited our neighbors to have a long overdue conversation. And our neighbors were eager to talk about their neighborhood.
The room wasn’t as divided by race as I had feared. We weren’t just Somalians, [email protected], African Americans, and Whites. We were also parents, pastors, teachers, and small business owners…
Each table round had a Multi-Cultural Advisory Committee member, a police officer, and about half white half non white community members and we discussed four questions.
And as soon as we started talking my stomach unclenched. Suddenly, I was engaged in a serious discussion about racism, the way our minds create bias’ from the media, and how to make our neighborhoods better. Our youth group teens – half white and half black – were talking about their experiences with race and sharing stories.
It was an amazing night where people from very different background and experiences really listened to one another. The police and Multi-Cultural Advisory facilitators didn’t accuse or defend anyone. And people really listened to each other. It was clear that people wanted to make their neighborhood better and that they all believed an honest conversation about racism was the path forward.
We had all seen what happens if you wait to start talking until someone gets killed.
I’m not going to tell you all that was said, partly because they are not my stories to tell. But also because our conversation was unique and needs more context that this post can provide.
But I did learn three things that I think may help you if you decide to have a police listening session in your community.
1. These conversations require a lot of risk and courage for community members of color.
If you criticize the police you risk becoming targeted by local police officers as a “Troublemaker”. So I applaud every person of color who shows up. Where it is African American’s fear of being the victim of more stops, or that a Latina woman shared that they couldn’t convince their friends to come because they thought it was a trap for illegal immigrants. For people of color these conversations require courage.
2. These conversations require the police to be honest about their own bias and to admit that racialized policing is real.
It was so powerful to watch the conversation shift when community members saw that the police were not getting defensive when accused of racism. The police didn’t deny that it happened or make excuses based on “special circumstances.” They listened and asked clarifying and open questions. The police admitted that there was a problem and also said that they wanted to be part of the solution. After our conversation the Multi-cultural adviser and the police both recorded what community members had said and reported back to the chief what they heard. As the comments were read aloud by police officers in front of the group I could see that the community members felt heard.
3. It is hard to force the police to change.
After the night ended I was so amazed by the experience that I wondered why more cities don’t do it. But then I realized that much of the good work and culture of policing in our city had been initiated by Police Chief Nadeau.
The police had done hours of police bias training, they all wore body cams, and most of the police were volunteering monthly in the local schools. The Multicultural advisory committee was instituted on the police chiefs recommendation.
During Chief Nadeau’s time a cultural shift under the joint effort of the police and city council had taken place. Which is why these conversations often don’t happen other places. Because as far as I can tell – and I asked – there isn’t really a way for a community to force the police to change or incorporate community feedback into their work. Hence, the protesting, riot gear…rinse and repeat.
This starts with city council who hire police chiefs, who hire local police. And our community still has a lot of work to do.
Afterwards I stood outside in the church parking lot shooting hoops with three of our black youth group teens. I told them how proud of them I was. And one of them smiled and said, “Things are better in our city. Better than where those men where killed. Police here still follow us around, but they aren’t as racist as the other places we’ve lived.”
I smiled, realizing that even after the police had left, the conversation we started was carrying on. I smiled hoping that our church could continue to be a place where we listened honestly and spoke openly about how race in our community.