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In a climate of fear and militarization of police,
faith community has a role in intervening

The common emotion surrounding events in Ferguson, Mo., is fear.

In recent years we have had much to fear and have been urged to fear much more.

• Factories are being moved overseas, so people fear losing their jobs.

• The collapse of the real estate market leads many to fear losing their homes.

• Weird banking practices mean people fear losing their savings.

Since 9/11, we have been easily alarmed at any suggestion of violence as a further sign of instability. There have been enough real emergencies to keep us on edge.

One result has been militarization of local police forces.

Now police departments across the country are dealing with Department of Justice orders to revise their training and practices because of the high number of police-associated deaths of racial minorities and the mentally ill.

Police training, however, has not been adequate to allow effective, humane handling of the spectrum of situations faced.

It takes only one shooter to turn a quiet demonstration into a panicked melee.  Fear of such an event results in the donning of riot gear as standard practice in preparing for a demonstration.

The daytime demonstrations in Ferguson were peaceful, and observers reported that participants were predominantly local residents.  The louder, destructive nighttime demonstrations drew outsiders, but both groups faced police in riot gear.

A different approach was used in New York City at a demonstration after the death of a suspect who had been put in a choke-hold.  Organizers of the demonstration met with police to work out boundaries and ground rules.  

Organizers were determined to have a peaceful demonstration, while exercising the right of free speech.  It was a peaceful demonstration from both points of view, and there were conversations between the police and the demonstrators.  That wouldn’t have been possible if the police had been in riot gear.  One commentator described the police role as that of a facilitator.

The faith community has been concerned and has had a presence to address issues.

The Rev. Geoffrey Black, United Church of Christ general minister, went to Ferguson at the invitation of local pastors, met with interfaith and other groups, spoke to a large group and offered help of the UCC.

The Rev. Sharon Watkins, general minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) said:  This shooting “reveals the scar that systemic and institutional racism has covered loosely by legal progress, but never healed.”

Jim Winkler, National Council of Churches president and general secretary, deploring the shooting and supporting complete investigation of this shooting and others said:  “These killings, as well as those of hundreds of other Americans each year at the hands of increasingly militarized police forces is of great and growing concern. A peaceful, healthy society requires trust and positive relationships between citizens and law enforcement.  That can best occur in circumstances in which deep-seated social problems, such as racism and inequality are being addressed.”

In the wake of a racially charged police shooting in Missouri, “the efforts of the churches, faith communities, ecumenical and interfaith partners and civil society organizations and coalitions have called for prayer, calm, peaceful protest, and open and honest dialogue on racism and issues of class.”  They have support and encouragement from the World Council of Churches (WCC).

Writing to the Interfaith Partnership of Greater St. Louis, general secretary of the WCC, the Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit praised area churches and religious communities that have sought an end to conflict in the aftermath of “the tragic killing by a police officer of Michael Brown.”

He praised their common efforts toward building peace and promoting healing within the community and a process of reconciliation at local and national levels.

Nancy Minard – Contributing Editor

Copyright © September 2014 - The Fig Tree