OAKLAND — Standing on the front steps of First Congregational Church of Oakland in late April, 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.
“How do police help? They often don’t,” Torbett later said in an interview. “So, especially as white people, why call them?”
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 Colorado State University, administrators are grappling with an April incident in which a white parent called police on two Native American students touring the campus. The woman told a 911 operator that the teens, who joined the tour late, were acting “really odd” and wore dark clothes with “weird symbolism.”
Waffle House has come under fire for recent videos in which police aggressively arrested black customers at restaurants in the South. In one North Carolina incident, a video showed a white officer slamming and choking a 22-year-old man who arrived after taking his sister to her prom. An employee had called police on the customer, alleging that he yelled at workers and tried to start a fight. Waffle House and police said they did no wrong.
The Starbucks incident, in which two men who had made no purchases were denied bathroom access before police were called, led to a new rule that bathrooms are open to noncustomers. Thousands of Starbucks stores shut down Tuesday afternoon while employees were trained in racial bias awareness.
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?”
“We need to be there as a community for one another so we can provide safety for our congregation without police,” she said. 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 as small house church and has been in its current location since 1923. As the Bay Area became a center of leftist social movements in the 1960s and 1970s, the church became known as one of the most politically active in the region. 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.
The policy was first put on its website during Holy Week, when Christians recount the last days of Jesus’ life before his death and resurrection. “NO MORE STATE-SPONSORED CRUCIFIXIONS IN THE NAME OF ‘SAFETY,’” the posting said. The church likened today’s police to those who sentenced Christ to death.
In April at Oakland’s Lake Merritt, a short distance from the church, a white woman complained to police about a black family using a charcoal barbecue in a no-charcoal area of the park. The event further fueled anger and disappointment among church members who believe some white people are too quick to turn to police when it concerns racial minorities. Police did not arrest anybody or issue citations. Many churchgoers feared it could have been worse.
“We recognize that Jesus was killed, not for anything he did, but for who he was, and we see the same happening to black and brown people today,” Torbett said. Still, “we’re still debating its limitations,” she added about the no-police agreement. Nothing has happened yet that would typically warrant a call to the cops.
Those questions about limitations came up recently after a Sunday church service. Church leaders sat in an office, discussing their nascent effort and hopes for the future.
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. Doors are unlocked during the day.
The building’s property insurance requires police reports for claims. But “we’d rather not attract more police,” said Robison, who is 62 and white. 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.
Recently, the church received a phone call from Oakland police with a request to talk about its announcement. The group disagreed on how to respond, if at all.
“We are in conversation about getting into conversation with Oakland police,” Torbett said.
Soo Hyun Han, a Korean-American who attends services with her black spouse and biracial son, said she hoped the church wouldn’t avoid talking to police completely.
“Hopefully that is a place where a real conversation would happen,” Han, 44, said of sitting down with officers.
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.
“If this particular group doesn’t want to call the police, that’s their position, that’s their view,” Donelan said. “But my members are happy to respond to the tremendous need for police services elsewhere. If they take this view, it makes it so more police can be directed to those who ask for them.” He added that he would “never discourage people from calling police” if they changed their minds.
Donelan pointed out that officers in the city field thousands of calls a day. He said the majority don’t result in injuries, shootings or deaths. He scoffed at the church’s suggestion that police contribute to violence instead of helping resolve it.
“Many in the city would say there’s not enough of us,” he said. “These guys are here to serve the community as best they can.”
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