In a recent peace circle conducted via Zoom about how we might transform policing, it struck me how difficult it is to communicate from one screen to another. Not being able to read people’s faces or body language, it’s hard to gauge how others in the group are feeling because awkwardness is built into the platform. It was helpful, of course, to have such skilled facilitators as Karen Hering and Maura Williams, who are experienced in soliciting responses in large group settings.
What follows are some of the thoughts I have about my digital peace circle experience. They reflect some of my first impressions only—with the emphasis on my.
- My white UU sisters and brothers may be too quick to “own” their privilege. When a story is prefaced by the words, ”I know my experience would probably have been different had I been black or a person of color,” I feel that you are pre-interpreting the story before we’ve had a chance to hear it, preventing us from bringing our own understanding to the sequence of events being shared. It’s like saying, “Now what you’re about to hear may make you angry or feel hurt but it’s because of my white skin that I did not feel threatened during my encounter and I am sorry for that.“ To me, it’s more useful to tell the story, reflect on what the experience meant to you at that time, and what you glean from that experience now, with your new understanding of privilege. I hope each of us in a circle can be trusted not to judge one another’s character or level of “wokeness.”
(I mentioned this to my husband, Matt, who is white and who also participated in the circle. He shared with me that he felt it important to name his “privilege;” moreover, he said, framing his experience with the knowledge that his “whiteness” would/could influence an outcome in his favor had become an essential practice. )
- The two police officers in the group were the kind of people you hope to encounter when in trouble. Thoughtful, respectful, community-minded. As I understand it, they both regularly attended the Monday evening Circles at Unity. I would like to know how many like them we would meet if police participants had been randomly selected.
- The black members of the circle rarely had positive encounters with law enforcement—every encounter related was negative, bred fear, and confirmed what they already knew about the police. Not only did they not feel safe, but instead, felt threatened for their lives.
We were all asked, “What makes us feel safe?” It is the question at the heart of the change we seek. It is a basic need as human beings to feel protected, to trust that those around us care about our safety and well-being. That those of us who have willingly taken on the responsibility for keeping the larger community from harm must not predetermine who among us is worth protecting, while automatically ascribing criminality to whole groups or individuals based on the color of their skin. And while it may be simplistic to attribute the reflexive violence that members of our police force employ to answer our calls for help, it does seem that no other alternatives are considered. Especially when they show up armed.
Have we given too much power to an institution that can too easily be corrupted? Probably. But an institution is comprised of individuals who also share our vulnerability as human beings. How do we make sure we all feel safe?
Admittedly, the evening session was not what I had anticipated — I was expecting to hear and possibly to contribute some “solutions” about how we might transform policing in our community. However, when speaking to a friend about the evening, I realized that it was just the beginning we need.