It is time for the Jewish community to get into the fight for abolition!

As Emily Yellin points out in a recent essay in the New York Times, police violence was among the issues central to the Memphis campaign, during which Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, fifty five years ago. The Rev. Jim Lawson, the SCLC lead in Memphis, spoke just before King about Larry Payne —  a teenager who was shot by police a few days earlier. 

Fifty five years ago and every year prior and since, police violence has been an issue for the Black community. It is only when the cruelty is caught on film, or when the resistance is especially violent  that the white community seems to pay attention. There was a feeling that the excruciating murder of George Floyd—nine minutes of torture caught on camera—would be a watershed. Record numbers of Americans turned out to chant “Black Lives Matter,” and despite an initial false report by the police, the officers involved were arrested, tried and convicted. Yet, a year later, support for Black Lives Matter had dropped to levels lower than before the George Floyd killing. In part this is because in the wake of Floyd’s murder, BLM activists ramped up their demands to defund the police—to move money away from an organization that has proven itself impermeable to reform and to invest that money in social services and education and housing and employment. Once the larger community realized that BLM wasn’t just calling for marching and chanting, but demanding serious and necessary radical change, the support for the movement evaporated. As Rev. Lawson told me recently “people who think they are for a new society are not prepared for the nonviolent struggle” needed to get there.

We are at another such “watershed,” — a moment in which the nation’s attention is fleetingly focused on the murder of a young, unarmed Black man by violent police officers, caught on tape. The murder of Tyre Nichols was especially brutal, and repeated many of the already too well known tropes of other brutal police killings—the demand that he stop resisting when he obviously was not resisting, the callous disregard for his well being after the brutal beating, the prolific use of a taser and tear gas, Tyre’s crying out for his mother, when he was just yards away from his mother’s house. However, Nichols’ murder by police was not the first police killing of a young Black man this month. In Los Angeles, in the very new year, there had already been three police killings before Nichol’s murder. Takar Smith, Oscar Sanchez, and Keenan Anderson were all killed by LAPD in the first week of January. Attending a Black Lives Matter protest last Sunday at the intersection where Keenan Anderson had been killed, I looked around and noticed two things. First, I was encouraged that there were more white people than I expected. Second, other than two rabbis in addition to myself at the protest, there was no Jewish organizational presence or response to these police killings. 

On Martin Luther King Day, the Jewish community proudly hosts  service projects  and trots out the familiar pictures of Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with King across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The question the Jewish community should be asking itself, ourselves, is: where are we in this fight? For decades, and perhaps centuries (police forces grew out of slave catching forces commissioned by enslavers), law enforcement has shown itself to be impermeable to reform.  In 1968, The Kerner Commission Report came to the same conclusions as the report of the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department in 1991, which followed the Rodney King beating—police violence was out of control. In the words of the LA report “the LAPD has not made sufficient efforts to use available tools effectively to address the significant number of officers who apparently use force excessively and improperly.” This sentence could have been written today, with the LAPD ranking as the most murderous police force in the country.

The most straightforward response to a seemingly intractable problem is to uproot the cause of the problem. After fruitlessly suggesting, demanding, cajoling, and desperately calling for police reform, perhaps it is time to say that reform is not the answer. The answer might just be that the problem is the institution of policing itself. The answer might just be abolition. 

Here is where the Jewish community squirms uncomfortably in their seats, and starts to deploy the first person plural. Who will protect us?  Indulging in harrowing nightmares of marauding bands of armed thugs, community panic rises. Rather than asking “did the police stop the killer in Pittsburgh?” Or “what did the police do in Poway?”  the community reflex is to demand more police. We all watched as tens of cops, armed to the teeth, milled around and did nothing as one armed young man massacred children in Uvalde, Texas. Perhaps the answer is not more armed men with badges. Perhaps the answer is fewer guns and fewer badges.

 Before the truly hard decisions need be made, clear simple steps can be taken –immediately. There is no need for police to do traffic stops. Stops that are often only a pretext to search a car in the hopes of finding some transgression. Hundreds of traffic stops have ended in violence. There are alternatives. Here’s an idea: take a picture of the license and send a ticket for the broken tail-light.

There is no need for an armed officer at a traffic accident, or a domestic violence situation, or a mental health crisis, or a potential suicide. A cop is trained that his only recourse is “or else.” Comply “or else.”  Armed with gun, taser, and baton the “or else” is necessarily violent. If the violent means are removed, cops will have to figure out other ways to deescalate a situation. So the first move is to disarm the police. At first, there may be a need for a small armed unit to help provide support when the situation entails heavily armed perpetrators. However, as Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker showed us all, a trained, unarmed civilian with his wits about him and a nearby chair, can also end an armed hostage situation. 

It is imperative that the Jewish community rethink our reliance on the mechanics of armed violence (state violence, and private violence) to keep us safe. (As a multi-racial community, it is also important to always interrogate who we mean by “us”.) The more we deploy guns, guards, and gates the more we isolate ourselves from other communities and reinforce the notion that the only way to respond to the threat of violence is with the threat of further violence. However, as Rabbi Aharon Shmuel Tamares, who lived through pogroms and wars, taught us over a century ago deploying violence—even as self-defense—only strengthens the cycle of violence in the world. This cycle can only be disabled by investing in solutions which go to the root of the problem of violence—mental health care, restorative justice programs, education, job training—solutions which reach across the lines of race and ethnicity and religion to keep all of us safe. 

At the March on Washington in 1963, Rabbi Joachim Prinz spoke just before King. In part he said: “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

State violence will not keep us all safe. We must work together across the boundaries of differences to keep us safe. It is the only thing that will keep us all safe. 

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