The first time I heard a cogent philosophical argument against the institution of the police, I was sitting in the upstairs kitchen of the SS. Francis and Thérèse Catholic Worker in Worcester, MA. I was living and working there after having fallen in love with the Catholic Worker (CW) movement during college. I was attracted to the movement’s emphasis on melding a radical reading of the Gospels with the day-to-day actions of living in community, caring for the poor, and working for peace in myriad and creative ways, including resisting State violence through protest, war tax resistance, and civil disobedience.
A long-standing tradition of the CW is to host regular “round table discussions,” where people from all walks of life – both the “scholars and the workers,” as co-founder Peter Maurin insisted – could gather for clarification of thought. And so, in the summer of 2001, I found myself participating in such a discussion led by Fr. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, a Melkite Greek Catholic Priest who devoted his ministry to preaching about the nonviolent love of Jesus. While I do not remember the exact topic of the round table, I clearly recall Fr. McCarthy’s challenge to those of us in the room: if Catholic Workers root their opposition to military violence in their understanding of who Jesus was, then why would we accept the authority of the police, who use the threat of incarceration and death to enforce the laws of the State?
Fr. McCarthy’s logic compelled me; from then on, I embraced the CW’s tacit policy: “we don’t call the police.” Given that I (like most Catholic Workers historically) had come from a white, middle class upbringing, and had little to no experience with police myself, my embrace was a philosophical stance, rather than a necessity borne out of a lifetime of suffering police brutality (as is true for many activists of color.) However, despite our privilege, Catholic Workers’ choice to live among and/or stand with the poor and marginalized allows us to be able to witness a very different reality than that with which we grew up.
In the early days of the CW Movement, Catholic Workers often witnessed the reality of police brutality inflicted upon striking workers – in particular the striking seamen in the 1930s, for whom they had set up a soup kitchen to show support. In 1954, Day wrote of Workers engaged in the Works of Mercy in Shreveport, LA, who were jailed merely because one of them was Black. At the United Farm Workers’ picket in California in 1973, Day wrote of the “impressive lines of police, all armed–clubs and guns.” Such encounters could not help but to inform a relatively privileged group of CWs that the police, rather than acting to defend the rights and safety of all citizens, most often protected the wealthy and harmed the poor and People of Color.
In my own experience living and working at a CW in Indiana, my skepticism of the idea that police were there to “help” deepened. One evening in 2006, Al W., a poor white man and a beloved guest of our community, came for dinner while heavily under the influence of alcohol and drugs. He began to threaten me, and after many failed attempts to calm him down, my fellow CW Mike, afraid for my safety, offered to call the police. Knowing my philosophical stance against such a move, Mike offered that, with the weather being below freezing that night, Al would likely be safer in a jail cell than on the street. Uncomfortable, but convinced of his argument, I consented.
When the police arrived, they escalated the danger of violence in our home by threatening to use their tasers against Al, who was now more furious with me than ever. They then dropped Al off in front of the local Emergency Room and left. Within twenty minutes, Al was back in our house, threatening me with worse violence than before. That night was the first time I had witnessed, in concrete terms, the way the police treat people who are poor and the way the presence of the police only further endangered, rather than protected, the lives and safety of civilians.
Living among the marginalized can shape how Catholic Workers see the world; however, physical proximity is often not enough to remove the internalized sense of superiority that those of us with class and race privilege have had instilled in us from a young age. Despite my own distrust for the police, I continued to have the privilege to choose whether or not I would decry police violence in a constructive or consistent way. Many CWs, myself included, have been arrested and sent to jail or prison for acts of civil disobedience – most often protesting militarism abroad. As a result, we have witnessed the vast disparities that exist in the criminal justice system. Yet, until the recent Black Lives Matter movement put the issue of police brutality in the spotlight, very few of us prioritized that issue in our work for justice.
While the movement that Dorothy Day co-founded with Peter Maurin has long been imbued with Day’s radical analysis of the State as the “chief…agent of violence and injustice, established and maintained to protect wealth and privilege” (22), as Richard Clever writes in New Heaven, New Earth, our race and class privilege has functioned as an impediment to truly standing for justice when it comes to police brutality against People of Color. Maurin’s insistence on studying the important philosophical, theological, and political issues of our day to, quoting Lenin, inform a “theory of revolution,” without which “there can be no revolution” has led the CW to undergo anti-racism training in order to better act as allies in the recent movement for Black lives.
In the Spring of 2015, as part of our annual “Faith and Resistance” retreat series, over 100 CWs underwent an anti-racism workshop hosted by the St. Louis CW and facilitated by Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training. For many of us, this training was the first time we had ever taken a serious look at why the CW was a movement made up of mostly white people. Feelings of defensiveness arose: how could we be racist? We were the most radical people we knew! We lived with the poor! We risked arrest and went to jail and prison in our struggles for justice! (We didn’t fully acknowledge at the time that, due to our privilege, we generally got to decide whether and when we went to jail.)
The training helped us admit that, while our communities had bravely and selflessly confronted militarism and capitalism for decades, we were still infected by the disease of white supremacy—a system that oppresses People of Color to maintain power for white people. It led us to see how much we had let fear prevent us from making meaningful relationships with People of Color, feeling more comfortable in the patronizing “helper” role instead.
With the assistance and expertise of #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) Minneapolis and the #LetUsBreathe Collective in Chicago, our next two resistance retreats pushed us to explore more deeply how the CW has largely replicated a system that maintains white dominance. Our Black trainers detailed some of the oppression that police had inflicted on them and their communities, the specifics of which our white members had been largely ignorant.
Many of us who had spent time in military-occupied areas such as Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan felt convicted upon realizing we had been ignoring the war going on in our own backyards. (Despite having worked with the Palestinian-led nonviolent movement in the occupied West Bank, and being trained to face massive amounts of tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets, and military force, it was not until I worked with movements led by Black and Indigenous people that I ever underwent a nonviolence training of such intensity in the U.S.) The trainings pushed us to begin both to dismantle the ways our own communities perpetuate white supremacy, and to collaborate in concrete ways with organizations led by People of Color, using the abundant resources at our disposal to uplift the work they are doing.
In the past few years, CW houses have broadened the focus of their resistance to State violence to include police violence more specifically. In April 2016, under the direction of BLM, thirty-five white Catholic Workers blocked a major traffic intersection, demanding that the case of Jamar Clark, an unarmed young man who was shot in the head by Minneapolis police, be reopened. Our trainers helped us see that the purpose of direct actions like these was to create such a tension in our society that the demands of BLM could no longer be ignored. As long as Black people were getting killed in the streets with impunity, activists would disturb business as usual to force the wider community to confront the issue. (The fact that all in our large group of white activists were gently arrested and released within two hours stunned our Black trainers, who, for similar actions, had been handled roughly and had spent up to 72 hours in police custody.)
The Minneapolis CW has continued to work with police abolition movements led by People of Color in their city. They have been particularly informed by MPD150, a coalition of organizers, activists, and researchers who compiled a report on the history of policing in Minneapolis and a vision for a police-free future. The report provides evidence that the Minneapolis Police Department, “far from being an agent of ‘public safety’… has always acted as the enforcement arm of the economic and political elite,” and contends that “efforts to reform it” have proved ineffective (7).
In June 2017, the Minneapolis CW collaborated with MPD150 and others to lead an occupation of the mayor’s office to demand that he drop his proposal for increased funding of the MPD. The CW’s experience in civil disobedience proved a helpful tool in that action, and the momentum created that day has contributed to a strong coalition of police abolitionists in the city, inspiring other such movements around the country.
As people of faith have witnessed and participated in the recent uprisings in response to the murder of unarmed Black people by police, white people of privilege have been increasingly exposed to the reality of police violence against People of Color. If a multi-racial movement against police brutality is to take root in this nation, it is vital that people of racial privilege not only continue to place themselves in the midst of these protests, but also that they commit to an ongoing process of “clarification of thought” through anti-racism training.