ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Rev. Myra Brown, a pastor at Spiritus Christi, has long advocated on behalf of communities of color in Rochester.
This month, following the news of Daniel Prude’s death, she’s joined Black Lives Matter protesters who at times can be heard chanting “defund the police.”
Adam Chodak sat down with Rev. Brown to ask her about the protests and what “defund the police” means to her.
Adam Chodak: What we’ve been seeing this month, it appears to me you come at it from a religious perspective.
Rev. Myra Brown: I come at it from a religious perspective because I think, like the whole of our faith, really has to do with two things: justice and love. And, in fact, in 2017, I was part of working on a book with our anti-racism team and we were thinking of what do you we call it? And what we called it was “love that does justice.” So my takeaway is that we’ve been handed a world with a lot of unjust structures, practices, policies, systems, institutions that we have been asked to live into. Somehow we’ve been challenged to try and make those things better and sometimes we’ve been a little bit successful, but we’ve never been able to make those structures and those institutions work well because the design was wrong, the design was wrong and wasn’t right and my faith tradition says we are to do good, we are to do justice, we’re to walk kindness, we’re to love humbly with God, and so there’s tons of scripture and text that call us to that work, of standing with people who are oppressed and people working for a more just world and more just society so my takeaway is if people created injustice, people can fix it. If people designed it, if people imagined it, people can redesign justice and re-imagine it and so it is true that I believe that God is on the side of justice and that this really is our work, we don’t have to keep working with our ancestral story that is harming us and that is dividing us and is not giving us the fullness of our authentic humanity across race and across class and we can actually do this. So I think that’s my takeaway is that we don’t have to be afraid and we don’t have to be crippled and we don’t have to feel paralyzed by what we’ve been handed. We can rewrite the story that we’ve been given once we determine that that story doesn’t work for us all.
AC: Is there one particular portion of scripture that you lean on?
MB: I do, I do. In fact, it was the portion of scripture I used for my ordination. What does the Lord require of you? To do kindness, to do justice and to walk humbly with God. And I think the second passage is from Jesus in the Gospel where he says, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me.” To preach good news to the poor, to give sight to the blind, to set the captives free, to alleviate oppression and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. I think Jesus’s mission was very clear around our work, around oppression, around setting those who are captive free, opening the eyes of the blind – I think there are things about our world and the way we’ve organized ourselves that have blinded us to that work of justice and equity and if it were me, if I’m going to say that I follow Jesus, I have to follow Jesus not the way that I want to follow Jesus, but follow Jesus in his mission in the world, but for me that mission is clear, it’s going to take moral courage, it takes the ability and willingness to take a hit every now and then and to take some losses, but I think what Jesus has always called us to is to stand with the vulnerable, the powerless, the people on the margins, to create a better world and so for me, those are the scriptures that I draw my mission from and I draw God’s vision from for the world.
AC: When you talk about restructuring, one of the areas that the Black Lives Matter groups talk about is the police department and hearing the term defund police. What does that mean to you?
MB: Here’s what it means to me. As I researched the history of policing in Rochester, the history of policing started in 1819, we crafted this blueprint in 1819. In 1819, Black people were either slaves or indentured servants so what that means what was really happening in that century was that we were asking questions, white America was asking some specific questions around that time, after emancipation: what do we do with Black people? They are now free, we can’t own them, we can’t exploit their labor for free, we can’t control them in this controlled setting of enslavement so what do we do with them? It was the policing system that answered that question across the country and they created a blueprint, this slave patrol blueprint of policing which was designed to monitor, to control Black and Brown bodies and to protect and attend to white anxiety, white wealth and white property and so if that’s the blueprint, what defund/refund means to me is that we have to defund that slave patrol blueprint, we cannot continue to resource that blueprint, particularly when we look across America and every urban city is having the same experiences with this slave patrol policing blueprint. They’re having trouble with police brutality, they’re having experiences with over-policing of communities of color, they’re having experiences of being overcharged, that’s impacting their economic life, their social life, their ability to stay employed, they’re having experiences of unarmed Black and Brown men and women being killed without impunity so there are these experiences of traumatization that people of color have had really since the crafting of this blueprint and so for me, defund/refund means we have to defund that slave patrol blueprint. We have to create a different blueprint asking a different question. We shouldn’t be asking what do we do with the Black and Brown people. We should be asking how do we create thriving communities and then we can create, we imagine what policing. system is. It would look different than what it does today. And I think that’s what it means for me and that’s why I support the defunding of that blueprint. The refunding piece is we take those resources and reallocate those resources we have given to policing systems across America and Rochester is no different. We have to take those funds that really have been connected to that harm that has been done that has been done in Black and Brown communities and refund those communities – reallocate them back to the community so we can attend to a lot of the problems that were both connected to policing systems and blueprints, but also other blueprints and structures and systems that have also caused some harm to Black and Brown communities. We are program rich in Rochester and outcome poor for Black and Brown communities. Every year we get a report of the disparities and the gap and so for me, when you talk about resourcing, refunding the community it’s about knowing that we can take those funds and we can create a community chest for Black and Brown communities to address these issues of affordable, adequate housing that we don’t have that’s not being serviced in the same way to Black and Brown communities as they are white communities. We can be able to get mental health services and to expand those services that will adequately service Black and Brown communities. We can use those funds to be able to have job placement programs that actually work. We can use those funds for drug treatment programs, we can use those funds for social workers to attend to the needs in the households of Black and Brown families at a cultural and competency level of folks that are actually seated in those communities, who are seated in those cultures who understand those nuances so we can close those gaps so for me it just makes sense to defund the blueprints that aren’t working and to have those monies refunded back to the community in ways that for those that are already doing that work, who know how to do that work and those who could do that work more effectively can do it. Just last week I got a call from a woman, an African-American woman, who said my brother has a full-time job, but he’s sleeping in his car. None of the services we have right now could service it, could help him because most of our programs, because most of our institutions who are getting the lion’s share of the resources who do that from Rochester do that from a white cultural framework that may not attend to the nuances that are in Black and Brown communities, we need to fix that. I have a Black woman here today. She didn’t fit the framework of being able to find housing, emergency service housing, she was put out of the YWCA today because she couldn’t dot the “i” and cross the “t” of the requirements that are put out there and on people of color in this community from a very white cultural framework. She doesn’t have kids so she doesn’t fit the requirements for those I could send her to for children. If she doesn’t come up with 10 housing options that she hasn’t had success in that doesn’t work. I think there are these nuances that just aren’t part of the framework and structure so I’m taking her home with me this week. I have to give her housing for 4 days because there’s nothing for her. I’ve been on the phone, I’ve called people, I’ve been talking to people, there’s nothing. If we refunded some of those funds that were given to organizations that are being paid and funded to do this work and put them back in the community then we have resources to help people like woman that I’m going to take home for four days and that man who’s sleeping in his car. And I get people who come to my church and through these doors, people of color specifically just about every month with sort of I don’t know what to do, I can’t find anybody to help me, so I think we have to do it. It’s a big ask, but Simeon Bannister who I really respect has a wonderful phrase. He says, “We didn’t get where we are today by nibbling around the edges.” There were some big decisions that were made to put us in the place that we’re in and so I think that we have to have a big ask to take us to a better place so for me that’s what the defund/refund campaign is about and I think it’s a brilliant idea. I think it’s going to take all of us to service our entire city and I think we have to make room for communities of color to be able to service themselves in a way that they think works. You think of the Black Panthers. Hot meals were created by Black Panthers and so now it’s throughout the whole nation, really, this whole country, now we have hot meals for kids when they go to school, but that started with Black people and in Black communities saying here’s a gap, we know how to do this and we did it and now the whole world is benefiting from that. I think there are many other services that can come from Black and Brown communities that the world can also benefit from and it will give us healthier communities, more thriving communities and we can close those racial gaps that we’ve been our hearts have been riveting over for so many years. And I think that this is our moment to do it, we have this awareness over racial injustice and the blueprints that have been embedded in the systems we have to live with. I think we’ve all been tired and fatigued around what do I do about this, can we do anything about this, is this pie in the sky or do we really have the capacity and the resources and the moral courage to push in really hard and say, you know what let’s just try something else because what we’re currently doing isn’t working. And I’m very optimistic that we can. I think we can try something else and I think that something else is going to work and I’m grateful for the Black Lives Matter movement, the Free the People movement for pushing us as a community to think in that way. In fact, I think that’s exactly how United Way started. They were a community chest and we praise and we laud the work that they’re doing. I think we need to give that same opportunity to folks in communities of color to create their community chest to do this work.
AC: When it comes to public safety and emergency response. What would that look like in a new system?
MB: I think you have to have some policing and public safety. We’re not saying there shouldn’t be any police, we’re saying let’s re-imagine it. Right now, we’ve kind of lumped everything into policing, where they have pushed their ways into Black and Brown lives in such a density that it’s choking the life out of community members in those communities, many of those things that we assign to those police officers to do they shouldn’t be doing, they’re not equipped to do it and under this current blueprint, they just shouldn’t be doing it, they don’t have the skills, they don’t have the training, they don’t have the cultural competency to be doing that. There are other issues that are happening there. So absolutely, but I think that until we reallocate those funds we won’t even ask the question about how we reimagine policing in this city, we will continue to want to do the same thing, the same way we’ve always done it, we want to offer reforms on top of a faulty blueprint, keep getting faulty reforms and every few years we’ll come back and another President will say I think we should do this with policing or another political leader will say I think we should do that or another city will take a bold step and get frustrated and say, you know, I think we should disband or we should do this or do that, I think we should just fix the blueprint, that’s my position and I think that we should stop making excuses and demand more of ourselves and trust our own brilliance, trust our own ability, to come to the table and redesign. Rochester is full of people who redesign systems. In my mind, this is a no-brainer, like we could totally absolutely redesign what it means to have public safety and policing in the City of Rochester.
AC: What are some specific changes we might see if policing were reimagined?
MB: I’ll just go to shooting that happened this past weekend. I was there after the shooting happened to just pray. To pray with the community and to pray alone. I’m an observer because my first career was as a nurse so I kind of survey the scene and so I noticed a few things. There was an officer there standing by yellow tape telling people where they could and couldn’t walk. Do we need police offices to stand by and tell people where they can walk? Probably not, right? That job could go to somebody in that community. Police officers would have been making reports. Is writing reports just a policing function? Or could that be a function of a community member in those communities? Could that be a job that we give to them? I thought they did a great job coming to the scene and making sure people got out and into the ambulances and could get out and I think that’s a great role for policing. But the shooting was over. There’s kind of a debate about whether they’re preventing those crimes from happening. Nobody was able to prevent that crime from happening so I think reimagine what is the actual role that police play. Certainly there were detectives that were bringing evidence in and out and that is absolutely a policing role, to come and do the investigation, police can do that, but when you have somebody like Daniel Prude, a mental health crisis, does policing need to answer that call? I don’t think they do I don’t think that’s a policing function. In fact we have folks all the time in a mental health crisis at Strong Hospital being seen and RRH being seen and they’re being seen by mental health professionals, not police. So we know how to handle mental health crises without police, we know how to handle these situations of trying to care for community members when they’re in crisis and when they’re in trauma. We can’t send police to every call. We can’t send police to deal with the homeless, like being homeless is not a crime. Having a mental health crisis is not a crime. We’re sending police n these calls that are not crimes and then people end up being criminalized because they are just not equipped and they just shouldn’t be in those spaces, so I think there’s lot of calls. I think the same thing could be said for some domestic disturbance calls, those that do not have to do with weapons. I don’t know that police need to be on those calls. There are people working with people with domestic conflict who are talking things out with police. So I think there are lots of ways we can reimagine. How policing happens. Giving tickets to people not parked 12 inches from the curb, is that a policing function? I think there are lots of conversations to be had. What is actually an appropriate policing function and what isn’t? And I think we have to come back to the table to talk about these things, I think we have redesign a blueprint so that we can actually have a laser focus on what is appropriate policing. What are we paying for in that model? And what kind of model can we create that makes more sense so we can become more responsible fiduciary speaking and we can become more responsible for the community at large. We’re in this together. We’re not just helping the communities, but we’re also helping police to feel comfortable about the role that they’re playing and confident about the role they’re playing and they can feel like they’re actually doing real policing in the community and not carrying everything on their shoulders and being expected to being competent in those things. I think it’s a heavy lift and I think it’s unfair to them and I unfair to communities of color and we have to bear the brunt for a system that’s organized that way.
AC: One of the worries I hear, even in communities of color, they point to a gray area where someone gets violent. You look at the Denny Wright case where that gentleman was violent. And those gray area scenarios leave them with a lot of doubt even if they think what you’re saying makes a lot of sense…
MB: This is where I think I can contribute to the conversation. My first career was as a nurse. I worked my first 8 years at the Rochester Psychiatric Center. So I had to into rooms with patients who had picked up floor-model TVs, had them in their hand, getting ready to throw them at me. A very scary moment, a very violent act, I could have been very hurt, but I was trained for that and so I was able to deescalate that without the security of the Rochester Psych Center, without police. In fact, the security was waiting outside the room in the hallway and it was just me and this person. When you are well-trained in your field you know exactly how to deescalate, you know exactly how to disarm people. And I probably weighed all of about 120 pounds at the time and this man probably weighed all of 250, but I was able to talk him down and have him put that TV down and come quietly. ***I understand that fear, but I think we don’t trust the competency, there are people in this community that are are very competent and would know how to deescalate these and think there are also ways that, let’s say there is that moment where it just seems like it’s just not working. We can figure that out too. We can create communication systems, we can dispatch an officer to be around the corner, 5 minutes away or 2 minutes away and we can create communication mechanisms where push the button like we do panic buttons and you know what, I think I’ve gone as far as I can, I think I need some backup. We call for backup all the time in this time in this community. So I would say to them, let’s figure out what really, really works and not always pivot to a violent solution. Let’s not always pivot to a solution that has to do with weapons and puts people’s bodies jeopardy and put their lives at risk for a health crisis that they’re having. I think we can do better. We have to give ourselves room to imagine something more, to imagine something better. And I think we also have to give ourselves room to work with our fears and manage our fears and manage our anxieties and to know that we can do this, we’ve always been able to think our way through. Some of hardest problems we’ve had in our world. So I’m very confident. I trust and I believe in the human spirit. I believe in the human capacity and I believe in human brilliance around this and particularly believe it for Black and Brown communities, I’ve seen it in action. I’ve seen it in action.
AC: Anything else that you’d like to add?
MB: I hope that we do this. I hope that we don’t blow this moment that we’ve been given. I think the pandemic has taken down and slowed down many of our systems we’ve been handed, that we have known have not really worked for us for a very long. If we don’t take this moment to fix them, to redesign them, to step into that work of reimagining and reallocating and creating different blueprints for how we work together as fully community, I fear that we may not get this opportunity again and we will leave this work and leave this harm from not doing this work to the next generation and the generation after that and honestly, it’s just not fair.