Oakland Church Pledges To Combat White Privilege By Never Calling The Police, Inadvertently Adopts Code Of Omerta

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Joshua Gill Religion Reporter
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A church in Oakland, California, pledged to stop calling the police, especially on black people, to combat white privilege, inadvertently adopting the mafia code of silence.

First Congregational Church of Oakland, a progressive church whose congregation calls it First Congo for short, made the promise to stop calling the police shortly after news broke of a white woman who called the police on a black family for barbecuing in a non-designated area at Lake Merritt. Lay leaders Nichola Torbett and Vanessa Riles said the decision was motivated by the church’s desire to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and to protect the lives of mentally ill and drug addicted black homeless men, who they characterize as society’s most vulnerable individuals.

The decision to not call the police, and to develop a congregation-based crisis response and security force, bears striking resemblance, however, to codes of silence adopted by communities under the rule of organized crime families, like the law of Omertà. (RELATED: Pope Urges Mafia-Ruled Town To Break Code Of Silence And Help Police)

Omertà, enforced by Sicilian crime families, is defined as “the obligation never, under any circumstances, to apply for justice to the legal authorities and never to assist in any way in the detection of crimes committed against oneself or others.”

The church recognizes that they must involve police for insurance purposes in cases of theft, and their pledge not to call the police in other circumstances is not motivated by fear of criminal retribution or a desire to protect gangsters, like Omertà. Other parallels exist, however, between the church’s pledge and historic criminal codes of silence. When it comes to cases of potential or actual threat, Riles said the church plans to train a volunteer force of individuals from the community and the congregation who can respond to crisis situations at any time.

While it may seem like a stretch to compare that strategy with the origins of organized crime, which began as private protection and an alternative to official police for store owners in American ghettos, Riles did not shy away from comparisons to organizations with links to criminal activity that provided community protection, specifically with the Black Panther Party.

“Their full name was the Black Panther Party for Self Defense,” Riles said, according to NPR. “It was about, how do we defend ourselves, who really is the violent offender, and even if it does come to something within the community, then how do we deal with that, without putting more lives at risk.”

The practical application of the church’s pledge and its strategy to self police begs comparison with the cooperation of crime organizations and their local communities, but distinctions arise in the church’s reasoning for pursuing a path away from official policing — namely their interpretation of biblical principles. Torbett and Riles said the decision was the result of a years long conversation in the church about how to demonstrate the true solidarity with Black Lives Matter. (RELATED: Black Lives Matter And Gay Pride Take Over Harry Styles Concert In DC)

“How can we say black lives matter, and be a church that calls the police on people, especially black people, poor disenfranchised black men,” Riles said, according to NPR.

“If anything we need to be working towards not calling the police,” she told her congregation.

Torbett told NPR the church concluded that white people conflated comfort with safety and that the church most often called the police on black homeless men who walked into the church in the midst of a mental illness or drug induced outburst. Riles claimed that calling the police on such people, even if they present a potential threat to safety, was somehow out of line with Jesus’ teachings since, in her view, inviting police intervention risked the lives of “the most vulnerable of society.”

Torbett asserted that refusing to call the police even in the face of threatening individuals or circumstances was a biblical, spiritual practice,

“One of the things that gets lost in Christianity in this country often is how Jesus was positioned in the society that he lived in,” Torbett added. “He was part of an occupied nation, a colonized people. A brown-skinned man, who was surveilled, targeted, harassed, finally arrested, beaten, and killed by state forces.”

The comparison is questionable, given the gospel accounts of Jesus willingly going to his death after being betrayed by his own people, as opposed to a group of differing ethnicity and class, found innocent by the Romans, and then having his own people beg for the ruling class to kill him.

Torbett also asserted that when congregants have called the police in the past, they were outsourcing their sense of safety and asking the state to commit violence for them. She compared the act to asking Pontius Pilate to crucify Christ, implying that calling the police was synonymous with asking the state to kill someone.

“Which is exactly what the religious leaders said when Jesus was arrested,” Torbett said, according to NPR. “They said, ‘We can’t kill him, but you can. Our law forbids it — but you can do it.'”

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