Creating a World Beyond Lethal Force
By Sarah Nahar
Significant profits are made in the deadly exchange of weapons, tactics, ideas, and data between militaries and police, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Border Patrol, the FBI. War is big business. And as policing increasingly militarizes, there is more money being made. In the United States, our taxes are paying that cost, with 53 percent of our federal budget for war-making and increasing shares of our local budgets for police units.
Yet the highest cost is not the dollars we spend; it’s our lives. The security that comes at the point of a gun is no security at all. At most, it’s a temporary deterrent, and usually the threat or use of lethal force multiplies violence and amplifies trauma.
For this reason, in 2015 the Chicago Black Lives Matter (BLM) coordinated nonviolent direct actions to shut down the International Association of Chiefs of Police—a conference trading in this deadly exchange of weapons, tactics, ideas, and data.1 We blocked main roads. We locked down entrances. We blockaded the pedestrian bridge between the hotel and the conference center. And we infiltrated the proceedings to request an end to this association and an immediate pivot to a conversation about true security: funding community mental health instead of tanks, funding neighborhood schools and libraries instead of invasive surveillance systems, funding public restrooms instead of the proliferation of zero-tolerance policies concerning indecent exposure because people can’t find a place to use a restroom.
Our sweatshirts read “Fund Black Futures.” And as the arrests began, we sang about our ancestors watching and protecting us. The chant, “Who do you serve? Who do you protect?” rang out.
Those years of Black liberation led to a new wave of internationalism. More and more folks directed their limited time and resources toward traveling abroad to learn from Black and other marginalized communities about the impact of the U.S.’s exportation of this white supremacist Christian hegemonic politics.
At that time, I was leading an international organization committed to building partnerships to transform violence and oppression, Christian Peacemaker Teams, so I had a chance to assist in making some of those connections for people internationally.2 And what came to the surface over and over was this: If we don’t want militarized police in the United States treating our neighborhoods like war zones, then we can’t allow it to be done on our behalf “over there.”
BLM groups began to more explicitly dismantle American exceptionalism in their analysis about what liberation looks like and to recognize how the dehumanization of our communities and the dehumanization of those declared enemies by the United States were connected by the same forces of exploitation. We came to see that we share the same fate. We began to question what is being done in the name of U.S. security. In whose neighborhoods are our troops showing up abroad and policing, often with extremely lethal consequences? Sometimes folks in those neighborhoods are eliminated, killed, solely based on their location and their presumed connections, and they are often bombed from above with drones. And if we don’t want that lethal policing happening here, we must resist it happening anywhere.
In our work for liberation and violence reduction, this means following the chain of profit. But it also means reducing our reliance on the military and police to keep us safe. That way, when we hear it said that “We are protecting you on your behalf, this is for freedom and security,” we can honestly say—like a group of families of victims of 9/11 did—“not in our name! You will not mobilize our grief for war. You will not mobilize our grief to kill others.”
So how do we reduce our reliance? We talk to our housemates, to our families, and to our organizations about what alternatives we have to calling the police. We can start conversations on how to determine protocols. These conversations will stir up all sorts of questions—questions about how we perceive and experience safety, and how questions of safety and security relate, as well as questions of boundaries, how boundaries are different than borders, and how our boundaries relate to our limits.
All of these questions will come up as we figure out how to handle highly conflictual situations. These are revolutionary conversations. But any agreements among affinity groups made on the basis of these empathetic, real, generative conversations will make a difference in the future. Such agreements may lead to household policies or protocols. If, for instance, you fear you might be tempted to call the police if you hear something suspicious when you’re alone at home, then maybe you create a protocol in which there are always two people at home.
Or maybe there’s a phone call that you can make before calling the cops. For example, if you see someone who’s impacted by opioid use, who can you call who’s got Narcan? If someone is acting in a way that you perceive to be aggressive, who do you know who has de-escalation skills? What kinds of accompaniment do you need whenever you might want to walk somewhere, or even wait for a bus? All these conversations and plans create security that is with one another, so they also strengthen relationships.
We learned some important lessons on security and saw possible models in Christian Peacemaker Teams—an organization that continues to work in third-party, nonviolent intervention, going where we’re invited to support the building of partnerships that transform violence and oppression. When we visited the People’s Feminist Organization, the Organización Femenina Popular, in Colombia, we witnessed a powerful model of community response: whenever there was a family dispute, particularly domestic violence, they would immediately initiate a phone tree. And 20 women would show up and surround a house so the perpetrator couldn’t go anywhere. While these women were there together, they would be brainstorming about what it took to create safety within their homes.
Twenty people also means there are 20 sets of eyes for seeing folks and 20 sets of ears for hearing folks. When there are 20 people paying attention, this means extreme community accountability. What would it take to have a network like that, a phone tree like that? And what if people could take shifts being at the house where violence has occurred, watching and helping to de-escalate, not just in one moment but over time?
These conversations will go deep, touching on our understandings of self-defense or perhaps even questions of mortality, and how to reduce harm to all parties in these situations. These are powerful conversations that point to how we might shift away from standard models of policing. The ones that I’ve been in have been pretty humbling.
It’s common to feel an initial resistance to this shift. But if you keep talking, if you keep trying to imagine and articulate a world beyond the use of lethal force, so many creative solutions emerge. In fact, many marginalized communities who have not been able to rely on the cops for protection have already built some of these methods into their survival, including homeless folks and undocumented folks. We can have these methods-of-revolution conversations with these communities and learn from them.
We see this shift happening on a bigger scale in the city of Denver. Since June 2020, Denver has been running a pilot program to replace the police when 911 is called for up to seven different reasons connected to homelessness, substance abuse, and poverty. It’s called the STAR program (Support Team Assisted Response), and it builds on what they learned from CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets) in Eugene, Oregon. The big question for organizers was whether something that was piloted in Oregon on a small scale could translate to Denver, a much larger city. So far, the data they’ve pulled is a resounding “yes.” The program has been saving lives, as well as lots of money.3
In Denver, out of 748 calls that the STAR program took in their first six months, not a single person was arrested. The Denver police were even called in for backup. No one was killed. No one was sent to jail or given criminal records. All lives were saved.4
Over 200 times, the STAR teams responded to calls where people thought there was someone strange in the area. There were 150 calls where people were calling to check in on a loved one they were worried about. Another 100 were people who needed assistance, right away, in their home, often because of mental or physical health challenges. And the teams responded to 50 calls about suicide. They responded to each of these calls with love, compassion, without a weapon, demilitarized yet safe, supported, and competent.
This reduced form of reliance can lead to abolition. It’s happening step by step—Eugene, Denver, marginalized communities—and it can happen where you are. These pilot projects also create meaningful jobs for more people in the caring professions. From various faith and spiritual traditions, they can nourish our ability to cultivate our warrior peacemaker spirit and our power to encounter increased difficulty.
This vital conversation about reliance reduction is the revolutionary conversation, in that it questions a fundamental given in property-centered societies: how we understand security. It allows us to engage in a transformation from a property-centered relationship with one another and with the police force, because police often protect property. It also interrogates power dynamics along the way. It’s revolutionary because we are taking additional responsibility for ourselves, and we’re coming up with solutions that maintain the inherent worth and dignity of each person to live and to be on their own transformational journey.
The fruits from these conversations will lead us to more and better questions, which is a revolutionary future I’m excited about. Along the way, they will also reduce the number of people arrested, abused, harmed, or killed—and that’s crucial.
- For more information on campaigns to stop the deadly exchange of weapons and tactics on an international scale, see deadlyexchange.org.
- You can read more about the work of Christian Peacemaker Teams at cpt.org.
- See Branden Janise, “Denver’s STAR Van Pilot Program Offers an Alternative to 911,” The North Star, September 15, 2020.
- All of these statistics come from a six-month report on STAR: “STAR Program Evaluation,” Community Resource Hub, January 8, 2021.
Sarah Nahar is a nonviolent action trainer and interspiritual theologian. She is currently a PhD student at Syracuse University, where her research focuses on ecological regeneration, community cultivation, and spiritual activism. Previously, she served as executive director of Christian Peacemaker Teams, an organization building partnerships to transform violence and oppression in global locations severely impacted by U.S. imperialist policies.