“Defunding?” with Kris Henderson, Ben Tapper, and Rev. Melissa Florer Bixler

~ing podcast Season 2 Episode 2
Full Episode Transcript

Season 2 Episode 2: “Defunding?” with Kris Henderson, Ben Tapper, and Rev. Melissa Florer Bixler was released on January 18, 2022. The audio recording is available on all major podcasting platforms. More information is available here.

Episode Description:

Over the past years, Mennonite Church USA received requests to provide an Anabaptist-grounded resource for clergy and congregations to engage in learning about the call for police abolition. In today’s episode, ~ing host, Ben Wideman is joined by three people – Kris Henderson, Ben Tapper, and Rev. Melissa Florer Bixler (past guest on season 1 of ~ing Podcast) – all of whom who helped create a new curriculum titled, Defund the Police? An Abolition Curriculum. This resource is an initial guide for congregations who are desiring to begin or continue their reflection on what it means to engage the forces of state, their commitments to non-violence and how to act to end policing and police brutality. We’ll discuss why a project like this makes sense for churches, what they learned during its creation, and how our faith might call us to navigate this topic.

Melissa Florer Bixler, Kris Henderson, David Gushee, Ben Wideman

Ben Wideman  00:00
Welcome to Season Two of ~ing Podcast, a production of MennoMedia’s Leader Magazine.  What does it mean to authentically follow Jesus? Each week ~ing Podcast invites you to join us on a journey. Join us as we talk with people of faith who are creatively thinking, growing, and being people who are reimagining and exploring what it means to enrich faith in a complex world.

Kris Henderson  00:27
And a lot of places around the country. The police are huge line item in the budget. And at the same time, that line item has grown. Over the years we’ve seen pretty systematic cuts from the different programs and services that community is actually really want in need.

Melissa Florer Bixler  00:49
Instead of just responding to harm in our community, what does it mean to prevent harm ahead of time? How do we come up with solutions for addressing harm that don’t require in or involve the coercion of the state?

Ben Wideman  01:05
Our conversation begins now. Join us as we journey together.  Welcome back to ~ing Podcast. And I’m really excited today to be joined by a small group of folks – more than one guest this time on ~ing Podcast. I’m here with a few of the people who were part of putting together a new resource published recently by Mennonite Church USA, which is titled Defund the police? An Abolition Curriculum. I’m joined by three individuals, Kris Henderson, Melissa Florer Bixler and Ben Tapper, who were part of a larger team in putting this project together. I want to say to start, thank you so much to the three of you for being a part of today’s episode, and for sharing how you made this project come to life. I’m wondering if we might start by having you introduce yourselves for people who don’t know you.

Melissa Florer Bixler  01:57
I’m Melissa Florer Bixler, the pastor of Raleigh Mennonite Church in North Carolina and I got into the curriculum work when Glen Guyton and Sue Park Herr reached out to me to see if I knew of people who’d be interested in putting this resource together and worked with them to help assemble a team to write the curriculum.

Ben Tapper  02:23
Ben Tapper, I work for a religious or faith based nonprofit in Indiana, and fairly new to Abolition work myself, I got pulled into this project. Because early on, I think once Melissa was asked to do it by Glen, she was thinking about other folks, other voices that might be able to participate and make it a bit fuller and more rich. And so she tapped me. She knew I’d been kind of leaning into this work, and she wanted to see if I would join the team in essence.

Kris Henderson  02:57
I’m Kris Henderson, the executive directo r of Amistad Law Project based in Philly. And I got looped into the curriculum through Chantelle, who knows, Melissa, who knows Ben.

Ben Wideman  03:14
Awesome. Well, thank you, again, to all three of you for being a part of this conversation here today. I think before we get too far into this conversation, it would be really healthy to learn just a little bit about the Police Abolition movement for those who have not been paying much attention to the the political movement to replace policing systems with other systems of public safety. Could one of you give sort of a background of how we got to this point? Where does this movement come from, and its origin story, just as a starting point?

Kris Henderson  03:49
In a lot of places around the country, the police are huge line item in the budget. And at the same time, that line item has grown over the years, we’ve seen pretty systematic cuts from the different programs and services, that communities actually really want and need. Places like Minneapolis, like Philadelphia, like New York City. And so amazingly, in Minneapolis, there’s actually been years and years of work that people have been doing to try and defund the police and get more funding for these sorts of community things that will actually make our communities better and safer. So after the murder of George Floyd, this, this demand to defund the police was one that was then just amplified, but it actually had been in the streets, and like in that community, especially for for years. And then you know, when people heard it, as there were hundreds of 1000s of millions of people are treating around the country. I really resonated. Because it was like, yeah, why are we spending, you know, across the country, billions of dollars on policing, when there are so many things that our communities need and just can’t afford.

Melissa Florer Bixler  05:17
Black communities, queer communities, people who haven’t been able to access the, the police, because of their occupation or their citizenship status, have been asking these questions for decades, centuries. And so even though this is a conversation that’s entering more of the of the mainstream or public dialogue, right now, we really wanted to highlight that this is, is actually more like the mainstream culture is, is coming to grapple with, with a movement that has done is existed long before it ended up in, you know, in the New York Times, or the Washington Post. And so, really wanting to honor the roots of this movement. People like Angela Davis and others who have who have really been the some of the pioneering voices in this movement.

Ben Wideman  06:19
I wonder if you might address that thing that I’m guessing probably comes up for all three of you, as you do this kind of work from people who’ve never experienced a problem with the police saying, why do we need to abolish the police,

Melissa Florer Bixler  06:31
As one of the white people on this curriculum writing team? And, and when I reflect on this question for myself, I think about how few times I’ve actually interacted with the police, and in my lifetime. And, you know, this is something that we hear from from in abolition circles, that that the reason why my communities have not interacted with the police, is because we have well funded schools, and we have, we have all of the resources that we need, we have grocery stores in our backyards, and we have these, we have all of the the things that make that that we’re talking about need to be funded, and communities that are over policed, and under resourced, and all these other ways. So actually, I actually just want for my black and brown neighbors what I have right now, which is not a lot of interaction with the police, because we’ve we’ve created a life of abundance for white people. And instead of that being something that’s sort of kept to my community as the sort of scarcity of resources, we actually have all the money that we need to do this for for everybody, if we are willing to shift around the way our spending priorities right now, instead of just responding to responding to harm in our community, what does it mean to prevent harm ahead of time? How do we come up with solutions for addressing harm that don’t require in or involved the coercion of the state? Yeah,

Ben Tapper  08:22
And I think I mean, you know, it’s, it’s difficult to articulate why someone should care about something, if they haven’t experienced it, because it requires an understanding of the interconnectedness of people and of life. And then for me, that’s what one of the one of the foundational elements that it comes back to this question kind of continually invites me to land on. It’s the ways in which we are all connected. And I personally have a deep conviction that if I see something wrong happening, if I see a violation of of health and safety taking place, then I am compelled to do something I’m compelled to act to say something to speak out. Because… Because pain anywhere, anyone experiencing pain, anyone experiencing suffering, has to have some sort of like cosmic effect on all of us are some sort of spiritual effect on all of us. If nothing else, it leaves its mark on our kind of societal memory, and that memory doesn’t get erased, no matter how hard we try, and that pain doesn’t get erased, no matter how hard we try. And so from the perspective of like the neurological effects of trauma, we know that when you have traumatic interactions and experiences, that those can get passed down from generation to generation and that they affect an impact and influence the ways in which you interact with other people. You interact with your family, your community, they sever relationships, and if left unchecked and untreated, that severing can take place generation after generation. And that severing ends up having a crippling effect on entire communities, and eventually on entire societies and so on. hits, there are ways in which we are all connected, that maybe we’re not aware of, or that maybe we don’t want to be aware of and don’t want to pay attention to. But at some point, I think we have to open our eyes and acknowledge that one person suffering affects us whether we want to pretend it does or doesn’t. And even if somehow we could say that it didn’t affect us, I think we have a moral obligation, a spiritual obligation, an obligation as a another being that that moves and breathes and is alive to look after our family, our friends, people that are near us, there’s a general obligation of care, and an ethic of love that we have to take seriously.

Ben Wideman  10:39
Yeah, it strikes me that the there’s got to be some kind of American individualism, in what you’re saying, too, right. Like, if if we don’t see ourselves as part of a collective. If we believe in the sort of myth that our success is only because we pick ourselves up by our bootstraps, then we don’t really think need to think critically about community systems, right? We just we just say we are, we are fine in our own space. And, and that’s the end of the conversation, right? But it overlooks so much, then. So much of the framework of the way that we move through the world, so much of even how I think, these faith traditions that we belong to, would say, we are interconnected. And I think but I think it does require us to step away from some of the cultural assumptions that that we are only looking out for ourselves, in order to start to get to that point that you’re talking about.

Ben Tapper  11:40
I’d also add briefly that it’s not just this American individualism that I think is definitely taking place. But I think there’s also a mindset, spirituality, whatever, whatever you want to call it, of lack that takes place. When we believe that if if we remove this, this safety mechanism that protects our resources that protects our communities that keeps us insulated, ie the police, then what might happen to us what might be what might we lose there, there isn’t enough abundance for all of us to have all that we need. And I think that’s a fundamental lie, that the defund movement, the abolition movements, push back on that, no, there is enough abundance, we have what we need within each of us, we have the wisdom we need within our communities to create true systems of safety. But what we have now isn’t actually keeping people safe. I love that,

Kris Henderson  12:36
You know, building off of what both Ben and Melissa have said, that there’s like this narrative around police around policing. That, that that’s what keeps us safe. Yeah, but we know from from the history of how police started, that’s really not the origins of police. You know, whether it’s in, in the north, where police were created, to suppress labor movements, and unionizing efforts, and then in the south, to try and re enslave people who, who had escaped, we know that this actually is not a system that was made to to protect people.

Ben Wideman  13:25

Kris Henderson  13:26
And if we’re thinking about what it what it even would mean, to have a system that would protect people, I don’t think that this is where we would start. And, you know, when we’re looking at police, who they kill, who they harm the communities and individuals, you know, it’s is disproportionately certain people, black and brown people, people who are living in concentrated poverty, and especially people with with people who have or are perceived to have some sort of mental illness. And so it’s like, do do we actually want to be safe? Do we actually want to keep all of our community safe? Because then I think that we can envision and create a world in which there are other things like, like Melissa is talking about where all of our communities have the resources that we need. You know, we know that the communities that are safest are not the ones with the most police, but those with the most resources.

Ben Wideman  14:32
Thank you, Kris, and Melissa, for pointing us back to this is not a recent thing. This is this is a part of a long history of, of oppression, misuse of power, and, and it really does take a different tone. When you think about community policing, when you think about its origin story and how it came to be especially In light of sort of the privilege of holding on to power in, in so many ways and carries through to today, so we can talk probably for this whole episode on why this curriculum is important. But I’m curious how you began to put something like this together specifically for faith communities to use. I see when when I visit the website that there is a nine week curriculum, each of them featuring different themes, as Ben already referenced, but walking us through these various areas. Uh, can you talk a little bit about the intentionality of how this curriculum was structured and set up?

Melissa Florer Bixler  15:42
One of the places we wanted to start was grounded in that, that what we heard Kris bring up is this question about what does it mean to be safe, and, and Chantelle really brought that to the fore for us. That that was a that was a significant question. And place for us to, to, to let people or have a place of imagination to begin and and to connect their own experiences to the what is at the heart of this of this movement? I think that a lot of the misperception is that we don’t really want any use that there’s no accountability, or, you know, people just do whatever they want to do. Where is the sort of the goal of this curriculum is to shift that towards this question of what does it really mean to be safe, and, and what our perceptions of safety or, or what makes people safe, some certain parts of our community, the white community safe, oftentimes at the expense of the black community, again, through under resourcing. And so giving people a chance to say, this is a this is a common, or universal sort of thing that we need, we all need to be safe. And so let’s talk together about what it would mean to make our communities all of our communities safer. For those of you who already feel like you enjoy safety in a variety of ways, what what does it mean to extend that safety to others for those who feel unsafe because of police or because of under resourcing your communities? What does it mean to to be a part of a movement of liberation from from being unsafe? And, and so, so I, that was one piece, I appreciated that Chantelle really lifted up was was grounding us in that question of safety.

Kris Henderson  17:46
We really started with like having conversations with each other. And sort of talking about what the intention was from MC USA and also what each of us thought was really important to ground in this process. And what we ultimately hoped, people who went through the curriculum would actually get out of it. And like what they would be able to move forward in in the world and in this work afterwards.

Ben Wideman  18:15
I think it’s important to point out the structure of this curriculum, it is pretty intensely interactive. Most of the weeks have a multimedia component, things to watch as a group walking through this curriculum, and then pretty, I think, healthy, guiding questions, grounded in Scripture, activities to spark that dialogue in that discourse, and, and then a sort of next step section at the end of each one. To consider where we go from here as you move through the curriculum. I’m curious, was it a group effort, where you all sat down and sort of together authored the structure here? Did you each have different avenues? Where it was your job to say, plan the next steps or your job to pick out the multimedia pieces? Or how did how did it go working on something this grand as a team?

Ben Tapper  19:13
I remember us divvying up the sections and kind of deciding who wanted to take ownership, but you know, over over which weeks and and even within that, you know, there were multiple people working on each section, you know, so I’m able to work on week six or seven. But that doesn’t mean that Melissa didn’t come in later and help or Chantalle didn’t come in later and add a piece here and there. But, you know, originally, we kind of just divided the weeks up amongst the team. And then as we went along, kind of kept checking in with each other to see who needed systems who wanted assistance, to see what needed to kind of be touched up and tweaked. And they’re just continued conversations about where we need to add video pieces where we need to tighten things up if we wanted to remove entire section was completely the conversation was just pretty much ongoing even after most of the curriculum itself was written.

Ben Wideman  20:02
Since the curriculum has come out. I’m curious how have you heard feedback? And what has the feedback been like from, from the spaces that you find yourselves?

Melissa Florer Bixler  20:12
We’re sensing that it’s been over overall positive. And I do think that there is a sense of recognition of what it means to maybe be very public about your opposition to the curriculum. I think because, you know, I, it’s hard to even see it. But the, you know, the in the the title is actually abolish the police question mark, which is meant to be sort of like, oh, we recognize that, that, you know, people want to understand this movement, and maybe don’t, and this is a majority white denomination that has questions. And this is this really is a movement among, among black communities and something that we need to understand and grapple with, and, and that we think that as writers of this curriculum, this is the direction that’s important for us to go. And there are small steps along the way that are all sort of gathered together that eventually lead to abolition. And so I think that there, my guess is, we’re not hearing as much pushback, because maybe it just, it looks bad, like, you shouldn’t even learn about this. But I’ve certainly heard sort of from that there are certain pockets of people in the Mennonite Church who are upset about it, who feel like this is just another sign of the liberalization of the denomination. Yeah, that kind of language.

Ben Wideman  21:56
But I like that, that providing some space for the curriculum to be challenged to hopefully does make it more accessible and something that anyone regardless of where they fall in a public political spectrum, can engage. And I think even it’s important for us to acknowledge too, that even among the abolition movement, there’s a spectrum of, of what it means for people to write like I’ve I’ve heard people say, who are a part of this movement, and we don’t actually mean elimination of the police. And others say, no, no, we’re actually working to eliminate police. Right. So it is that sort of spectrum of possibility, even within the movement. So I think the invitation to to have a spectrum of people wrestling with this is very appropriate and hopefully means more congregations that are willing to engage it.

Kris Henderson  22:54
Only heard positive feedback on the curriculum. I think sort of speaking to the last thing he said, about defund and not everybody being an abolitionist. Is that defunding the police’s and abolitionist demand. But not everybody who wants to defund the police is an abolitionist. And abolitionist demands are ones that like, fundamentally are trying to shift power dynamics. And so taking away the resources from police trying to take away their jobs, is is about reducing their power. But that’s why things like, you know, community oversight boards, and body cameras are not Abolitionists demands, but are ones that are Reformist. Because they often actually just further entrench the power of police, by by legitimizing them. And, you know, I think lots of people across all different sorts of, of political framings can see that this shouldn’t be the thing that we spend more money on than anything else.

Ben Tapper  24:17
The thing I think I want to say it’s just a thought that I’ve been mulling over returning to this idea of landing on legality is the end all be all for a justification for an action? Yeah. And and for me, it’s it’s this idea that the galaxy does not equate to morality, just because something is legal, especially in the United States. Yeah. That does not make it justifiable, it does not make it moral does not make it an ethical thing to do or to have done. And so, you know, throughout the history of this country, there have been folks that have appealed to something beyond the letter of the law and trying to call us into a broader understanding of what it means to take care of one another and what it means To create a society that is based upon Justice and Safety and equity. And so, you know, to, to just land on something being legal or not legal is it does a disservice to the people involved. It does a disservice to our own understandings and capabilities to wrestle with a thing. And it’s just it’s not going deep enough. There’s there’s, there’s so much more depth that can be had if we are willing to expand our imagination. And, and really, I think that’s what this curriculum is about. It’s asking us to expand our imagination to create a world that that is safe for everybody.

Ben Wideman  25:35
Oh, that’s so that’s such a good word. I don’t know why that feels so threatening for people to to say that legality does not equate morality. I mean, we’ve got this lengthy history in this country,

Ben Tapper  25:48
We do this really well, in other instances, you know, so I think the the suppose the debate over abortion rights is a great example, where were folks who might be on one side of the aisle, regarding police abolition suddenly have no problem understanding, or naming that legality doesn’t equal morality, when it fits their specific argument or when they think it fits their argument. So we have the imagination, we have the ability for it. But to your point, there are specific values that probably relate to security that probably relate to whiteness, that probably relate to privilege that when those values are touched upon, it’s a lot harder to stretch our imagination to include other things. Yeah,

Kris Henderson  26:30
I think one thing I would add is that, like, so much of what ends up being criminalized is about. And so and so many of the reasons that police are called, is really about order. And like trying to keep some sort of order, and not actually about like, you know, morality, really, like I think part of what really trips us up with with crime is that there is some overlap between some things that I think we would consider to be immoral, and also things that are illegal. But there’s actually like a ton of things that don’t fall in that category. Yeah. And we don’t really want to like parse through what it is that we’re trying to do with crime with with like a crime code. I think a lot of it, you know, is not actually about how we how we make society safer, but like how we try and like control people and, and control communities.

Melissa Florer Bixler  27:41
The Mennonite Church USA website has links to the curriculum, and you can download it for free.

Ben Wideman  27:49
I love it. This has been really, really meaningful for me to sit and experience. Thank you for sharing the space sharing this time. And thank you for your your wisdom and your willingness to engage in this in this particular area.

Ben Tapper  28:04
And thanks for the invitation, Ben, we appreciate it.

Kris Henderson  28:07
Definitely.Thank you.

Melissa Florer Bixler  28:08
Thanks, everybody.

Ben Wideman  28:12
Next week on in podcast, we sit down with Author, Ethicist and professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, Dr. David P Gushee,

David Gushee  28:22
The grandeur of the tradition, if I if I have captured it, to any extent is inviting and the grandeur of the field is inviting. There is a way of arguing in the tradition of ethics. There’s some better ways and some worse ways. And I try to show some ways to have a good argument and really an ethics it’s really one long argument. And so let’s have it let’s have a good one, right.

Ben Wideman  28:48
As always, we’d like to thank our guests and all who support ~ing Podcast. Thank you for joining us on the journey. If you enjoyed the show, please leave us a review in your favorite podcasting app and have something to share. Send us a message at the ing at MennoMedia.org or by leaving us a voicemail. ~ing Podcast is hosted by Reverend Allison Maus and Reverend Dr. Dennis Edwards, and produced by me, Ben Wideman. views and opinions expressed on a podcast are those of our hosts and guests and may not represent that of Leader Magazine or MennoMedia. ~inc Podcast is a production of MennoMedia, a nonprofit publisher that creates thoughtful Anabaptist resources to enrich faith in a complex world. To find out more, visit us online at MennoMedia.org.