Gene Roebuck (left) of Grace UCC in Harlem, stands vigil near the Bronx doorway where Amadou Diallo was killed. © Rubin Tendai
Nerves were strained and emotions ran high, but the dozen black ministers gathered at police headquarters were hoping New York City Police Commissioner Howard Safir would offer an apology.
But when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani walked in, the ministers walked out. They weren't expecting the mayor. "We thought it was some kind of public relations ploy," says the Rev. Ron Winley, pastor of Church of the Evangel UCC in Brooklyn, N.Y.
"Safir called the meeting and we thought he wanted to apologize to Patrick Dorismond's mother for demonizing her son," says Winley. Dorismond, 26, was an unarmed black man killed by police in March.
Apologize for racial profiling
"We asked Safir to explain why he released Dorismond's sealed juvenile arrest record after his death," says Winley. "We also wanted him to apologize to the black community for racial profiling by police that has resulted in 170,000 ‘stop-and-frisk' in the past year with only 200 arrests."
The anger over the killing of Dorismond by undercover cops is not the only police shooting to spark protests by UCC ministers in New York City.
In February of last year, 22-year-old Amadou Diallo was in his doorway reaching for his wallet when police fired 41 bullets at him, hitting the unarmed African immigrant 19 times.
Outraged by this shooting, the Rev. Wendell Foster, pastor of Christ Church UCC and a city councilman, quickly drafted a resolution calling on the City Council to hold a hearing in the wake of the Diallo shooting.
Foster then called together ministers from UCC churches in the Bronx and drafted a second resolution, this one calling on top police officials to "root out from their ranks rogue police who do not respect the life of all persons and who engage in acts of brutality." Delegates to the UCC Metropolitan Association's annual meeting passed the resolution and forwarded it to the mayor and to the UCC's national offices.
‘Air of mean-spiritedness'
For many African Americans, including the Rev. Arthur Lawrence Cribbs Jr., pastor of Christian Fellowship Congregational UCC in San Diego, there is an "air of mean spiritedness" today that is reflected in a "get tough attitude aimed at people of color."
In response to police violence, Cribbs and five other UCC pastors in the UCC Partnership Churches of San Diego held a public forum at Mission Hills UCC in March to discuss police violence.
"We wanted to know how police are trained, because the violence seems to escalate when police arrive," says Cribbs. "The police need to de-escalate the violence when they move into a situation that is under control."
San Diego police have killed two unarmed men in the past year. One of them was Demetrius Dubose, a 28 year old black man and former member of the pro football Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who was killed last July. Dubose was shot seven times, mostly in the back. A mentally-ill homeless man holding a tree limb also was shot dead by police, who said they felt they were in danger.
Race ‘a particular problem'
"There is tension between the police and the wider community here," says Cribbs, "but there is a particular problem between police and the African-American, Latino and homeless communities."
The Partnership Church clergy feel they can not only be in the business of conducting funerals and requiems but also in the business of saving lives. Since the police and the people exist in the community together, says Cribbs, the ministers want to know, "How can we create a community where all lives are respected, protected and preserved?"
In an open letter to San Diego police officials, the clergy called for laws that protect the public when confronted by police, and an increase in the number of women and racial ethnic people on the police force.
Their concerns are echoed back in the Bronx, where the UCC's Wendell Foster believes black people are an endangered species under the present city administration.
"As a black person, I am more afraid of the police when I leave home then I am of muggers and drug pushers," he says.
The Rev. Rubin Tendai, pastor of Grace Congregational UCC in Harlem, has been participating in the UCC black clergy actions in New York City.