Black and brown Americans are doing themselves a disservice by concentrating their social justice activism around animosity toward the police, according to long-time civil rights leader Rev. Markel Hutchins. Instead, these communities need to find ways to build a productive relationship with the police, turning “adversaries into allies,” he told The Epoch Times.
“In a lot of media accounts, and a lot of reports, and particularly on social media, the relationship between law enforcement and communities is often reduced to the law enforcement-involved tragedies that we see highlighted. But the truth of the matter is, the biggest strain between law enforcement and communities is around high violence,” he said.
“There’s so much violence and so much crime in urban cities and in urban communities that we are doing a significant disservice to those communities when we fail to articulate the real need for law enforcement and communities to collaborate beyond just the incidents that divide us.”
The charismatic Baptist pastor has spent most of his adult life as a civil rights activist. Prominently, his advocacy on behalf of Kathryn Johnston, a 92-year-old woman shot dead in 2006 in her Atlanta apartment by police, contributed to exposing the fraud and coverup in the case, which ultimately led to the sentencing of the officers involved and a broader corruption purge in the Atlanta Police Department.
In the late 2000s, however, Hutchins started to see that adversarial activism wasn’t enough to solve broader public safety issues in the black community.
“I began to see several years ago in the aftermath of some of the law enforcement-involved tragedies that have divided people that we’re going in the wrong direction when it came to how to actually address in a holistic way the challenges between law enforcement and communities,” he said.
In 2009, he started to organize churches to mediate conversations, relationship-building, and collaboration between inner-city communities and police.
“I really began to look at what kinds of things we could do to actually draw law enforcement and communities together for the purpose of seeing and accessing the humanity of one another and also causing communities to see the great need of collaborating with law enforcement. Because the truth is, for all the marching, all the protest, all the demonstrations, we just haven’t seen very much change,” he said. “The greatest need for change when it comes to policing in communities that are challenged by crime and violence is not change in policy and procedure, it’s change in relationship, it’s change in attitude, it’s change in collaboration.”
In 2016, he started an initiative called One Congregation One Precinct (OneCOP), which, to his surprise, law enforcement was largely open and responsive to.
“I’ve been marching and protesting my whole life. But when I extended my hand, as a national civil rights leader, to law enforcement, every single national law enforcement organization and the United States Department of Homeland Security and the Attorney General of the United States extended their hand right back,” he said.
What began with 100 pastors and 25 police chiefs in Atlanta has since grown into some 2,000 congregations across the nation.
“We can do this. There is a willingness in the law enforcement community because they recognize they cannot attract and retain talent and they also cannot drive down crime and violence without the help of communities.”
His nonprofit, MovementForward, has documented countless examples of police officers and residents changing their attitudes toward one another thanks to participation in OneCOP as well as the annual National Faith and Blue Weekend, another project of Hutchins’s.
In 2014, in the aftermath of the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, there emerged a new wave of activism around policing—the Black Lives Matter movement.
The movement was started by self-described Marxists whose advocacy was fueled by quasi-Marxist ideas such as critical race theory. According to the ideology, society is viewed through a racial lens where “whiteness” is seen as synonymous with “oppression.”
Hutchins saw such advocacy as divisive.
“When the Black Lives Matter mantra was born, again, I started to be very concerned because in this country we’ve never progressed around social justice issues when we segregated or separate ourselves one from another,” he said.
He considers himself a follower of civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., who, as Hutchins put it, saw “black and white together.”
In the worldview formed around ideas such as critical race theory, the entire institution of police, as well as the founding and prevailing principles of the country more broadly, are a product of “whiteness” and as such are automatically racist.
Hutchins described such a perspective as a dead end.
“The history of America and the history of social activism in America has always been plagued by those that thought that America was unsalvageable, that it was irredeemable,” he said. “And that’s simply not the view that I hold and that’s not the view that the majority of African Americans, Hispanic Americans, or anybody else holds.”
On the contrary, successful civil rights advocates have been able to make breakthroughs by building on the country’s founding ideals, he suggested.
“They did not give up on America because they sought to hold America to a higher standard, to live up to America’s highest ideals. That’s how we got the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act. That’s how we got to the places that we’ve gotten to,” he said.
“I do not believe that this nation is as divided or as racist as we are disconnected and ignorant to the realities of others.”
The influence of Black Lives Matter particularly expanded with the 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Some of the activists were calling for “defunding police”—reducing funding for police with the goal of ultimately eliminating police and even the prison system.
Hutchins surmised a side effect of the movement will be more crime in black and brown communities.
“I just knew that if we demonize law enforcement, if we bastardize them in a way that seems to be the kind of modus operandi of that Black Lives Matter, defund-the-police crowd, we would suffer consequences on the backside,” he said.
“And we have certainly seen that with the crime and violence that has increased in urban communities across this country over the last several years.”
Violent crime has increased significantly since 2020, particularly in big cities.
Over 2,000 people were murdered in Chicago in the 2020–2022 period, up 20 percent over the preceding three years.
That was accompanied by a 24 percent increase in Cleveland; 27 percent in Los Angeles; 28 percent in Dallas; 33 percent in Washington; 39 percent in Philadelphia; 41 percent in both New York City and Houston; 49 percent in Memphis; and 52 percent in Milwaukee.
“The reality is, for every one [unarmed] African-American man killed by law enforcement professional, we have a hundred or more African-American men who are killed in community-based violence,” Hutchins said.
“If we look holistically at the social justice needs, the equality needs, the number one social justice issue in America today is not police brutality, it’s community violence, it’s gun-based violence. So the community has a role to play to collaborate with law enforcement in reducing those tragedies just as viscerally, and I would argue even more so than law enforcement-involved tragedies.”
Hutchins said that building rapport between police and the people they’re there to protect not only helps reduce crime, but also police killings, especially the needless or criminal ones, such as the brutal killing of Tyre Nichols by police in Memphis, Tennessee, in January.
“What killed Tyre Nichols … was not flawed policy, not flawed procedure, and frankly it wasn’t flawed leadership. They have one of the best police chiefs in the country in Memphis,” Hutchins said.
“Their policy and procedures were violated by the officers that killed Tyre Nichols. The thing that was responsible for Tyre Nichols’s death was a lack of empathy and a lack of humanity by those officers that killed him.”
The case doesn’t lend itself to the common racial narrative as the officers were black, he said, suggesting that the problem was rather in the minds of the officers involved.
“What had happened to those officers, I believe, is their seeing so much carnage, so much death, so much doom, so much violence in the community there in Memphis, that they had become totally robbed of any sense of humanity that they might have.”
Even though the fundamental factors may have been culture as well as the specific context and trauma involved, it doesn’t absolve the officers of responsibility, he stressed.
“Absolutely those officers need to be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law, but there’s a degree of accountability that we as a community and we as community-based organizations have in that as well,” he said.
Hutchins is convinced that any fundamental opposition to police only comes from a minority, even among blacks.
“The notion that a lot of people are putting forward that somehow folks aren’t supportive of law enforcement is absolutely not true,” he said.
“Study after study has shown that even in black and brown communities, folks want the same or more law enforcement. There are very few communities that want less law enforcement.”
He suggested that the issue is not necessarily a partisan one, either.
“I am no conservative, I am no Republican. I’m a Democrat, I’m liberal, but I recognize that the essence of our work has got to be holistic. We can’t win by having three or four thousand people in a march and then lose because law enforcement will stop doing their job,” he said, arguing that “our interest should not be defeating our enemies or adversaries, but transforming those adversaries into allies.”
The problem, in his view, is that the anti-police minority draws excessive attention from the media, donors, and the corporate world.
“What is most sad to me is that the philanthropic community, the private foundations, the Zuckerbergs, the Soroses, the majority of the private foundations, as well as corporations have been dancing and playing to the vocal minority and not to the silent majority,” he said.
Conflict may simply be the preferable option for some.
“For a lot of these organizations and funders, war is a lot more profitable than peace,” he said.
There are also individuals and organizations that present themselves as civil rights activists, but in reality aren’t interested in solutions for the people on whose behalf they supposedly advocate, he said.
“They are profiteers off of the suffering of people who are victimized by police brutality and, on the flip side of that, they are profiteers off of the suffering of the law enforcement professionals that serve, by and large honorably, communities every day.”
He didn’t name names.
“I just wish and hope and look forward to the day when the philanthropic and corporate communities as well as the media figure out that the majority of American people are not supportive of the kind of division that we’ve seen,” he said. “They want to see unity and they want to see solutions.”
Hutchins noted that people want police to treat them “with fairness and justice and equity.”
He interprets “equity” as “equal opportunity, equal protection.”
“If there are certain protections and certain opportunities that are afforded to you then those should also be afforded to African Americans or any other person,” he said.
A police officer, for example, should be just as willing to let a black person go with a warning and no ticket as he is a white person.
He clarified that he doesn’t subscribe to the notion of “equity” in the form of special treatment for different groups—benefiting some and not others.
“You don’t perfect an injustice by perpetuating an injustice,” he said.
He acknowledged that his more conciliatory approach has earned him scorn from many of his former fellow activists.
“There are very famous, well-known civil rights leaders that I was friends with that I would talk to two or three times a day. And now we have no conversation,” he said, noting “there are a lot of folks” that don’t talk to him anymore.
“But I’m ok with that,” he said. “Because the truth of the matter is there were a lot of folks that didn’t talk to Dr. King, that said he was a sellout.”