Pastor Mike: “We’re living in the apocalypse. The only light I see is that it’s a very divisive time but there are also unifying moments.” Photo: Courtesy Michael McBride

Pastor Michael McBride (known as “Pastor Mike”) founded The Way Christian Center in Berkeley, where he serves as the lead pastor. He is the director for the LIVE FREE Campaign with Faith in Action, a campaign led by hundreds of faith congregations throughout the United States committed to addressing gun violence and mass incarceration of young people of color, and a co-founder of Community Justice Reform Coalition and the National Black Brown Gun Violence Prevention. Known nationally as a faith leader and activist, he has taken part in many uprisings, including the Ferguson unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and the 2017 political clashes in Berkeley.

Berkeleyside spoke with McBride on Thursday about the significance of this moment: a civil rights uprising coming on top of a global public health crisis. We asked him how he is feeling, what he sees as Berkeley’s shortcomings and the record of its police department. We discussed what the community can do now to make a difference. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

These are exceedingly difficult times. How are you feeling about everything?

We’re living in the apocalypse. The only light I see is that it’s a very divisive time but there are also unifying moments. My understanding is that all 50 states had protests relating to George Floyd — and they happened in countries across the world. This is helping raise awareness of the oppression of Black people, as well as women and trans people and others who suffer.

It’s heartening to hear you say that, but do you think it will lead to significant change?

It’s still early. I can’t suggest that for sure but I do think it’s undeniable that we have a particular consensus that the brutality of policing and law enforcement is reaching a breaking point in the social consciousness, and it’s our role as organizers and loved ones to keep making that a reality for everyone.

How is your congregation doing?

Our congregation has certainly struggled to come to grips with the weight of the pandemic — the original crisis. A lot of our folks who have been sheltering in place have been feeling the economic instability of that. Folks have had family members get sick and some have died. I think that crisis in and of itself had put us in a place of mourning, a place of reflection, a place of what we call theodicy — struggling with the age-old question of why does God allow evil and bad things to happen to “good people.”

“When these things happen, our ancestors our literally crying out to us because this is a part of what it means to be Black in America.”

And then when this happened it expanded our moments of grief and loss to a level of outrage. The coronavirus is an invisible threat to our livelihood, but police brutality is a very present, consistent threat to our livelihood, and it is historical and it is generational, and I don’t think most people understand that. This trauma related to police brutality is woven within the genetic code of black people. And so many people don’t appreciate that when these things happen, our ancestors are literally crying out to us because this is a part of what it means to be Black in America.

Our congregation continues to wrestle with that. And because our congregation is multiracial — white, Black and Latino — it is also wrestling with how is it playing out in other communities and how to hold that space while attending to the particular needs of Black people which is ever-present. 

There haven’t been any major protests in Berkeley to date. Is that significant?

We all go to where the problems are most intense. Also, until recently, people did not find the borders to be so hard. If you lived in West Berkeley or South Berkeley or North Oakland, you were part of the same community. That shared regional pain persists and people respond when it hits their community the hardest.

Obviously, because of gentrification and the political failures of Berkeley to maintain the ability for Black communities to thrive and remain stable, people have moved to other parts of the Bay Area where it’s cheaper to live. But when problems happen in Berkeley — for example when the Proud Boys and white supremacists came to Berkeley, a lot of the folks from Oakland came to support us. Thousands of people marching through the streets of Berkeley and a large chunk of them were from Berkeley. But a lot of the support we needed to pull that off without violence and infiltrators we relied on our loved ones from Oakland. 

People go to Oakland because it is the largest and most well-known of our local cities and, historically, has had the most pronounced instances of police brutality. It becomes a meeting place. 

Berkeley has to continue to ensure that its practices are seriously being explored persistently, that they are not taken for granted or exempt from all these conversations.  

Pastor Mike, center, marches in Berkeley as part of an interfaith demonstration in summer 2017. Photo: Courtesy Michael McBride

You mentioned the political failures of Berkeley. Can you expand on that?

I don’t believe gentrification does not have a political solution. Real estate developers must be incentivized, if not forced, to not drive people out of our communities. I know this is a market-driven country and capitalism extends far beyond one city, but as someone who sat on the Berkeley Housing Authority for at least one term, it was very obvious that there were political interests, guided mostly by [former Berkeley mayor] Tom Bates and the real estate community, that were designed to phase out public housing and not allow vouchers to stay in Berkeley. All of these things make it very difficult for families to at least have a start in this community.

“I am not necessarily someone who believes that progressives are good for Black people.”

And then the real estate community refused to take FHA [Federal Housing Administration] loans which made it exceedingly difficult for families to get homes in Berkeley.

These are choices that are made, choices that are sustained, by so-called progressives. And that is why I am not necessarily someone who believes that progressives are good for Black people. I know for sure Republicans aren’t. But they still have to figure out how to govern progressively and not just talk about progressive values. [Pastor Mike addressed his concerns about moderates who support Black Lives Matter but are uncomfortable with “the messy implications of fighting for liberation,” in a September 2017 New York Times op-ed.]    

What’s your view of the Berkeley Police Department? It has a reputation for being better than some other forces on issues of race, de-escalation and so on. Do you see that? Is there room for improvement?

Anyone who thinks police departments have no room for improvement is not being honest with themselves. The Berkeley police appear to be at the front of lots of the reform efforts that are happening across the country, but Berkeley still has a racial profiling problem. If you speak to Black community leaders and youth  in Berkeley they still feel there are police officers who abuse their authority and find ways to dehumanize people — they can’t imagine that someone who was involved in criminal activity has outgrown that stage of their life. 

So, no one I know in Berkeley who is Black is excited to see Berkeley police coming their way. I’m not and I’m not a criminal. But there’s just a reality of the way law enforcement relates to Black people and we just have to continue to  insist that is not the way we want our relationship with public safety systems to be.

What is your take on curfews? Are they effective or detrimental?

I’m not one to subscribe to curfews because I think they are usually stepping on the rights of our freedom of movement. There is a larger political context to this which is that Trump is an authoritarian and autocratic leader — or at least is very susceptible to the authoritarian and autocratic sensibilities in his cabinet. We then must appreciate that to enact curfews in this moment, given the national political context, is a double whammy on those of us who are attempting, at this moment — this seminal moment for Black people’s lives and the battle for the country’s soul. We have to reject [curfews] and say we are going to figure out a different way to respond to this. And shame on Nate Miley [Miley represents District 4 on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors which includes parts of Oakland, Castro Valley and Pleasanton] for supporting and affirming this curfew, and shame on the [Alameda County] sheriff for making the claims that all five supervisors were consulted [about curfews]. Shame on them. That is an example of them peddling the water of Donald Trump-like sensibilities in the Bay Area.

“We need leaders who can stand up in this historical moment and say ‘no.’ And if they can’t do it, they should resign.”

We need leaders who can stand up in this historical moment and say ‘no.’ And if they can’t do it, they don’t have the imagination, the strength, the courage to do it, the integrity — they should resign and let more progressive, progressive-leaning people step into their roles to ensure that Black people’s lives are not trivialized.

A false dichotomy was raised around the concerns about looting, the concern for buildings.  What about the concerns for our minds, what about the concerns for our hearts, the concerns for our humanity? This felt like it was attempting to quash violence that was triggered by the violence of the police department.

So what are they willing to do? If the sheriff had stood up and said, “I recognize my department has terrible, documented challenges in our jails and I realize that our sheriffs have documented challenges in our use of force. So I am willing to say that we will go through a department-wide commitment to fire all racist cops in the sheriff’s department. I’m willing to scrub all social media of my sheriffs to make sure none of them are affiliated with white supremacist groups, the Proud Boys, with alt-rightists, with neo-Nazis. I’m willing to make a commitment that we won’t hire anyone with those affiliations.” If he stood up and said that, and asked people to please help us, then maybe the protests would have subsided, we’d have something to cheer on.

What meaningful actions can people take now in Berkeley?

You can keep protesting, but know that not all protests mean being in the streets. So if you feel compelled to go to the streets, join protests led by black people, people of color. Don’t join protests led by politicians and wealthy, influential people disconnected from the pain. Follow Black leadership. Follow the leaders of color who are literally waking up every day thinking about how to address these things. So that would be the first thing: stay involved.

If you don’t go out to the protests, protest by calling your elected officials and ask them  to make the pledge to “Bring the Heat.” We want sheriffs and public prosecutors to make a public pledge that if you are a racist you can’t be a cop, therefore we must fire all racist cops. Fire police officers that have connections and affiliations with white supremacists, scrub all their social media profiles, their text messages, their emails,  their lockers. Look at the tattoos on their bodies — any affiliations with these kinds of forces, disqualify you from being a police officer. They don’t disqualify you from being a citizen. They don’t disqualify you from being a human being. It just means you do not have the privilege to be in the communities representing the state, and the ability to use a gun to take someone’s life if you are affiliated with a group that literally believes that Black lives, immigrant lives, Muslim lives are of less value than white lives. 

So I think that if we have more white folks who are willing to make that pledge with us in the public square and demand for this to be part of every single community’s basic standards for how we reimagine the 21st century profession of policing and the public safety system, then I think this whole conversation could have legs for a long long time.

And then I would say donate, donate to organizations and groups that are fighting for this cause. Because of the budget deficits that are coming, because of COVID-19, many community-based organizations are going to have a very hard time sustaining themselves. And so if you can donate $10 or $20 a month to some groups so they can keep their lights on and provide essential services to communities hardest hit by these challenges that would be a great blessing. 

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...