The Ubuntu Project and the Need for a Progressive Shift in Policing

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Ubuntu is a term that originated with the Zulu people and roughly translates to “humanity” in English. The term emerged as a political concept following apartheid’s disintegration in South Africa. Now a collective of local community members, scholars, clergy, and elected officials have begun the work of making this progressive vision of humanity real for our city. One of Ubuntu’s most immediate goals is to make sure that the values of humanity are reflected in the current police reform process, especially as Champaign heads into a process of hiring new officers and selecting a new police chief.

Though Ubuntu originally formed in Champaign-Urbana following the police killing of Kiwane Carrington in 2009, the concurrent crises of 2020—the coronavirus pandemic and the global rebellions following the murder of George Floyd—transformed the organization. Initially, the group focused exclusively on once- or twice-monthly discussions related to African American political education. The Facebook page, The Ubuntu Project – Champaign-Urbana, houses recordings of the fifteen Facebook Live events they conducted on an array of topics, including reparations, Black liberation theology, Black and brown solidarity, Black youth politics, and many more.

As the nation has attempted to transition toward “normalcy,” there have been many untoward reminders of the difficulties it will face if the American people ignore the roots of past unrest—whether it be a reluctance on the federal level to investigate Congresspeople as potential accomplices in the January 6 insurrection, or local elected officials boldly proclaiming “Hitler was right” in reference to fascist indoctrination of youth. This moment is ripe with opportunities for substantial progressive change, if we as a people rise to the level of political maturity and organization to meet them. The Ubuntu Project intends to work for that.

Context

Two events in particular propelled Ubuntu this summer. First was the violent confrontation between Officer Chris Oberheim and Darion Marquise Lafayette in May, 2021, which resulted in the death of both. Second was the subsequent announcement of Chief Anthony Cobb’s resignation from the Champaign Police Department. These critical events led Ubuntu to determine the campaign that it would lead as a transition to in-person organizing: the transformation of law enforcement in Champaign.

Shortly thereafter, the Ubuntu Project issued a call for an “urgent community meeting” where participants were asked to “lend [their] voice” in a discussion of “search committee representation, humane public safety models, and improved community engagement.” It was held at Bethel AME Church in Champaign, and headed by Reverend Terrance L. Thomas, a member of Ubuntu. He linked the importance of the recent push to reimagine policing as part of a nearly decade-long struggle that began with the murder of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman.

“The city is at a crossroads and ripe for change,” Rev. Thomas stated. He also noted that the city council is comprised of several left-of-center or progressively minded members. At the same time, the organization is mindful of right-wing opposition from organizations like Blue Lives Matter pushing back, and toward the most draconian models of policing. This full context is always considered as the organization works to develop a stronger presence at city council meetings and works to deepen its relationship with the Black community.

Councilperson Davion Williams has stated his deep appreciation for the contributions the Ubuntu Project has made on Facebook, in the community, and at city meetings. Williams finds the name itself to be refreshing, in that it centers the recognition of “what it means to be humane, to be a human” in its advocacy. Furthermore, in a phone interview he mentioned that—though his desire is to focus on the message rather than the messenger at city council meetings, because different groups are uniquely impacted by the oppressive system we live within—his compassion has been met with right-wing cyber abuse via email and social media. Ubuntu’s civil discourse allows for him to take it in from a healthy perspective.

Williams shared his observation that the Black community is not represented well at city council meetings, and that he hopes to see some change in the turnout as this movement grows. A sad fact he acknowledged is the generational divide. In terms of elders, he remarked, if pastors are not promoting church participation in political events, then the congregants will not engage or attend. He saw youth as more pliable, and suggested open, small-group forums to include middle or high school students. In any event, “The one thing we can agree on is that we’re Black and there’s work to do.”

Growing with the Community

According to Rev. Thomas, the broader Black community is not quite sure of what to make of the Ubuntu Project’s work. There is not a tradition of “concise, organized activism” in Champaign and, he notes, “we [Ubuntu} are doing something different.” Because of that, he finds some critiques levied against the group valid, particularly those around effectively communicating its program. Ubuntu acknowledges the need to improve communication and has no intention of relinquishing its progressively grounded foundation. Instead, it is pivoting to grassroots movement-building tactics to overcome this. However, outside of advertisements and email updates, none of its work around policing is shared online.

Word of mouth and door-to-door canvassing are central to Ubuntu’s effort to build its base. These methods also allow for the development of interpersonal relationships and keep the focus on community needs. At the forefront of leadership’s mind, according to Rev. Thomas, is, “How do I explain this to Grandma?” One major difficulty is working on the transformation of policing in a community suffering from an uptick in gun violence. The group is mature enough to know these are two distinct issues, but not necessarily separate. The work to resolve this specific social schism remains ongoing, and Ubuntu plans to be part of it.

Many community members and local organizations have responded positively to Ubuntu’s efforts to form a coalition. Thomas Moore of the NAACP represents the best of the two organizations. He initially attended meetings as an individual and later stepped into the role of liaison between the two organizations. Others occupy similar roles in the Unitarian Church or the Party for Socialism and Liberation, among others. Moore has a high regard for Ubuntu. He says its democratic structure lends itself toward open collaboration, and reaches a wide audience as a result. These two points are important because they valuably “expand who is speaking on behalf of the African American community.” Given the contributions of Ubuntu to the community, he and the NAACP are excited to continue developing a relationship between the two organizations.

The First Step

The Ubuntu Project is rapidly working to bring the cutting edge of the movement to transform law enforcement to Champaign. Its combination of political education, sustained mass organizing meetings, and continued efforts to include all Black Champaign in the struggle to progress will help the whole of the city strengthen as the group expands. Its first intercity collaboration will be September 25 with Chicago-based Workers Center for Racial Justice. Connect with Ubuntu on Facebook for details.

Alex Horton is a scholar of African American Studies, Master’s student in Social Work at the University of Illinois, organizer with Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, and founding member of the Ubuntu Project.

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