Nearly a year ago and 2,000 miles from Minneapolis, the largest crowd ever overflowed Courthouse Square in Redwood City to join the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement and the dialogue over police, the community and race relations.
The question then was whether this was a movement or a moment.
Tucker Carlson, the pompous jackass allowed to bloviate every night on TV, said, characteristically unencumbered by fact, that the jury in the Derek Chauvin case was intimidated into guilty verdicts by the threat of violent protests.
It does seem fair to say that the protests — the energized focus on police reform and the newly broadened understanding of widely varying realities when it comes to the American experience — changed the social dynamic in which the jury operated. It does seem fair to say the protests provided a new context in which the Chauvin verdict was possible.
Those of us who have spent an extended time around courthouses — I’m thinking, in particular of my old friend and colleague Duane Sandul — would have seen this as a slam-dunk conviction, or dead-bang in the parlance of the venue. That should have been the easy expectation, which, as we know, was colored by widespread apprehension.
But there were many critical things that occurred in this trial that we never would have seen the decades ago when Duane and I were working at the Redwood City courthouse.
There would have been no video — neither body cams nor bystander cellphones nor nearby security cameras. In other words, no objective evidence — just the word of the cops versus the word of witnesses and bystanders. Up to now, the public, in the form of jurors, were inclined to believe police in the absence of any other evidence. Does this mean that dynamic has changed? Probably not. At least, not quickly.
Perhaps more significantly, we never would have seen a parade of police officials testifying against another cop. If in some neighborhoods the principal code is no snitching, it is a standard long observed and honored, if not modeled, within police departments. Cover-ups may not have been common, but they were not outside our experience.
Many police officers would say, with some measure of fairness, that no one can fully understand the circumstances in which they operate. Let’s take that as a given. And, undoubtedly, some cops are feeling now that they have fallen unfairly out of favor. Consider, for example, how people felt about cops and firefighters after 9/11.
A longtime friend, John Francis Quinlan, a retired captain from the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, posted on Facebook a series of U.S. Department of Justice statistics that demonstrate the almost minuscule likelihood of being shot by a police officer. Indeed, most of the cops I have known, go their entire careers without even drawing their sidearm.
“The numbers matter and show the real scope of the issue. Let’s start there when we are talking about reforming law enforcement or defunding the police,” his post concluded. But as we talked this over on the phone the other day, John, who rose in rank as the Sheriff’s Office, under the leadership of Don Horsley, evolved from a “cowboy” department to a high level of professionalism, demonstrated what many of us had known about him — that he was part of the new standard that would not tolerate old habits and biases.
At this moment in the flow of news, why write about how police might feel misunderstood, particularly in an environment in which we are only beginning to fully understand how some people are treated and mistreated consistently?
Well, as Pogo famously said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Put another way, this is not going to be easy. Or smooth. And it might require of us something we have yet to demonstrate we are prepared to deliver.
While we live in a time that cries out for more and deeper understanding, it is tempting to meet misunderstanding with misunderstanding, to argue against the other person’s reality. Clearly, a sustaining theme of the Black Lives Matter movement has been that we need to understand each other better and acknowledge someone else’s reality might not be mine and is likely to be beyond my own experience.
As broadly satisfying as the guilty verdicts were, the nation continues on a political spiral of disagreement and division and we seem to be sinking deeper into misunderstanding marked by certainty of what we think we know.
But a day of guilty verdicts invites hope. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Mark Simon is a veteran journalist, whose career included 15 years as an executive at SamTrans and Caltrain. He can be reached at email@example.com.