On June 3, thousands gathered at San Mateo City Hall for a Black Lives Matter protest. The crowd marched peacefully through the city streets to the police station. The plan was simple. The protesters would take a knee. The police would take a knee. We would all go home.
But that’s not how it worked out.
As we know from reporting on Saturday — though not included in initial accounts of the protest — a “supplemental group of officers” arrived at the scene in full riot gear, with batons, zip-tie handcuffs and carrying what seemed to be rubber bullet guns and a tear gas launcher. For the days immediately following the protest, newspapers only described the rally as peaceful and successful.
Both sides had a plan. The protesters expected to see police take a knee. The crowds chanted and people shouted that they would go home as soon as even one officer took a knee, but the police remained upright. A group of young black women tried to engage the officers, asking for solidarity. One explained if he took a knee, she would know that her life mattered to him. He responded he was too busy trying to protect her and didn’t have time to kneel. She turned away in tears. The crowd grew agitated.
The police had a plan too, but, as real life intruded, their actions made matters worse. They clearly underestimated how the protesters would respond to their refusal to take a knee. Did they look out at the sea of people chanting, “No justice, no peace, no racist police” and feel the situation was about to blow? Did they make the decision to call in officers in riot gear even though that risked escalating the protest into exactly what they were trying to avoid? As one of us later said: “A single tossed bottle would have lit a fuse.”
Despite everyone’s good intentions and efforts, there was an excessive show of force that frightened many people. By the end, many protesters left feeling disappointed, or worse, hoodwinked. The threat of confrontation highlights the fragility of the relationship between police and public and underscores that dealing with events like these — and the underlying conditions of bias and discrimination — requires deeper thinking and thoughtful preparation.
What are the takeaways? First, excessive shows of force should not be standard operating procedure. In light of the videos of everyday police violence, it is paramount law enforcement understand that implementing riot gear and aggressive behavior can have deleterious effects. Excessive force can turn a positive experience negative, damaging relationships between police and the public, and escalate conflict so it becomes violent or deadly.
Second, the police need to stop seeing danger where it does not exist. Their own media release acknowledged “the crowd threw a couple of curveballs,” but we would argue the police should have anticipated curveballs and had a better solution. This incident exposes a disconnect between how the police and public view events. The police need to find its way out of the cycle of distrust before the next protest.
Third, we require a more unified voice from our city. The mayor took a knee but the police would not. When protesters asked him to intervene, the mayor said it’s their choice, underscoring a lack of cohesion among the key players. The protests showed that the mayor and police chief did not speak the same metaphorical language. This disconnect erodes the public trust, most particularly among people of color who already have little reason to put their faith in law enforcement and authority figures.
Fourth, we need city leaders to listen and learn. To several of us, the armed police officers in front of the station appeared far from serious, even taking pictures of the crowd. One of us felt a “chilling divide” between protesters and police. Another reported hearing young black women around her say,“This whole thing is bull—.”
Twenty-four hours after the protest, the police department sent out a press release: “It is often difficult from any one perspective to know how well any such event is perceived by others. We appreciate the calls, emails and social media posts providing us with a broad range of perspectives from which we can debrief, learn, reflect and improve. [emphasis added]” San Mateo police claim they want to make life better for residents. We must remind them of this promise every single day.
Rena Korb is a professional freelance writer and a volunteer political activist. She lives in San Mateo with her husband and twins. Angela Stevenson left her Ph.D. in ecological genetics at Cornell University to stay home in San Mateo with her three daughters. Craig Janis, of Cupertino, is an attorney turned entrepreneur who now works in tech. Pat Pennel, of Palo Alto, was born and raised on the Peninsula before serving in the Marine Corps. He now works in the tech industry. Jeremiah Degenhardt, of San Mateo, holds a Ph.D. in computational biology and bioinformatics from Cornell University and currently works in a Bay Area biotech.