Rena Korb

Rena Korb

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.

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(14) comments

Dirk van Ulden

This begs the question: the next time we need assistance with a criminal activity, should we call Rena or Rory? Rena wrote the most bizarre column of the year and clearly did not have a chance to check with the SMPD before she made her ridiculous statements and arguments. And Rena, if the same young lady had asked me the question to kneel, she would have gotten a less pleasant answer. Why in the heck does she feel that her life value needs to be acknowledged by a silly white-shamed person? Doesn't she know who she is? What are her parents telling her?

Jeff Regan

What criminal activity? Why so fearful? You are on the wrong side of history.

Dirk van Ulden

Jeff - you mean to tell me that there is no criminal activity around here? Are you asleep?. Car break-ins, burglaries, occasional murders and drug offenses. Yes, I have her phone number and I am sure she will rush out and furnish a social worker who will tell me that I have everything because of white privilege until they come for her.The reason we are living in a peaceful environment is because of law and order, not because of some leftist lunatics like Rena. What side of history are you referring to??

craigwiesner

Thank you Rena for your leadership and writing. I was at City Hall and marched as far as 25th Avenue where I turned to get back to our shop. I wish I had gone to the police station. The thousands who showed up, listened at City Hall, and marched were a beautifully diverse group and it gave me hope to see so many young people, children, teens, 20-somethings - 80 year olds, joining together to demand change. Police officers across the country have joined with those who have come out to rally against injustice, locking arms with some, taking knees with others, showing that they too deplore the kind of violence that took George Floyd's life. Let's continue the dialogue with San Mateo's police and the county sheriff. And, let's work together to bring about reform so that in our community, in our town, we keep our citizens and first responders safe.

matthewhmcintyre

Than you Rena and Craig for the protester perspective. The not taking the knee (and other defensiveness) demonstrated that the police do not see themselves as accountable to the people. If I showed that attitude with my boss, it would a bad day at the office. If you are looking foe political next steps, please consider signing these petitions. ‪

https://sign.moveon.org/petitions/disband-the-gang-and-narcotics-task-forces-of-the-san-mateo-county-sheriff‬

https://sign.moveon.org/petitions/limit-san-mateo-county-state-of-emergency-and-curfew-ordinance-to-natural-disasters

Thomas Morgan

I consider the Mayor to be an extension of the Police Department, so him taking a knee also represents a knee taken by the Police.

Christopher Conway

I don't consider the Mayor an extension of the police and I definitely know the mayor doesn't speak for the police. Nice try.

JordanG

It's fine to have that opinion, but the Mayor is in no way an extension of the police department.

Thomas Morgan

Thanks, but perhaps your opinion is a bit dated. Speaking more broadly for all cities, the Mayors, Councils, City Mangers (appointed/hired by Mayor and Council), and Police Chiefs (hired by City Manager) should be held more accountable and receive criticism when Police Officers are out of line. Perhaps this is why things never seem to change. I am not trying to bash Police Officers, and I have the utmost respect, admiration, and do not take lightly the tremendous sacrifice they and their families make for the rest of us to feel safe.

Christopher Conway

I want to thank the San Mateo Police for not taking a knee. Police taking a knee is just capitulation to people who have never been victimized and have never had a situation with police. I am glad the protestors felt uncomfortable, they made the entire city of San Mateo uncomfortable and on pins and needles. Where do these people come from who protested, I could not be in less agreement than these three letter writers.

craigwiesner

"Where do these people come from who protested?" They came from San Mateo Mr Conway. As I stood at City Hall I recognized people I've seen all over San Mateo, many who are customers at our shop. They included colleagues with whom I work in the city and county.

"Police taking a knee is just capitulation to people who have never been victimized and have never had a situation with police." I couldn't disagree with you more. While I have had great interactions with San Mateo's Police Department, among the thousands of people who attended this gathering I can guarantee you there were many, who at some point in their lives, and been victimized by police somewhere. As a youth, I was continuously harassed by police in Nassau County, as I drove from my home in Queens across the border into the wealthier part of town. Delivering catering to rich folks, I constantly got pulled over, searched, dragged out of my car, because I came from the wrong side of the tracks. I never feared for my life the way my African-American brothers and sisters do, but I have enough friends who have described the terrible treatment they have endured at the hands of police, right here in the Bay Area and across the country, that I can understand the need to get out and speak out after another senseless killing rivets us and breaks our hearts.

Finally, when you say "they made the entire city of San Mateo uncomfortable and on pins and needles" you may be honestly saying how you felt, and how perhaps certain people in your life felt, but as a shopkeeper I can tell you that I have spoken with dozens of people since the gathering and march and everyone felt that, except for the very difficult time at the police station, the gathering was a good thing for San Mateo. I couldn't be more proud of the people who gathered in the thousands, AND, the beautiful people who stood along the route of the march handing out cold water and cheering us on.

Christopher Conway

Craig- maybe it is time to give the San Mateo Police a pass on those things that happened to you in New York. You live in San Mateo now. I spoke with many merchants in San Mateo who were inconvenienced, as if they didn't have enough to worry about from the closing of their businesses due to the pandemic.

Tafhdyd

A very thoughtful and complete reply to Mr. Conway. Too bad it will fall on deaf ears.

matthewhmcintyre

Full disclosure, I went from San Carlos, but I’m in the count sheriff’s jurisdiction, so I care about their presence.

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