• Councilwoman Lee

The right question: What is safety?

On Wednesday, I left the Black Lives Matter protest feeling really proud of our young people and our City. With over 2,000 people, it was the largest protest I've seen in San Mateo in my 11 years here. As a council member, it was powerful to hear the messages from our speakers reverberating at City Hall with the American and Pride flags flying above.


I had been working with the youth organizers of Coalition Z to make sure the event was centered on collaboration with our black organizations and leaders. I introduced the young leaders to the NAACP President, Rev. Lorrie Owens and Executive Board member Alexis Lewis, former Mayor Claire Mack, and our current School Board Trustee Shara Watkins, who all joined the program as speakers. I closely followed the coordination between our Police Department and the organizers. This involved constant communication and logistical support as the event gained momentum along with the threat of outside agitators coming in to instigate violence and destruction.


From behind the flag pole, I squeezed Claire Mack's shoulder and we reveled in the sea of faces and home-made protest signs, joining the crowd to cheer and shake our fists. At the top of the event, our Police Chief Ed Barberini and Mayor Joe Goethals unequivocally denounced the heinous acts of the four officers who killed George Floyd and affirmed their commitment to improve our organization and community policing strategies. They pledged to continue our community dialogue which had only just begun with the Virtual Town Hall that drew 500 participants. When one of our youth gave an impassioned speech and was overwhelmed with emotion our officer comforted her and gave her respite in City Hall. I went home after the speeches, feeling deeply moved and in awe of all the ways that this had gone right, feeling hopeful.


The next morning I woke up with messages that something went "wrong" and the night ended with our County Sheriff's officers in riot gear defending the police station. What happened? Did the protestors exercise their right to free speech and assembly? Yes. Were there shots fired? No. Arrests, citations? No. Injuries? No. Damaged property? No. So what went wrong? I reached out to our Chief and City Manager, youth organizers, and multiple protestors - all ages and all races - to better understand.


I believe every person that I spoke with, and have no reason to doubt or question the validity of their experiences or opinions. The police response made some protestors feel less safe and undid the goodwill that had been built. Many expressed disappointment about the show of force which was an unwarranted scare tactic that was deeply disturbing and traumatizing. The display of aggression was intimidating and a violation of trust that deserved acknowledgement and reparations. Others who felt the tension and discomfort of the moment agreed that if something was going to pop-off it would have happened at that moment, but they left the protest feeling like it was a good first step.


One of our officers, a friend and angel in our community, took a knee with grace as she was verbally assaulted, called a "race traitor" and "sell-out" by a group of protestors. She recalled it was the proudest moment of her career in law enforcement. She said it was "God's work" to witness and hold the protestors' anger and pain; it was hard to take, but at the end of the night she hugged every one of them and felt that she did something positive to heal the community. Ironically, many of the protestors expressed disappointment and anger that "only __ number" of officers took a knee, which was seen as a failure and missed opportunity. Some scoffed at the officers and mayor who knelt calling it empty symbolism, a photo-op to appease the masses.


The police must do their job to protect public safety. I've read all three statements from our police, which reiterates that the response was standard tactical procedure that was triggered by an increased level of threat to life and property. Our San Mateo police successfully deterred outside agitators from vandalizing and looting the mall, stopping 101, and an attempted breech of the police station. The destruction and ransacking of businesses does nothing to fix our problems, it erodes our community institutions and businesses. Too often when protests go bad it disproportionately harms immigrant, Asian and Latino communities and businesses. All of our retailers and restaurants in San Mateo are hanging by a thread during COVID-19 - they deserve protection too.


A show of force is not the same as use of force. Carrying a baton isn't the same as using it, but the presence and posturing of aggression by our police is painful to members of our community. It cuts deeper wounds. Claire Mack used the word "schizophrenic" to describe the relationship black folks have to police. Speaker Jonathan Madison reminded us that this is not just about the 8 minutes it took to murder George Floyd, an unarmed and handcuffed black man. It’s about the "original sin of our country which is slavery" and the insidiousness of racism, hate and violence which has infiltrated institutions that exist to protect and serve our communities.


Feelings, words and actions all matter. The question is: Could our police have achieved the same outcome without making the peaceful protestors feel threatened and unsafe? Councilmember Papan said it so concisely and eloquently, "Peace was displayed with great enormity. It should have been displayed in return. No resident should feel this way. We could have done better." 


Yes we must do better to protect the safety, security and trust that bonds our community and institutions. This is an important moment in history for all of us to show up and ask ourselves and each other: What is safety? It's playing in parks, playgrounds, and ball fields; letting my kids walk to a well-resourced school; pushing a stroller on a crosswalk; holding a protest sign and chanting freely and peacefully; having a job that allows me to live with dignity; running a business and not having to board up the storefront for fear of looting and vandalism; sleeping in my bed without rocks smashing our window; being able to trust our police to protect me, my family and my neighbors who don't look like me.


I believe we have the right leadership in place to engage in this conversation with the community and redefine what a peaceful and compassionate approach to community policing looks like in San Mateo. Our Police Chief and Police Officers Association said there is "no tolerance for those who tarnish the badge" and "we must respond to criminal actions with justice, show compassion for those who need guidance, and meet opposition with empathy." As your city councilwoman, I am committed to weeding out bad actors and holding officers accountable, and will work to continually improve our vetting, training, organizational structures and protocols to advance criminal justice reform.


I've gone to great lengths to try to hear and understand all of these perspectives -contradictory, complex, and each legitimate. During this time I went quiet on social media, needing to take off my council hat and fully inhabit my responsibility to my family and children in the aftermath of the attack on our home. It is unfair to ask for patience, we do not deserve patience, especially from black folks. It will never come fast enough because it is long overdue. I don't have the answers, but I'm asking the questions and committed to listening, learning, working together to heal our community through policy, system change and collective action to ensure that our City is doing the work of justice and protecting the rights of all people.

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