Tonight on the way home from an event in San Francisco, 101 slowed down to a stop right around University Avenue (named for Stanford University, in case you’re not familiar with the area).
That in itself is not a noteworthy event — life is booming here these days, and traffic slows & stops all the time.
But this time was unusual: it was stopped because maybe 200 protesters were on the freeway, chanting “Don’t shoot”, “I can’t breathe”, “Let go” and other similar things, protesting the decision of the Grand Jury not to indict the police officer in the Eric Garner case, and coming so soon after a painfully similar decision in Ferguson.
Traffic was stopped for 10 minutes or more — people got ticked off and honked. We just watched and listened. For the record: I wasn’t unhappy at all to be stuck; I was just trying to watch and understand. And I think, for whatever it’s worth, that the protesters have a point: our system is not working.
It’s a little surprising to me that this happened on 101, but not all that surprising — weird things happen all the time in Silicon Valley, and Palo Alto is a university town, after all.
But here’s what did surprise me: I felt not at all comforted by the arrival of the 8–10 police cars that came. I saw the officers get out of marked & unmarked cars with batons drawn. Putting on bulletproof vests. Holstering their guns at the ready. I felt, viscerally, for one of the first times in my life, that I didn’t really think that these officers were on the same side as we were. I didn’t feel that they understood the situation and how to appropriately respond.
Because look: at the end of the day, this was, very obviously, a mildly frustrating but exceedingly peaceful protest. There was nothing resembling violence of any sort. It was a group of people who don’t feel like their voices, like the voices of so many underrepresented in our country, are heard. And they wanted people to notice.
For the record, I never felt unsafe. Or even really inconvenienced. And I don’t think the Palo Alto police acted in any inappropriate ways at all.
But when you see a couple of dozen cops arrive, armed, to deal with an obviously peaceful protest, well we as a country have obviously lost the plot. When we start arming ourselves against our own citizens as a routine matter, things are pretty goddamned broken.
And I felt that way as a pure bystander, with no fear at all. I can’t imagine how I would have felt if I were protesting. Or black. Or Latino.
For me, and for most of us driving on 101 tonight, 15 minutes lost on our way home from working.
But for those without voices, and for all of us over the long haul, we have to figure out how to reverse this. To get back to when peace officers really, truly took care of those who couldn’t take care of themselves.
We can’t keep going this direction.