*The following is an open letter directed at the Santa Clara Police Officer’s Association regarding their threat to boycott working as Levi Stadium security in response to Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest and his statements about Black oppression and police brutality. I understand this is a sensitive and emotional issue, however, my blog is a place for intelligent and productive discussion. I moderate all comments, and I will not approve comments to be published on this site that are hateful or vulgar in language.
I am not really big on sports. But I have been following the controversy around Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit during the national anthem as a form of protest very closely. As Kaepernick said in his own words, “To me, this is bigger than football.”
I am new to San Francisco. I’ve only been here for a month now, and I’m only going to be here for a month longer. But for the time being, I live here. I work here. And honestly? I love this city more than I will ever love New York City, even though I was born and raised in the Empire State. I would hope that, regardless of my opinions, the Bay Area’s police officers would protect me. And now I feel uncertain about that.
The Santa Clara Police Officer’s Association (SCPAO) sent a letter to the San Francisco 49ers threatening that their members may boycott working at Levi Stadium if “corrective action” is not implemented for Kaepernick’s statements made about the issue of racism in American police departments and the loss of Black lives at the hands of officers. I am glad that someone like Kaepernick is bringing this issue up in a way that forces so many millions of people who would rather just ignore this problem to think about it.
Our nation’s law enforcement and emergency personnel are sworn to protect. There is no fine print. It’s not, “protect everyone… except those you don’t like.” Officers are not required to work at Levi Stadium, and when they do they are paid as security personnel. An individual officer has the right to pass up working at the stadium. But the fact that one would do that because they disagree with the views of one person in that stadium is alarming and petty. There seem to be plenty of officers who would step up and fill the empty positions. But what if there weren’t? Apparently, there are members of our law enforcement who would be okay with leaving a stadium of thousands of people defenseless.
In the SCPOA letter, and a similar letter from the San Francisco Police Officer’s Association (SFPOA), Kaepernick was accused of generalizing members of law enforcement and dismissing the daily struggles that police have to deal with.
Kaepernick never said Officer So-And-So and Officer Such-And-Such were racists. He never said ALL police officers are racist. He never said police officers have it easy, or that their job isn’t dangerous. He just pointed out that a problem exists. Apparently this was too much for members of SCPOA, as they say in their letter: “Your employee further insulted all law enforcement officers in America by stating, ‘There is police brutality. People of color have been targeted by police.’” So, it’s insulting that Kaepernick pointed out something that has been proven to be true? Police brutality and racial profiling absolutely exist, and it’s not just a rare occurrence here and there. After lengthy investigations, police departments throughout the country have been found to have severe problems with systemic racism, including the San Francisco Police Department.
The SCPOA especially took issue with the following sentence that Kaepernick uttered to the media: “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
In the SCPOA letter, the sentence morphed, and became the following: “Your employee then insinuated that police officers are being placed on paid leave for murdering minorities,” and “Mr. Kaepernick again made the allegation that police officers are getting paid to murder people.”
No one is getting paid leave for killing a person of color. Kaepernick’s issue is that they’re getting paid leave despite having killed a person of color. You’ll notice Kaepernick used the word “and,” in his statement, not “for.” The SCPOA’s response to this sentence is overblown and entirely misses his point.
I agree with Kaepernick — it is deeply problematic that officers are on paid leave while under investigation for excessive force and even murder. Can you imagine a similar scenario happening in almost any other career field? When a school teacher comes under investigation for being sexually involved with a student, they lose their job before the verdict comes out. Same thing for a banker who is suspected of embezzlement, or a reporter who fabricated a story.
Police brutality and racism, both as separate entities and as an ugly tag-team, are issues that affect all of us. Across the county we are seeing police departments that are militarized and lacking in de-escalation tactics, resulting in fatalities when a better outcome could have been reached. And in terms of racism, the American spirit is to stand united despite our differences — if any group of people in this country are suffering because of who they are, we all have an obligation to stand up for them. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
I have seen the effects of this at my own college community back at home in New York. Last year, our campus was in turmoil as the community called out Ithaca College’s campus safety officers and administration for its biased behaviors and decisions, causing many students of color on campus to feel unsafe. As hard as many privileged people in our community may have tried, it was impossible to ignore the voices of over a thousand protesters on our campus. Our college president, Tom Rochon, has since announced his early “retirement,” along with a slew of other campus administrators.
At the time I was the assistant news editor at our student newspaper, The Ithacan. We did a couple of in-depth pieces on horrifying encounters between students of color and campus safety officers. As a white student, I was shocked to hear stories of my Black classmates being stopped on campus in the middle of the night by officers who called their status as students into question, even when they were wearing Ithaca College clothing. I have been out on the campus at all hours of the night. Like many college students, there have been plenty of nights where I just didn’t go to bed. Regardless of whether I had “Ithaca College” plastered on every thread of clothing or no mention of my affiliation at all, my status as a student has never been questioned by an officer, and I can’t imagine a day (or night) where it would be. The sad truth is, my white face, in many situations, keeps me from being seen as a threat.
This problem is real. It’s happening on campuses. In cities. Out on the countryside. On the East Coast. The West Coast. And all of this is causing the public to lose trust in those we depend upon to protect us. I know that police do good. I know there are officers who go above and beyond every day, who put their lives on the line for the greater good. But still, my trust in them is almost completely gone because the reality of our “justice” system is one in which Black boys are shot for wearing hoodies and carrying Skittles, women are interrogated about what they were wearing and how much they drank after being raped, and their rapists only get six month sentences and then are released early, while others are spending years in jail for having possessed marijuana.
One night a few weeks ago, a Black man was pulled over on a bicycle just behind where my van was parked in Berkeley. He had apparently tried to run from the officers. My heart in my throat, I stayed awake and watched the whole interaction through a slit in my window blinds and listened closely to the conversation going on between the man and the officers. I was painfully aware that I might be the only witness who could stand up for this man in court if the situation escalated and he ended up dead. I was relieved when the officers eventually let him go after searching his person and his backpack.
Any officers who choose to participate in a boycott of defending Levi Stadium are proving all the things they hate about Kaepernick’s opinion right. They are proving that there is indeed a limit to who they are willing to protect. They are giving the public more reasons to be distrustful, skeptical, and uncomfortable around law enforcement. In a time when we need them to step up, they are instead turning their backs on us.
Thankfully, Michael Sellers, chief of the Santa Clara Police Department, has called for his officers to put citizen safety first. While Sellers also expressed disappointment in Kaepernick’s choices and words, he affirmed that the police need to do their duty anyway. “As distasteful as [Kaepernick’s] actions are, these actions are protected by the Constitution. Police officers are here to protect the rights of every person, even if we disagree with their position. Police officers have sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution.”
Imagine that: someone respectfully disagreeing, and then moving on. I hope members of SCPOA will heed their chief’s words.
I want to close this letter by saying I am sick to death of the idea so many people seem to have that if you stand with Black Lives Matter, then you are also anti-cop. This idea is ridiculous. Social justice activists want everyone to be safe, including officers, in the same way feminists want equality for all, including men. We want measures to be put in place to prevent racism and other forms of discrimination from influencing the actions of those who should be protecting us. We also want to see all of our men and women who are in service for the general public come home safe to their families each day.
Absolutely no one deserves to lose their loved ones to a premature, preventable tragedy, whether they had black skin or a blue uniform.
Thank you for reading. A shortened version of this letter was published in The Ithacan on Sept. 7, 2016. You can read that version here.