San Jose: Civic and faith leaders unite with chief to address national police violence

By Robert Salonga | San Jose Mercury News | Link to Article

One by one, they sermonized about a week marred by two controversial police shootings and then the slayings of five Dallas police officers, tasked with protecting demonstrators protesting the earlier ones.

Around the same time, President Barack Obama was eulogizing the Dallas officers -- shot by a sniper purportedly seeking payback for police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in Louisiana and Minnesota -- and asserted the country was not as split as it might appear at the moment.

That idea of unity amid divisive times was on full display at an hourlong Tuesday morning gathering of San Jose's local faith and civic leaders who, along with the police chief, made it clear that the police-community tension and fears consuming the nation were being viscerally felt in the South Bay's capital city.

"I'm tired of watching people die. I'm tired of watching the videos. I'm tired of seeing the hashtags," said Jason Reynolds, pastor of the Emmanuel Baptist Church and member of the social justice group People Acting in Community Together. "I'm tired of wondering whose name will be the next hashtag."

Chandra Lopez-Brooks, an SEIU staff director and community activist, wore a T-shirt bearing a message that put a serious spin on a common slogan: "I Can't Keep Calm. I Have a Black Son."

"I can't keep calm ... because I have a black son I have to worry about every day when he's at school," Lopez-Brooks told the assembly of about 50 people. "I can't keep calm when my husband has to wear eyeglasses to a house because he works at AT&T so he doesn't intimidate the person at the front door."

But the frustration voiced at the African American Community Service Agency building outside downtown was not just part of a venting session, but instead a sweeping brainstorm on how to channel that frustration into useful dialogue and action.

"What happens anywhere happens here," Reynolds said. "So whether it's San Jose, whether it's Oakland, Morgan Hill, or whether it's Baton Rouge, Minneapolis or Dallas, it should touch us, and touch us enough not just to talk, not just to say some more words, but hopefully make some change."

Walter Wilson, AACSA board member, first sought to distance current social movements against police brutality from the acts of Dallas sniper Micah Johnson.

"The young man who ambushed those officers and civilians in Dallas, Texas, was in no way associated with the Black Lives Matter movement or the peaceful march that took place before his actions," Wilson said.

San Jose City Councilman Ash Kalra cautioned against the rhetorical pitfalls that have derailed other attempts to address how police and residents, both weary of being vilified, can find common ground.

"Everyone gets defensive," Kalra said. "It's not about saying this police officer is bad or this protester is bad. ... Those kinds of conversations absolutely minimize the work we need to do."

To Laurie Valdez, whose partner Antonio Lopez Guzman was fatally shot two years ago by San Jose State University police, the first step is for law enforcement to acknowledge the community's pain after a deadly encounter.

"We're the invisible part of the community," Valdez said. "Nobody ever wants to address or get into dialogue with us because it's too uncomfortable to hear the truth of what our families go through."

Police Chief Eddie Garcia, who gamely absorbed an array of police criticisms before addressing the group, agreed, saying, "It's about getting together and listening to difficult conversations such as this, where we take that because it's reality."

Garcia added that whether police believe the community fear is substantiated, its mere presence is something that his department has to address and offer reassurance. And while he acknowledged their concerns over four officer-involved shootings this year, including a fatal encounter last week, he alluded to new progressive training measures at SJPD. He said that in that same span, his officers responded to more than 2,000 emergency calls involving people with weapons that ended without serious injury.

"What's not discussed is the professionalism of my officers for every time they respond to a critical call and put their lives on the line, and it doesn't end in violence," he said. "We're not perfect by any means. ... The respect needs to be there both ways."

Lopez-Brooks sympathized with those efforts, and insisted that her feelings are not rooted in antagonizing police, but rather real concern for her family.

"We are not anti-police, we love the police. We want the police to protect us. We want to support them," she said. "But we want our people to stop being killed."