Robert Gehrke: Coming to terms with Utah’s racial divide will take leaders brave enough to follow

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Henry Kemp hugs a Salt Lake City Policeman at the Public Safety Building, during a demonstration, He went down the line hugging every policeman in the line. Monday, June 1, 2020.

It is a horrific act of sadistic callousness. It is also the latest in a disgracefully long list of black people, predominantly men, dying at the hands of police, those who are supposed to protect and serve.

The incomprehensible killing of George Floyd prompted protests across the country — as it and other similar deaths, like the killing of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, should.

Some of those protests turned violent, as was the case Saturday in Salt Lake City, when protesters smashed windows and overturned and burned a police cruiser.

Generally speaking, I don’t believe violence is an effective means of political expression. It drives away potential supporters, often harms disadvantaged neighborhoods, and shifts the focus from the issue that is the source of the outrage.

Robert Gehrke

But we also can’t dismiss the legitimate anger, particularly among black Americans, when every other effort has failed to stop the killing.

And we should recognize and praise those who tried to keep the peace, like when Kenny Akers stood in front of a 7-Eleven that had had its windows smashed out, the panicked clerk in tears in the door.

“Listen to me as a black man. This isn’t the answer,” he implored. “This isn’t it. This isn’t how we do it. Protest all you want. Protest all you want. Violence is not going to get us nowhere.”

Or Utah Black Lives Matter President Lex Scott, who was shown on video trying to stop a group from throwing rocks during Monday night’s protest, demanding things remain peaceful.

But perhaps no image was more powerful than the footage of a Salt Lake City police officer kneeling with protesters.

“I understand why they’re protesting,” that officer told FOX 13 afterward, saying he supports their cause. “We don’t want any violence. That’s the last thing we want to do. … We want to keep everything peaceful and if that means me taking a knee to make sure things stay peaceful, that’s what I”ll do.”

We saw similar scenes in several cities across the country. Some, I’m sure, will see the officer’s gesture as an act of weakness. But it’s the kind of courage we need right now — the courage to empathize and understand.

We’ve all seen the Martin Luther King quote in the past week: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” The remedy, then, is for the very legitimate grievances to be heard, because if Utahns think George Floyd’s killing is simply a Minneapolis problem, we’re lying to ourselves.

Despite some consequential efforts in the past few years to address some of the inequities, our justice system remains unjust for too many.

The group Mapping Police Violence reported recently that, although black people make up about 1.4% of Utah’s population, they account for 10% of the state’s victims of police killings in the past seven years.

Black and Latino people make up 30% of the population in jails and prisons, despite combining to make up just 15.6% of the state’s population.

There are steps that policymakers can and should take urgently.

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, told me Tuesday he is working on bills to adopt recommendations from the NAACP — limiting dangerous chokeholds, creating uniform guidelines on conflict escalation and easing restrictions on the release of an officer’s misconduct and disciplinary history.

“I was looking through what [the NAACP was] asking for and they’re asking for: Don’t do stuff that’s super-dangerous that is going to kill people,” Thatcher said.

There are other measures that Black Lives Matter has been working on for some time. For example, every city should have a civilian review board with meaningful power to investigate and discipline officers, because when police police themselves, it’s impossible to have faith in the outcomes. Last year, the Legislature severely limited the authority of the review boards, a move in the wrong direction that should be reversed.

Salt Lake City has been proactive on conflict de-escalation training and the deployment of body cameras, but more of both need to be done, including bias training, in departments statewide.

One more: Our justice system should look like the population it serves, both those in uniform and in the courts. How is it that in Utah’s entire history there has only been one black district court judge?

Beyond that, it’s time for policymakers to stop saying, “We understand your frustration and anger, but …”

You don’t. I don’t. We can’t.

We can’t comprehend that frustration because we haven’t lived it. Most of us in this state haven’t even lived near it.

As I mentioned before, 1.4% of Utah’s population is black. When I was growing up, through elementary and junior high, I think I went to school with a total of six black people. I suspect the same is true for many, if not most, of our policymakers. Most of them grew up at a time when the predominant faith denied black members full standing in its ranks.

But we’ve only seen real cultural shifts in this country when we can get past those differences and see one another as more alike than different. To get there, we need leaders (and people like me) to talk less and listen more and have the courage — like that police officer Monday — to empathize and be allies. (I’ll delve into this more in a future column).

As Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and others said over the weekend, we have an opportunity in this troubled time. It’s a chance for us to begin to understand and act toward our common goals.