Tribune Editorial: Reasons for optimism in a gloomy time

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Police Chief Mike Brown kneels down in silence along with the crowd for 9 minutes in memory of George Floyd, during a demonstration at the Public Safety Building, Wednesday, June 3, 2020.

A police chief who takes a knee.

A mayor who ends her curfew order days ahead of schedule.

A university that tweets out a welcome to a thousand peaceful marchers calling for justice.

A thousand peaceful marchers calling for justice. And, the next day, another thousand.

A governor who chokes up a bit when confronted with testimony of what it is really like to be a black person in Utah.

A senator who calls out the White House for violently clearing peaceful demonstrators from one of the most important public parks in the world so the president can walk unmolested — and uninvited — to an embarrassing photo op at a nearby church.

And a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who feels moved to issue an official memo reminding everyone under his command that they are sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States and protect the people of that nation. No matter what the president might say.

OK. Perhaps we are grasping at straws here. But after months of little news that wasn’t bad, and some that was worse, we should gather our optimistic moments while we may.

Last weekend in Salt Lake City started out kind of rough. A peaceful protest against the murder of an unarmed black man by a white police officer in Minnesota turned violent and tense when a police car was overturned and set afire, an oaf with a hunting bow threatened the demonstrators and large numbers of police officers, National Guard troopers and a helicopter materialized in a show of force that could just as easily have made things worse.

But it didn’t.

Over the next few days, both protesters and police reduced the heat and increased the light. Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown spoke with crowds of demonstrators, decried the violence perpetrated by some police officers, here and elsewhere, and joined the crowd in going to one knee in solidarity with their cause.

His boss, Mayor Erin Mendenhall, took the criticism of curfews that went through that weekend and were set to last several nights and, in view of improving circumstances, ended the restrictions days ahead of schedule. (OK. She had the ACLU on her case. Still, not every elected official has the nerve to change her policies just because the facts on the ground have changed.)

Demonstrations demanding racial justice in a mostly white city continued, grew and remained peaceful. Wednesday night a march of some 1,000 people from downtown to the University of Utah campus was impressive, peaceful, aided by police and welcomed by the university’s social media.

The next night, twice as many marchers paraded down State Street. It was not only peaceful, it was honored by Mendenhall and her Salt Lake County counterpart, Jenny Wilson, each on one knee.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert convened a meeting of people and groups who speak for Utah’s minority population, listened, wiped his eyes and promised to do better.

Utah Sen. Mitt Romney was a rare Republican who called out administration policies that treat peaceful protesters exercising their First Amendment rights as though they were enemies of the state.

And the nation’s top military officer, Gen. Mark Milley, put out a terse memo reminding every member of our armed forces that they serve the people and the Constitution, not (although he didn’t specifically say it) whoever happens to be the president at the moment.

There’s is still much to do. At the local and state levels, promises and tears won’t mean much unless we follow through on plans to raise awareness, weed out bad police officers and require more training for the rest.

Resources — i.e., money — might well be redirected away from police departments, but only if they are used to boost education, social services, housing and other things that also reduce crime and violence and ease the burden on law enforcement agencies so they face fewer explosive situations and can afford to be more choosy in the people hired to carry guns and badges and act in our name.

The question now, as it has always been, is whether we will do those things because they are the right thing to do, or let it all slide until the next outbreak of divisive violence demands our attention.