HANALEI, Kauai — For Rod Green, the decision to protest systemic racism in solidarity with the killing of George Floyd in front of Kauai’s historic County Building on Saturday was complicated.
Green is a black man. He’s also a Kauai police officer.
There was a tug-of-war in his mind: Would the protesters’ rhetoric focus on equality and justice — a message Green could get behind — or would people instead want to lambaste the police — all police. Even the good guys.
“There’s a picture that seems to be constantly painted and a narrative that seems to be always told when you only talk about a white officer and an unarmed black man,” Green said. “But it’s insensitive to paint an entire community one way just as it’s insensitive to paint all police officers with the same broad brushstroke.”
Police officers nationwide are dealing with intense animosity and calls for closer scrutiny following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed by white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
Recorded on cell phones and disseminated across the internet for the world to see, the killing has set off an eruption of protests in the U.S. and worldwide.
Many have been peaceful rallies for change in a broken criminal justice system. But in some cases the violent death of Floyd has fomented even more violence, with street protests erupting into chaos.
Hawaii has been immune to the looting of businesses, torching of police vehicles and physical assaults on police officers as seen on some U.S. streets. There were no arrests or reported incidents related to protests by thousands of people across Hawaii on Saturday.
Only about 3.8% of Hawaii’s population is part African American or black, compared to 12.7% nationally.
A few days before Kauai’s large but peaceful protest in Lihue Saturday, Green drove by a smaller demonstration to inconspicuously suss out the mood.
The sentiment, he decided, was thoroughly pro-equality.
“I’m looking at white citizens, and a couple of locals, holding up signs that say, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ and it touched me from the perspective of they are not even experiencing what black people experience and they’re still putting themselves out there,” Green said.
It was settled, then. Green, the captain who supervises the Kauai Police Department’s patrol division, would participate in the big Saturday demonstration.
“I just feel like it’s only right for me to show my appreciation that people even have the courage to not be black and say that black lives matter,” Green said.
“There are debates about, well, maybe people should say, ‘All lives matter.’ Of course all lives matter. Everyone understands that. But the problem historically has been that certain segments of our society have been disenfranchised and when it’s time for them to speak up about it, it shouldn’t be marginalized.”
Kauai Police Chief Todd Raybuck said the two weeks since Floyd’s death have been an emotional rollercoaster for him and his officers.
Repulsion over the events in Minneapolis. Heartfelt camaraderie with peaceful demonstrators. Devastation over violent riots.
Raybuck, who previously served for nearly 27 years with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, said he knew Shay Mikalonis, the officer who was shot in the head by a protester in front of the Circus Circus Hotel and Casino on the Vegas Strip last week.
The reality that his friend is fighting for his life as a result of outrage over the actions of a bad police officer in another city has been a difficult psychological blow, he said.
“I try to remember that the uniform I wear and the badge I wear, that’s not Todd,” Raybuck said. “It doesn’t represent me. It represents every man and woman in America that wears that uniform.
“And when one individual goes out and does an act of heroism, we recognize that person as a hero and we thank the police for what they do. The same is true when one person goes out and makes a heinous act of inhumanity. When one of us does that, people look and point the finger at all of us.”
Raybuck said he’s been meeting with his officers and new recruits in recent days to foster candid conversations about what’s happening across the nation in response to Floyd’s brutal treatment by a police officer, and the lives of other black Americans cut violently short.
He tells his officers to turn off the TV news. Stop listening to the narrative that says “all cops are this” or “all cops are that.”
“What people are saying because of the events that happened in Minneapolis isn’t an indictment to say that Todd Raybuck is a racist,” Raybuck said. “What they’re saying is, ‘We’re tired of seeing black people die by the hands of people in uniform.’ And, you know what, I am, too.”
Most of all, Raybuck said he wants his officers to engage in dialogue with Kauai residents. Hear their concerns about institutional racism. Acknowledge that police officers are not immune from making mistakes. Let it be known that they are committed to buffering their unconscious biases, a problem all humans face.
Raybuck said he has encouraged his officers to participate in protests on Kauai “if it’s in their hearts” to do so — in uniform, if they wish.
For Green, that was another difficult decision.
He’d surely draw attention to himself at the protest if he dressed in his police uniform. But wouldn’t the image of a black cop dressed in blue help to shatter so many harmful stereotypes about all protesters, or all police officers, being one and the same?
In the end, Green decided not to go in uniform, affording him the possibility to blend in.
“For people who have preconceived notions about race, I don’t want them to see me because of my skin color,” he said. “I also don’t want them to have any preconceived notions about me if they see me in uniform.”
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