Commentary: Protests in Delaware spur communication

By Kathy Jennings

Thousands of Americans have poured into the town squares and city streets across our state and nation to protest George Floyd’s horrifying, senseless killing under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

Americans know the protests are not solely about George Floyd. We know they are a reckoning with something that has been broken in our country from its inception. They’re a reaction against the complicity of American institutions – and indeed, of Americans – in a system of black and brown repression that continues to pervade every corner of our society: from police brutality and criminal justice outcomes to economic opportunity, life expectancy and the effects of COVID-19.

Protest is righteously in our DNA as Americans. From the destruction of British property in Boston Harbor, to the civil rights movement, to today’s protests over systemic racism, mass protest is an indispensable instrument of progress when more conventional institutions fall short.

And yet, despite how endemic it is to our civic culture, protest makes us uncomfortable – and that discomfort is the point. Even though the nonviolent acts of civil disobedience that Martin Luther King Jr. and others carried out in the 1950s and 1960s are held today to be the holy grail of peaceful protest, polls from that time show that the American public believed the movement’s methods were more harmful than helpful to the cause of integration. They were wrong. Discomfort is a feature, not an accident. The very point of protest is to remove us from our comfort zones and to confront us with conversations we’ve avoided or ignored.

As an attorney and a longtime prosecutor, I also believe in the rule of law. And we are confronted with questions today – not least in the Department of Justice – about when protest violates the rule of law and how we answer that violation.

By and large, police throughout Delaware have shown excellent restraint by giving protesters room to demonstrate peacefully, while also making selective arrests when serious crimes were committed. With demonstrations in Delaware now entering their fourth week – and with disturbing examples of brutality against demonstrators in other states – our law enforcement’s rank and file deserve credit for knowing the wisdom of restraint.

Some of what’s come to light since the Camden protest raises legitimate questions. Prosecutors are actively reviewing all videos in the custody of the police departments that were present in Camden, and we are examining video that was sent to us by the public, including protesters. We’re also reviewing every arrest of every protester, both in the Camden incident and in protests throughout the state.

I have already spoken out about some of what occurred in Camden – I do not believe, for instance, that a photojournalist should have been detained and I was vocal in my insistence on his release from police custody – and I will have more to say about the demonstration when our review of the evidence is complete.

For now, I will say this: What happened in Camden clearly struck at something larger than the individual acts of any protester or police officer. This is a conversation about trust, about civil rights, about accountability and about the relationship between law enforcement and the community. It is not an indictment of every police officer to acknowledge that we need to recalibrate that relationship, just as it was not an indictment of every prosecutor or every judge when we set out to reform the criminal justice system.

On Friday, I met separately with both protesters and the Dover Police Department for several hours. I’ll continue to do everything in my power to help bridge the conversation between protesters and law enforcement. This is a time of incredible tension, but for many of us, it is also a time of hope for mutual understanding, healing and ultimately progress. The road ahead can lead to real growth for all of us, as a state and as a nation, but it will require some hard conversations. My personal hope is to see people of good faith come together to have those conversations and ultimately to effect and inform the change that we so desperately need.

And for all the good work that individual officers and departments do – and I am keenly familiar with that work – it is clear to many that the time for change is here. I was glad to see, and proud to endorse, the Delaware Black Caucus’ commitment to what I hope is only the beginning of a larger reform effort. And I continue to advocate for reasonable steps to ensure accountability for bad actors, giving the public greater buy-in and oversight of the police and honoring the public’s trust without penalizing good police officers.

I’ve called for 15 reform efforts inside the DOJ and in the Delaware Code, including an objective use-of-force standard, a statewide civilian review board, universal body cameras and a state law parallel to the federal law prohibiting the deprivation of civil rights. I’ve discussed them with law enforcement, with reform advocates and with policymakers, and there is broad common ground. These policies will not cure systemic racism or undo 400 years of oppression, but they would be tremendously beneficial steps forward for our state; they will not be easy to pass, but oftentimes, the right things to do are also the hardest; and they will not bring back George Floyd, Breonna Taylor or any of the lives lost to excessive force, but they may prevent these tragedies from reoccurring.

Kathy Jennings is attorney general of Delaware.