It was a big room, and the room was full. In Howard County, in Columbia, Maryland, where some feel that issues of race are no issue at all, almost every seat was filled and plenty more were standing.
I can't tell you numbers. I can't give you a breakdown by race or ethnicity, gender, or age. I can tell you that people were there because they cared. They were angry, scared, worried, frustrated, determined. Possibly hopeful.
If you want to get a sense of the conversation, go to Twitter and enter #embracegracism. You will see many sides of the one issue: young people, education, law enforcement, use of force, due process, diversity training, racial profiling, overcoming notions of privilege, creating relationships. Building bridges.
Two things stood out for me. One was Dr. David Anderson's description of the built-up fear and expectation that something bad will happen in interactions with law enforcement. He wondered aloud if police bring that same kind of fear to those same encounters.
"Are you as afraid as we are?" he asked.
The officer responded that in those situations you don't have time for fear. You rely on your training. You go into automatic pilot and any move that is out of the ordinary prompts concern. And I'm sure that is all true, and none of us want to think that we are being protected by officers who are roaming around with fear in their hearts, but still. There may be a deeper issue in there that went unaddressed. Just maybe.
The second thing that struck me were the few moments of laughter. This was a serious conversation, and there were a few uncomfortable moments where one could feel the electricity of anger unspoken ripple through the room. When the topic of the use of force came up, Dr. Anderson said, jokingly, "Where's the non-lethal option? Could you tase me or something?"
There was laughter, and some applause. But it was the laughter of a pent-up tension where if you do not laugh, you will cry. The laughter of, "How ludicrous is it that we are discussing how I can avoid being killed by law enforcement?" "How do I train my son to present himself as non-threatening during a traffic stop?"
In her opening remarks, Councilwoman Courtney Watson spoke of the need to respond to young people during times like these. "Mom, nobody ever answers our questions." She's right that we need to answer those questions, and ask our own as well. The conversation yesterday happened because local leaders came together and created a safe space for that to happen.
Now it is up to us to create our own safe spaces for the conversation to continue.
Many thanks to Bridgeway Community Church, St. John Baptist Church, Howard County Police Department, Maryland State Police, Howard County Government, and anyone else responsible for making this happen.