The picture in San Jose, California, looks the same as it has across much of the United States this past week.
There’s a wall of police lining a street and protesters are lined up against it. The police are holding batons and some are armed with tear gas. While some protesters shout at police, off to the side, one officer is engaged in conversation with a young woman. A TV camera captures the exchange, as brief as it is before something jars everyone out of that moment. The protesters scatter, running away from the line of police and a handful of officers lunge after them. A news anchor says that one officer fires off tear gas and oddly, things calm down again.
The police form their wall again and the protesters get back in their places, some of them taking a knee — the pose first associated with Colin Kaepernick and now tied more grimly to Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on the back of the neck of George Floyd for almost nine minutes on May 25. They were the final minutes of Floyd’s life. Even before an independent autopsy ruled that Floyd’s death was a homicide, the fallout of yet another African-American civilian being killed by a white police officer had spiraled the U.S. into days of intense protests, rioting and violence.
As tense as the situation was that day in San Jose, that one officer continued to hold his position in that line, but also continued talking with protesters.
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I didn’t ask for this position and I never wanted to be a COP‼️ I grew up in GA when at the time you bet not call the police they only going make things worst♠️ I can’t count how many times we been searched or followed down the street by the police while walking around at night unlawfully searched & harassed (since I know the law better now) So I feel everyone’s Pain‼️ So how do we make change? I don’t have all the answers but I know anytime you want to make a CHANGE that CHANGE comes from with in. MORE ETHNIC PEOPLE need to get involved with politics, judges, lawyers, police officers things that govern the people. I PROMISE YOUR VOICE WILL BE HEARD A LOT LOUDER THAT WAY…. ALL THE MARCHING WAS DONE BY OUR LOVED ONES IN THE PAST TO OPEN UP THESE DOORS AND HELP GIVE THE PEOPLE MORE OF A VOICE. WHY NOT TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE OPPORTUNITY GIVEN BY OUR PEOPLE WHO FOUGHT SO HARD FOR US TO HAVE THIS OPPORTUNITY. Anyone can make excuses anyone can come up with a conspiracy why it won’t work. JUST DO IT♠️ NO ITS NOT EASY‼️ BUT IT IS WORTH IT 🙏🙏🙏🙏
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Four years ago that officer, Terrence Campbell, was lined up next to his teammates as an offensive tackle with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. His former teammate, Brandon ‘Speedy’ Banks, had seen the news clip with Campbell in it and praised him on his Instagram account this week for the work he was doing.
Back then and even today, Campbell is amazed at where life has taken him. This was never the journey he saw for himself.
“These weren’t my thoughts or plans, especially growing up in Georgia. I never thought about being a police officer,” Campbell said from his home on Tuesday.
“I never talked about it with any of my friends, any of my teammates. We wanted to play football. If football didn’t work out we thought about other stuff.”
Campbell’s time in the CFL was brief. He played in six games for the Ticats in 2016 and went to the Riders for the 2017 season but was a training camp cut. He went back to Atlanta and once he decided his football days were over, he started looking at the next chapter in his life. He found a job posting for the San Jose police department online, applied and almost immediately thought the job wasn’t for him.
The San Jose P.D. liked what they saw in Campbell, though, and they reached out to him. He had a good conversation over the phone with a recruiter, who asked him to meet up at an event in Atlanta at the end of May, last year.
“I went out and talked to them and they ended up being some cool dudes. It was four brothers and they were able to talk to me and show me, tell me about what’s going on. That really encouraged me. That changed my outlook on the situation,” Campbell said.
To get on board with the idea of joining the police, Campbell had to get past his own bad experiences with them from his youth. His mother was just 14 when she had him, so he grew up with his grandmother. She ran a group home with 10 other boys in the house. Campbell was the youngest.
“We had involvement with the police and it wasn’t always the best involvement,” he said.
“I can think of a time when I was in elementary school, where I was put in handcuffs and put in the back of a police car. We got into a little neighbourhood fight. We were in elementary school, just playing around, really and the police came to my house and put me in handcuffs and put me in the police car and they took me down to talk to the kid that said I did whatever I did.
“The simple fact that I’m in elementary school, nobody was home. You shouldn’t put an elementary kid in handcuffs. If that’s me? If I’m that cop, I would have walked me down there to talk to the kid, not in handcuffs, not in the back of the police car. That’s stupid. But when you’re growing up, you just think this is how the world is. All you know is your area, the city you’re in.”
He remembers walking on the road at night with friends and hearing a police car pull up behind them, and the bright searchlight flashing on them. He remembers being pulled over multiple times as a high schooler, never getting tickets but being randomly searched. Being a football player helped things sometimes, but he still remembers the way officers talked to him. After he’d committed to play at South Carolina, he says a cop told him that he wouldn’t get there, that he’d end up going down another road.
From his days in the group home and then on to his own experiences with them, there was a distrust of the police. You didn’t call them because more often than not, they didn’t help.
Putting that behind him, going through the academy and taking his first steps onto the street in uniform — he’s been on the job for just nine months now — has been a process. The officers that helped recruit him helped him through that process and in moving to San Jose, Campbell is seeing life through a different lens than the one he grew up with in Georgia. He said he sees a lot more diversity in California, on the streets and within his department.
Going through the academy and getting to know his new coworkers over the last year reminded him a lot of the locker rooms he sat in during his football career.
“It was so similar. In football we’re a bunch of different guys from different backgrounds, different areas,” he said.
“Everybody on the football team isn’t from the hood, everybody on the football team didn’t go through hard times. But everybody came together to accomplish one common goal. Everyone had different views, different opinions, but at the end of the day we came together to accomplish one goal and that was to win a championship.
“Being an officer is just like that. It’s different backgrounds, different places. It’s much more different places and different backgrounds now but it’s still one common goal and that’s to keep the city safe and bring the community together and for us to get home safe as well.”
When Campbell saw the video of George Floyd’s last moments, saw him perish under the knee of a cop, he felt what so many other people around the world did.
“Devastating. I hated it. I was furious, honestly,” he said.
“I felt weird going back into the office. My sergeant brought it up in front of the whole team and the whole group. I commend him for that. It was awesome. Let’s talk about it, thank you.
“You’ve got a grown man on the ground like that…there’s no need to have a knee on that man’s neck. There’s no need. You could easily take your knee out and place your hand there.
“I’m a larger man. That easily could have been me. That’s just common sense, that had nothing to do with policing, to be honest with you. Why would you have your knee on a man? You could just switch out and put a hand on his body, especially when he screams I can’t breathe. I watched the video multiple times. It’s heartbreaking. To see the look on (Chauvin’s) face while he was doing that…I can’t say the words I want to say. It’s not right.”
So Campbell went out into the streets, out into protests to deal with situations he’d never before seen as a new officer. A local news channel caught glimpses of him talking with protesters. In another situation, if he wasn’t in uniform and a world of tensions were somehow removed, he’d look like an average man in conversation with another person.
“She wanted to know why I became an officer. She was asking why. That lady is a queen,” he said. “She had tears in her eyes. She was expressing herself in a calm, direct, professional manner. When you do that type of stuff I can give you an answer and I can speak to you.
“I told her that I became a cop for the same reason they’re out protesting. You protest and we did all of that so we can have a voice. So that I can go be a cop, that you can go be a doctor, a nurse, a judge, you can have the opportunity to vote. That’s what protesting and marching has done in the past, given us these opportunities.”
He understands the need for and value in protesting. He also stresses the importance of walking through the doors that it can open. Protests can last days, weeks or months, but when you walk through those doors, that’s where bigger change can come.
“The plan that I’m working on is 25 years. I’m trying to put it all together for the next 25 years,” he said. “If you really want to make a change you have to join the cause. All change comes from within. With anybody,” he says, emphasizing the word, “with ANYBODY, change comes from within.”
There’s another picture that’s been working its way through Campbell’s Instagram stories. It’s one that the San Jose P.D. posted at the end of May. Campbell drove by a basketball court and saw some kids that reminded him of himself when he was their age. One saw him, saw his police car and yelled out that black lives matter. Yes they do, he yelled back. Then he pulled over and walked to the court.
“I just joined the fun and they really loved that,” he said.
“If we had cops like that that came and did that in my community, that came and played basketball, that came and said what’s up, that were more personable (it would have helped). Everyone can’t be that way, everyone doesn’t have those traits but there should be a couple of officers on the force that are like that, that get out in the community. It shows you that this cop is a normal person. You won’t know that until you have interactions with them.
“Me going over there hanging out with those kids, handing out stickers (makes a difference). I played two games of basketball — and we won both, just so you know — and doing that meant a lot to them. Instead of them being like, ‘I’m so scared of the police, don’t talk to them,’ They’ll say, ‘That big African-American cop, he came out and played ball with us. I feel like I can relate to him, he was cool.’ That’s what it’s all about. You need more of that.”
On his days off, Campbell rides a fat tire bike on the beaches of his new hometown. The ocean rolls in and he thinks back to his childhood a lot, about the scared kid in handcuffs and how he has a chance to give his community more, something different when communities across the U.S. are screaming for it.
“I know the content of my character and I know what I’m doing this for,” he said.