Now it’s our turn … to live courageously


On Tuesday, Feb. 26, I had a mid-day appointment in the Seabright neighborhood of Santa Cruz. It was a little after 91e9c6d756ee8dc3e9d14c0d2554c4a712 p.m. when I left that interview, after which I stopped in at Shopper’s Corner where I bought a pastrami sandwich. It was a warm, sunny day, so I had my lunch sitting in my car, which was parked on N. Branciforte Avenue.

Less than a hour later, I started my car and cruised up N. B40 on my way to Glen Canyon Road and the back way to Scotts Valley, unwittingly driving past a house inside of which was an armed man wearing body armor who was about to unleash one of the most horrifying episodes of violence in Santa Cruz’s history.

But it would be grotesque vanity to claim that I had had a close call with fate that afternoon. I did not, no more than anyone else who happened to be in the area at that time. That’s because on that day, just like every day, there was a line that separated me and you from violence and chaos, a thin blue line.

The unprecedented outpouring of grief and compassion since the shooting deaths of SCPD officers Butch Baker and Elizabeth Butler has been a searing experience for the community and convincing proof that cops won’t be taken for granted in Santa Cruz for the foreseeable future.

Law enforcement officers and civilians alike turned out by the hundreds to honor fallen Santa Cruz police officers Elizabeth Butler and Butch Baker March 7. Photo by Dan Coyro.

Law enforcement officers and civilians alike turned out by the hundreds to honor fallen Santa Cruz police officers Elizabeth Butler and Butch Baker March 7. Photo by Dan Coyro.

It’s also been a reminder that the death of a police officer in the line of duty is an entirely different thing than the sudden or violent death of anyone else. The latter is mostly about bad luck, bad choices, tragic circumstances or a combination thereof, in every instance worthy of our grief and sorrow.

But when a cop dies, we have to face the ramifications of the implicit social contract we have with police, firefighters and first responders, and that kind of grief is leavened by equal parts gratitude and guilt.

One of the most profound lessons all of us learn as we grow up is that civilization – the rules and agreements that allow us to live in freedom and safety – doesn’t just happen. It rises out of a primal yearning to live beyond our animal nature, in which brute strength and power are the only virtues and violence, or the threat of it, the only law.

In this sense, our humanity itself depends upon a self-selected handful of people to stand at the edge between civilization and chaos. Without them, the jungle would consume us.

We all have our place in society and we all make our contributions. But the vast majority of us live in an enormous circle, on the perimeter of which stands the men and women of law enforcement.

And we are grateful. On Thursday, you could see that gratitude in the crowds lining the streets and the overpasses for the procession to the memorial in San Jose for the fallen officers, and in the people watching it live on TV in the Del Mar and the new downtown basketball arena – inside of which were dozens of strategically placed boxes of tissues. This has been a traumatic experience and people everywhere are seeking solace in connection with the slain officers, their surviving fellow officers and in each other.

Very few lining the streets or watching the memorial knew Sgt. Baker or Detective Butler very well, if at all. But after Thursday, they were, to everyone, “Butch and Beth.”

We owe them a prayer, a eulogy, a lapel ribbon. We owe them roadside tributes and tears of empathy for their families. But we owe them something else too.

Exactly a week after the shootings, Santa Cruz painter Andrew Purchin set up an easel at the corner of N. Branciforte and Doyle Street, at the scene of the tragedy. He lingered all afternoon painting on his canvas, engaging local residents and passersby. It was his way of, you might say, re-santicifying a place of violence, applying balm to a wound.

And in the symbolism of that act is the debt we owe to Butch and Beth and every man and woman in blue. If you paint, paint for them. If you dance, dance for them. If you surf, go to Woodies on the Wharf, listen to the Giants on the car radio, take cooking classes, write short stories in hip downtown cafes, do it for them.

Because if we succumb to fear and paranoia, if we barricade ourselves in our homes, if we change the way we live based on some pet theory that this town, this state, this country is turning into some kind of criminal killing field, then we’ve tarnished their sacrifice. Policemen, fire fighters, paramedics – not to mention those in the military – do what they do as a service to you, to allow you to live as free as you imagine yourself to be. If you stop doing that, then what’s the point of their service?

You may remember the climactic scene of the 1986 film “The Mission.” Jeremy Irons is a Jesuit priest who takes it on himself to protect a South American Indian tribe from Portuguese invaders. The moment the Portuguese attack the remote mission, Irons, knowing the end is near, marches out into the open carrying a cross. When he is shot down, someone marching behind him pauses, then reaches down and picks up the same cross and continues marching forward to his doom.

The analogy fits the challenge of the police in these dark days; You and I will never know the courage it takes to wear the uniform and the badge.

But the good news for the rest of us is that to live courageously means to live as you always have, to occupy the public spaces in your town, secure in the protection they give you. It’s no inoculation against random tragedy. If it were, where’s the courage in that?

The courage is in trusting that the thin blue line will continue to keep the circle safe and intact. More so than the flowers and cards, that’s what you owe those who wear the badge, the trust that the circle remains unbroken.

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