Racial profiling in Palo Alto

November 13, 2008

PALO ALTO, Calif.--Some 200 people marched from East Palo Alto to the Palo Alto city hall to demand an end to racial profiling of African American and Latino men by police.

The East Palo Alto African American Leadership Summit and Coalition for Change organized the November 9 demonstration after Palo Alto Police Chief Lynne Johnson announced that African American men, particularly those wearing do-rags, would be stopped by police, in response to a series of burglaries in recent months.

Johnson's call for a policy of racial profiling caused such outrage that the political establishment of both Palo Alto and East Palo Alto have come out aggressively against the police chief. The Palo Alto City Council plans to take up a resolution reaffirming the city's official policy against racial profiling, and the police chief issued an apology.

East Palo Alto Mayor Pat Foster and Palo Alto Mayor Larry Klein each spoke at the rally. Foster acknowledged that a city council resolution on its own wouldn't be enough to end racial profiling, and called on Palo Alto city officials to hold their police department responsible for any breach of the law in the targeting of African Americans and other minorities simply because of race.

She and others demanded that the chief be fired, and there was also a call for a boycott of Palo Alto businesses. Klein admitted that racial profiling had been used in the past, but he said that "it was wrong" and vowed that it would not be tolerated.

For most of the marchers, however, racial profiling doesn't seem like a thing of the past. On the contrary, it's a real and terrifying part of police conduct in these Bay Area communities.

The chief may have withdrawn her call for racial profiling, but African Americans and Latinos have long received a disproportionate amount of unwarranted attention and harassment from police. According to many at the rally, Palo Alto police frequently stop minorities and send the clear message that they are not welcome in the city.

Of course, such experiences aren't exclusive to Palo Alto. Some demonstrators came from neighboring cities, including San Jose, and have their own stories about encounters with their local police.

Rev. Anthony Darrington told the crowd that many in his congregation had been stopped multiple times. During such encounters, police typically ask, "Where are you going, and where are you coming from?" Rev. Darrington suggested that the appropriate response is, "It's none of your business if I'm not breaking the law."

East Palo Alto is predominantly African American and Latino, with a minority of Pacific Islanders and whites; it's a mostly working-class community. Palo Alto, on the other hand, is a predominantly white and affluent community, with a median household income of $90,000.

It appears that the Palo Alto police department has assigned itself the job of defending Palo Alto's "demographics" from its less desirable neighbors. In fact, Palo Alto police routinely post patrol cars at the border between the two cities, and track East Palo Alto residents who venture across the dividing line--their own twisted version of local border enforcement.

Aram James, an attorney associated with the San Jose branch of Copwatch, thinks that it may be worthwhile for antiracist activists to set up their own surveillance at the Palo Alto-East Palo Alto border--in order to monitor the conduct of Palo Alto officers. This tactic is an echo of monitoring of police activities in Oakland, Calif., carried out by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, founders of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in the 1960s in response to police brutality and harassment against African Americans.

Despite the anger and frustration, there was also hope. In the wake of Barack Obama's historic election, many invoked his name and his campaign theme of "change." One speaker suggested that Palo Alto wouldn't want "Obama to come to town and be racially profiled."

Near the end, one speaker rightly reminded the crowd that the police chief "would not have apologized had she not been caught." Most importantly, it took an outraged community putting its anger into constructive political action to force the city of Palo Alto to address the issue. Organizers vow to keep up the pressure.

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