Palo Alto, California has a very tiny black and latino population, while the neighboring East Palo Alto, just across the county line, is largely black and latino. Usually, Palo Alto residents don't think about the reasons why.
On October 31, the Palo Alto chief of police made a very simple statement:
When our officers are out there and they see an African-American, in a congenial way, we want them to find out who they are
Like many towns across the west, midwest, and the north, Palo Alto is a sundown town. In the 1940s, residents used the threat of violence to evict new black residents.
In more recent years, the city has, in fact had a de facto policy of police harassment of black and latino visitors. Instead of burning down peoples' houses (as happened for example in Santa Cruz in 1951) or threatening landowners who dared rent blacks, Palo Alto has let its largely white police force stop and harass people seen as undesirable, irrespective of cause.
On Sunday, in response to Chief Johnson's comments, a couple hundred people set out from the East Palo Alto city hall:
The crowd started largely as East Palo Alto residents, with a small number of Palo Alto residents mixed in. We passed first through the old residential neighborhoods, where we saw few people, and soon reached downtown, where there were meaningful numbers of pedestrians. To my surprise, when I stopped to talk to bystanders, none of those I spoke with were even aware of the police chief's remarks.
At the Palo Alto city hall, we found the Raging Grannies waiting for us, along with the mayor of Palo Alto and part (though not all) of the Palo Alto city council. Speaker after speaker talked about their personal experiences with police harassment. Rev. Darrington, the pastor of a Palo Alto church, described how he, and every other young-looking black male, is stopped by the police about once every three weeks.
The Palo Alto Mayor, Larry Klein, took the very helpful step of admitting that Palo Alto has a history of using racial profiling. What he didn't do, and what needs to be done, is to take concrete measures to actually end it. A large chunk of the city population is asking for the police chief to step down. She hasn't, and so far, the city council hasn't made her.
So far, what we've done, and seen, is a very modest step. Right now, much of the town seems to still be ignorant about what the police have done, and how racial profiling isn't terribly useful at preventing or solving crime. The hard part isn't just letting a few politicians know that there's an issue — the march did that. The hard part is what comes next, making sure the whole city knows. At that point, change becomes thinkable.
I realize that most dailykos readers don't live in Palo Alto. Nevertheless, my town's situation is one which found again and again across the US. Look around you. If your town is very much monoracial, there's a reason, and not just some accident of past settlement patterns.
Go read Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism by James Loewen. Talk to your neighbors. Look in local archives. See what you can do to make change happen where you are.
Update: On the evening after I posted the diary, the Palo Alto city council voted to condemn racial profiling, but did not fire the police chief. There's clearly a lot more work to do.
Update 2: Under pressure, Chief Johnson stepped down on November 20, 2008.