Chants of "Jobs for EPA!" and "Hey hey, ho ho, racial profiling has got to go!" rang out Thursday night in front of 2100 University Ave. in East Palo Alto, where Amazon.com plans to occupy 200,000 square feet of offices and add 1,300 employees. Some drivers honked their approval, while others, some looking down from double-decker bus seats, remained silent.
A group of more than 50 people assembled on the corner of Donohoe Street and University Avenue for a vigil to protest policies of Amazon and Facebook, which they said would lead to gentrification and criminalization of their communities.
The protest focused on the East Palo Alto City Council's decision to waive its locals-first hiring policy for Amazon, and the Menlo Park City Council's current consideration to allow Facebook to pay for increased police services in eastern Menlo Park.
Facebook has offered to pay $9.1 million over five years to enable the Menlo Park Police Department to expand its services in eastern Menlo Park. The money would go toward establishing a new police unit in the city's "Bayfront" or M-2 area, roughly bordered by the San Francisco Bay, University Avenue, U.S. 101 and Marsh Road. The contribution would cover the costs of salaries, benefits and equipment for about five new officers. Population growth of workers and residents in that area of the city is expected to require adding up to 17 new officers for the new unit to maintain the current ratio of people to officers in the city, according to the Menlo Park Police Department.
Event organizer JT Faraji of East Palo Alto said that Facebook's offer will "(aid) in the criminalization" of his community because he thinks increased policing will lead to racial profiling.
The protest was organized by a group called the "Real Community Coalition," which, according to Mr. Faraji, is made up of residents and is unaffiliated with other nonprofits or politicians, which may, he said, have their own interests or conflicts.
The East Palo Alto City Council on March 22 voted to allow Amazon to waive the city's hiring policy, which mandates that businesses in the city hire 30 percent of their employees from among city residents, or demonstrate a good-faith effort to do so. Instead, Amazon agreed to create a job center staffed by an employment specialist for 10 years.
According to East Palo Alto city staff, Amazon's leasing the space was contingent on removing the hiring requirement. Amazon already occupies 80,000 square feet of office space at East Palo Alto's University Circle offices.
A number of East Palo Alto residents at the protest said the City Council caved too easily at Amazon's behest, and that it was unfair – and possibly discriminatory – for Amazon to simply assume that East Palo Alto residents wouldn't be eligible for the high-skilled tech jobs they sought to fill. Others said that Amazon's alternative approach, to start a job center and hire a job search specialist, was insufficient.
Duane Goff, a retiree who is an East Palo Alto resident, called the measure "a little pat on the back," and named several other programs that already exist in the community to help people search for and become eligible for jobs. It's the jobs, he said, that are lacking.
Pemberton Gordon, a longtime East Palo Alto resident, said he works in tech recruiting and his wife works as an electrical engineer. He said that even if there may not be enough East Palo Alto residents who are software engineers to meet that 30 percent requirement, tech companies usually have a number of jobs that don't require special technical skills, such as sales, marketing and administrative positions.
East Palo Alto also has a coding academy, StreetCode, which several attendees said could be a potential hiring pool for Amazon, were the company to make an effort to hire locals.
David Chatman, an East Palo Alto resident and Facebook employee, said that if Amazon had followed the city's hiring policy, it would have expanded residents' access to higher-paying jobs than are currently offered in the city, many of which he said are in retail.
As a Facebook employee, he said, he has seen both the abundance of what tech jobs can offer their employees, and what the introduction of such abundance to a community can do to people who are left out. On one hand, he said, he sees himself as a fortunate member of his community for having the tech skills to work at one of these companies. On the other, he's watched family members be pushed to the cusp of displacement by rising housing costs.
He said he'd like to see such companies invest in the communities where they set up shop – not only by making grants and donating money, but by making efforts to keep locals from being displaced.
"I think there's a movement picking up," said East Palo Alto resident Ofelia Bello. Amazon's decision to come to East Palo Alto marks a turning point for the city, she said.
For so long, she said, East Palo Alto has been seen as separate from Silicon Valley. While it has experienced the pressures and stresses of added regional growth, she said, it has not necessarily reaped the benefits.
"We have a long history of being screwed over," she said. Even though Amazon is expanding in East Palo Alto, its recent action shows that it still sees East Palo Alto as separate from Silicon Valley, she said.
The coalition has not given up hope for a reversal of the East Palo Alto City Council's decision, despite a March 25 statement by East Palo Alto Mayor Larry Moody that he would "not offer a vote to rescind the decision nor recommend the Council do so."
In regard to Amazon, Ms. Bello said, "They can work with us, or we're going to clash."
Members of the Real Community Coalition said they plan to attend the East Palo Alto City Council's next meeting on April 4, which starts at 7:30 p.m.