Last Thursday, a group of local community leaders broached a challenging topic: What can be done to combat racism in the Menlo Park community?
The panelists were East Palo Alto City Councilman Larry Moody, Assistant District Attorney James Wade, former Menlo College provost and author Terri Givens and Michelle Smedley, a Menlo Park mother of a biracial son who made a post on the neighborhood-based social networking site Nextdoor that triggered nearly 200 responses and more than 100 comments from local residents.
In an interview, Smedley told The Almanac about what she and her family have gone through over the last six months or so. "I was wondering if I should make a big deal out of it," she said. "On the other hand, people had no qualms about making him feel uncomfortable."
She said that since February, the police had been called on her 15-year-old biracial son and his friends twice, and that he'd been affected by the experience. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
The first experience was in a local Safeway with his friends, when a white teen called him the n-word. With his friends' encouragement, he asked the white teen not to say that word. The white teen's mom was watching via FaceTime and she called the boys thugs and phoned the police.
Smedley said her son and his friends were terrified and ran out to the parking lot to discuss what had happened.
Smedley chastised the boys, telling them never to run away, and to remain calm and keep their hands out of their pockets in the presence of law enforcement officers. The police officers handled the incident and let the boys go, she said.
"It really got to him," Smedley said later. "It honestly shook them to the core ... It's so sad when it happens, and you just thought the community was better than that."
Another time, Smedley's son was at a nearby duck pond in Menlo Park when a middle-aged man swore at him and told him he did not belong there. He responded that he lives in the neighborhood and to go ahead and call the police because he did nothing wrong. The man did call the Menlo Park police, who dealt with it professionally and told her son he could go and that he'd done nothing wrong, Smedley said.
A third incident occurred when her son was walking his dog on the trails at Sharon Hills Park on the Valparaiso Avenue hill when he was told he didn't belong there. He responded by saying, "I live here with my dog. If you really feel uncomfortable, call the police," Smedley said.
And most recently, the driver of a vehicle recorded her son while he was walking down Santa Cruz Avenue in Menlo Park. All of the events have happened in the last six months or so, since her son had a growth spurt and doesn't look like a little kid anymore, she said.
The first time it happened, he and his friends were traumatized, she said.
During the July 9 discussion, several of the panelists who are also parents commiserated.
Moody, a parent of four sons, said that he and his wife, Lisa, had coached their sons since they were young about how to interact with the police.
People who have harmed Smedley's family by making them feel uncomfortable in their own neighborhood should have an opportunity to make amends, Moody said. Knowing that there are people in the neighborhood who wish you weren't there, "That's a hard thing to have to live with," he said.
Givens has two biracial sons and responded on Nextdoor to Smedley that she wasn't surprised but was disheartened by the neighbors' behaviors. She jogs and walks through her neighborhood, near Las Lomitas Elementary School, and worries that people think she doesn't belong there.
She said she had to tell her boys that they, unlike boys who are white, cannot play outside with toy guns. The conversation happened around the time that Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African American boy playing with a fake gun, was shot by Cleveland police in 2014, she recalled.
Wade, who is Black, grew up in the area and attended San Mateo High School. He said he was racially profiled by law enforcement officers just for walking down the street in certain neighborhoods when he was younger. "Back then it was different," he said. "Law enforcement did not treat us professionally, in my estimation."
He said he's worked to bring a minority perspective to the county District Attorney's Office.
Smedley said the experiences her son has gone through have made him wary of going out in the community and doing what other teens get to do, like wear hoodies and beanies.
"If I go out like that I'm just going to be a target," she said her son told her.
"Why is that?" Smedley asked. "Why can every other kid in town wear that that's white, but the other kids can't?"
Her son also is afraid of learning to drive because he mainly sees people of color being pulled over in Menlo Park, she added.
Wade sympathized – about a decade ago, he and two other Black colleagues in the legal field shared that they had each been racially profiled by law enforcement officers.
"It didn't feel good," he said. "I bring this story up only to tell them that they're not alone, and there are individuals that are trying to do something about it."
He said he talks to students, teachers and law enforcement officers and tries to help them understand "that this is not the way to do police work."
Racial profiling of East Palo Alto residents used to be more blatant, said Moody.
He said his sons were regularly followed by police officers while just driving around their neighborhood. "I think the conversation needs to center itself on ... what experiences our young people are having and what we can do about changing those experiences."
"Those types of interruption in a person's life will stick with you for a long time," he said.
He talked about how, in 2008, then-Palo Alto Police Chief Lynne Johnson was urged to resign after instructing police officers to make "consensual contact" with Black men wearing do-rags because that was part of the description of suspects in a series of robberies at the time.
Many East Palo Alto residents, especially young people of color, felt racially profiled when they ventured into Palo Alto, Moody said.
Palo Alto's next police chief after Johnson, Dennis Burns, made it a priority to engage with East Palo Alto and make sure that residents knew they could safely go into Palo Alto, Moody said.
"It took that type of leadership to become better neighbors," Moody said. "Many of our young people continue to frequent Palo Alto for a wide range of services and activities. If that situation was left undone and (Palo Alto) didn't initiate a response ... we don't know what damage that might have done (to) our young community's psyche going forward."
The panelists also talked about potential solutions to tackle structural racism – the racism that is embedded in laws and institutions – as well as the individual racism of some community members.
"We all live in these structures that are racist," Givens said. People should think twice about their own thoughts and biases when interacting with people of other races, she said. "Why would somebody think a kid sitting in the park doesn't belong there? Why do police tend to pull over Black people and others with more regularity? These things are all part of our history. We have to understand the history and unconscious bias that happens. It really does impact every single one of us," she said.
She added that she'd also favor the creation of a unified school district. "That's a different can of worms," she added.
The panelists talked about programs like Police Activities Leagues, which operate in Redwood City and East Palo Alto, but not in Menlo Park, that can help police officers and local youth get to know each other.
They also discussed the need for data on police stops, broken down by race.
Menlo Park Councilman Ray Mueller convened the panel, and he and Mayor Cecilia Taylor co-moderated it.
Mueller said he'd be interested in changing the threshold for officers to pull over vehicles by focusing traffic stops less on problems like having a taillight out or expired registration stickers.
Taylor said she wants to change the definition of what constitutes a hate crime in Menlo Park.
Menlo Park can't necessarily create its own systems for enforcing those particular policies since enforcement is tied to the California penal code, Wade said. But if the city were to collect evidence that traffic stops were happening disproportionately to drivers of color in Menlo Park, the District Attorney's Office would look into it and could develop a remedial action, he said.
Moody concluded that there is a "perfect storm" of factors converging to drive change in the community: The mayor is planning a meeting on police reform; a local resident is really concerned about the community in which her son is being raised; the community is working to be respectful of that resident's family and her son; and conversations about how to reckon with racism as a community are starting.
"You have to commit to be at the table. ... I think if you do that, you'll have the type of community you've always coveted," he said.
The Menlo Park City Council is scheduled to consider making "institutionalized bias reform" a top priority in the city, including police reform, on Tuesday, July 14, at a meeting starting at 5 p.m.