Defaced campaign signs of a Black City Council candidate. The desecration of the oldest Black church in the city. Derogatory signs at three school properties referring to COVID-19 as the "Chinese Virus." The verbal assault of a City Council member because of his Asian ethnicity. These messages of hate are among 18 that have been reported in the city in the past year, according to Human Relations Commission Chair the Rev. Kaloma Smith.
As a result of the rising verbal assaults and vandalism, the commission is drafting a letter to the council seeking more proactive measures to fight racism in Palo Alto. The letter is part of a strategy the commission is taking to move the needle on what has been relative inertia in addressing racism and inequities, members said during the commission's Jan. 14 meeting.
On Tuesday night, Jan. 19, the commission was scheduled to present a 40-plus-page report, "Black and Brown Palo Alto — History and Current Experience," which the council directed them to prepare.
The report found that Black and brown residents consistently experience microaggressions on a daily basis, from being racially profiled by police to being followed in stores and treated differently compared to white people. Students have said they have no role models and are not taught about positive figures or contributions by people of color, and, when they bring the issue to the attention of a teacher, they are met with hostility.
The report recommends that the city partner with 100 local leaders to hold community circles about race and belonging in the next year; form 100 community groups to meet and discuss issues of race and belonging over the next 24 months; and compile a report and findings from the community conversations over the next 26 months.
While the commission's goal is to build change in attitudes and perceptions through these long-term strategies, the draft letter, which the commission is still refining, asks the council to take more immediate actions.
The new document comes as hate-based incidents have been reported in the community over the past several months, including:
● The desecration and vandalization of the University AME Zion Church, the oldest black church in Palo Alto.
● The unauthorized removal of First Congregational Church of Palo Alto's Black Lives Matter sign.
● The posting of a "Wuhan Virus" sign in front of a popular coffee shop.
● The posting of derogatory signs at three school properties this spring, referring to COVID-19 as the "Chinese Virus."
● The verbal assault of a Palo Alto council member because of his Asian ethnicity.
● The defacement of a campaign poster of the only Black candidate for council with a White Lives Matter sign.
● The distribution of "White Matters" letters at private homes.
● The defacement of a student Black Lives Matter art project by a person wearing Make America Great Again paraphernalia.
● Vandalism and removal of at least 10 Black Lives Matter signs.
"These incidents in 2020, along with other incidents in recent years — including the unauthorized leaving of anti-LGBTQ materials at the library and antisemitic materials at Gunn High School — show a disturbing trend. As a community, we need to address this problem at the root. We can no longer excuse these events as 'one-off incidents' or pranks where 'kids are just being kids.' We see a repeated pattern of hate, and it is time for us to stand and actively address these issues," Smith and Vice Chair Valerie Stinger state in their letter.
The letter asks the council to formally state that Palo Alto is a city that doesn't accept hate crimes. It asks the city to arrest and prosecute individuals involved in hate crimes to the maximum extent of the law, and it asks the council to direct staff to create education programs about hate crimes in the city.
"In this critical time, we need the City Council as the highest elected official in our city to lead and come out emphatically against the surge of hate in our community," Smith and Stinger wrote.
At the commission's meeting last Thursday, the panel also discussed recommending the council form a community-based hate crimes commission and have the Police Department possibly form a hate crimes unit.
In a show of commitment, the commissioners unanimously voted to extend Smith's and Stinger's positions as chair and vice chair for another year to continue the progress of their work that aims to change racial inequities in the city.
View the Human Relations Commission's full report here: