Michael Harrison described the indignity of getting pulled over by the police again and again in Palo Alto, his hometown.
Elijah Steiner read a poem punctuated by the rhythm of one sentence repeated over and over: "With every step forward, a breath."
Eight Black community members spoke in raw, heartfelt detail to a crowd of hundreds of masked people gathered at King Plaza on Friday, June 19, to mark Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when enslaved African Americans in Texas learned they were free, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.
From teenagers to adults, the speakers illustrated generations of subtle and overt racism on the streets of Palo Alto and in the city's public schools. Several expressed doubt about the protests sweeping the country in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police, fearing that despite the national outrage over racial inequality and police brutality, it won't result in lasting change.
"Do not let a day like today be your only method or action when it comes to truly fighting for our country. We are in a true crisis," said Brian Chancellor, who graduated from Palo Alto High School in 1987. "My challenge to you is to do more. What are you going to do after today, and tomorrow, and the next day with your money and with your opportunity?"
Johnsson and Makayla Miller, who both graduated from Paly earlier this month, described a school system in which they felt like they had to prove themselves because of the color of their skin. Johnsson said many of his Black friends ended up leaving the Palo Alto school district due to mistreatment.
"Parents choose to move here, to Palo Alto, because of the schools. ... And yet they watch as their kids are told both directly and indirectly that they aren't smart enough for higher-level classes, (that) they can't challenge themselves — they shouldn't challenge themselves," Johnsson said. "They came to Palo Alto because of the schools and they end up leaving the district because of the schools.
"Because in these schools," he said, "Black students can't breathe. I can't breathe."
Miller, president of Paly's Black Scholars United, said the club was both a blessing and a curse. It helped her find her place on campus and taught her she "was capable of doing so much more than the bare minimum." But it also highlighted prejudice and discrimination at Paly, she said.
"For too long I thought this was the norm," Miller said. "I always thought that being Black in a school full of white was the problem but it's deeper than that. It's the disproportionate amount of privilege that allows for those with it to follow the straight path that was paved for them by those without it."
Several speakers emphasized education as key to reform, including teaching the significance of holidays like Juneteenth and other events related to the history of slavery in America.
"We need to demand that education works for us," Johnsson said.?
A school can change its flags — or its name, like Palo Alto Unified did after Johnsson, then a 13-year-old seventh-grader, wrote a book report about David Starr Jordan's advocacy of eugenics — "but if you don't change the curriculum, if you don't change the teachers and the books, it's the same," Michael Harrison said.
Harrison, a lifelong Palo Alto resident who graduated from Paly in 1991, read from a report he wrote as an Addison Elementary School fifth-grader titled "My Heritage in Slavery." He recalled the first time he was called a racial slur as a young boy. He described not being let into a party in high school because of his race — and the anguish of returning to the same house years later as an adult with his son trick-or-treating on Halloween. He recalled being pulled over by a police officer after leaving Greene Middle School, where he coached basketball.
"I've been pulled out of my car literally because I fit the description of a hit-and-run (suspect) — put up against a tree, hands behind my head as people stared. What people don't understand ... it's not the brutality," he said. "It's the indignity that you suffer."
He and his brother Jamal said they had mixed feelings about speaking at the rally, which was organized by a group of Palo Alto community members. The groundswell of support for the Black Lives Matter movement feels "trendy" and "hollow," they said.
"I cannot say that I'm hopeful because history has shown me something different," Harrison said.
Several speakers urged the crowd to take concrete action to address police violence, including registering to vote and writing to their state senators to end qualified immunity, which protects police officers from civil lawsuits. An impromptu speaker recommended people watch "13th," the 2016 documentary that traces the history of racial inequality in the United States from slavery to mass incarceration, and "When They See Us," a fictional TV series about five Black teenagers falsely accused of and imprisoned for rape in 1989.
Lettie McGuire said her family was one of the few Black families in Palo Alto when they moved to the city decades ago. She felt like an outsider then and still does, she said. She encouraged white attendees to scrutinize the diversity of their own workplaces and to hire more Black people.
"That is the answer — to have diverse neighborhoods, to make Palo Alto a diverse neighborhood," she said. "My answer is: Hire a Black person today. I'm talking about hiring someone and paying them the money that you are making so they can buy a house in Palo Alto."
Letitia Burton, a retired Paly teacher, sang "We Are" by Ysaye Barnwell, an African American musician. Elijah Steiner, also a Paly Class of 2020 graduate, read the poem his cousin compiled from family members' experiences with racism. The Rev. Debra Murray of First United Methodist Church delivered a prayer interwoven with calls to action: to vote and to advocate for the 8 Can't Wait police reform campaign.
After the speeches, Miller, Gunn High School graduate Cleo Goodwin and a group of other young Black women and men led the crowd of protesters in a march through downtown Palo Alto. The crowd was so large that separate chants were happening simultaneously in different segments, with police officers blocking traffic as they poured down city streets.
People held signs above their heads that read, "Racism is a pandemic," and "Who gets to breathe?" One man carried a large photograph of a kneeling Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback.
Earlier on June 19, activists used washable paint chalk to outline "BLM" in massive letters across Hamilton Avenue directly in front of City Hall. The Raging Grannies, Vigil for Democracy and students from Nueva School filled in the outlined letters with messages: "Justice Now," "George Floyd" and "White Silence is Violence."
The ground of King Plaza was also covered in chalk art by the evening, including the full text of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery "except as punishment for a crime."
The Palo Alto City Council plans to follow in the footsteps of cities including Washington, D.C. and San Francisco and paint "Black Lives Matter" on a city street near City Hall. The city's Public Art Program put out a call for up to 16 artists, each of whom will be commissioned to paint an individual letter of the mural in their own style.?
In an interview following the protest, Michael Harrison said he's still wary that the current moment will produce true reform — though he's heartened to see activism led by young people locally and across the country.
This year was the first time he had celebrated Juneteenth. But "celebrated" wasn't the right word, he said.
"I reflect on it as a point in history," he said, "because we're still not actually free."
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