Cautiously hopeful that the growing Black Lives Matter movement could stir welcome change, five of these longtime residents agreed to share some of those experiences in recent interviews with this publication.
Over and over they recounted how they or their family members had been detained and questioned by school or police authorities — sometimes at gunpoint — while going about ordinary activities such as driving, pumping gas or walking downtown or in their own neighborhoods.
Longtime resident and lawyer Bill Green served on a police advisory commission established in Palo Alto during the 1970s after a white resident in the Crescent Park neighborhood called the police on a Black neighbor who'd been out for a stroll.
"The police would stop people on the basis that someone looked like they didn't belong," Green said.
"We had a series of conversations to try to help people understand that a Black person in the community is not a cause for concern. If you see some behavior that's criminal, you can do something, but the mere presence of a Black person is not criminal."
Green and his wife of 60 years, retired newspaper columnist Loretta Green, spoke of repeated incidents over decades of their four children being pulled aside and questioned by police while walking, bicycling, driving or socializing in their own Palo Alto neighborhood.
"Our boys especially were stopped all the time," Loretta Green said. "The first question was always, 'Get out of the car; where'd you steal the car?' They were even stopped in our neighborhood and asked for ID — many times. The (police) told them their rule was to stop people who look like they don't belong, so I guess we look like we don't belong."
One son — tasked with picking up his younger sister from her after-school program by bicycle — begged his parents to relieve him of the chore after being questioned multiple times by police about the bike he was towing for his sister.
Another time, police called the Greens to suggest that their fifth-grade son had broken into the principal's office at 10:30 p.m. and stolen money when he was actually home in bed. The evidence was that his baseball glove — which a teacher had picked up on the playground and placed in the principal's office — had been found there.
Some years later their daughter, by then a student at the University of California, Berkeley, was walking to visit her mother at a downtown Palo Alto newspaper office when she was blocked by a police car and questioned about a homicide she knew nothing about.
The repeated, upsetting incidents take a corrosive psychological toll, the longtime residents said. Children come to fear and expect that police are not going to help or support them.
"Palo Alto is a nice town but it's a white town and people don't realize their biases," said Loretta Green who, before retiring in 2004, was an award-winning columnist for the San Jose Mercury News and the former Palo Alto Times and Peninsula Times Tribune. "We all have biases — I'm sure I have biases, too. For racial minorities it's very damaging because it's cumulative — it just piles up and piles up and then you wonder why somebody goes off. They're just sick of it and they do something crazy and get killed."
Longtime Palo Alto resident LaDoris Cordell relayed similar experiences.
As a young lawyer in the mid-1970s, Cordell was riding in a car with her then-husband and a friend when they were stopped by police at the corner of Middlefield and Willow roads. Cordell was ordered to stand against the wall of a grocery store at gunpoint while the vehicle was searched, she said.
"It was absolutely terrifying and thoroughly embarrassing," said Cordell, a retired judge and former dean at Stanford University who served on the Palo Alto City Council from 2003 to 2007.
"It wasn't just one cop — it was two or three with guns. Once I was allowed to turn around, I was told there'd been a robbery at Baskin-Robbins by three Black men on foot.
"Here I was, female and in a car with two African American males — not on foot. I'm a lawyer; I went to Stanford Law School; I'm doing everything I'm supposed to do to be successful and move forward and at that time it didn't matter. All they saw were three Black people.
"I got no apology. I was just looked at as a criminal suspect. It really said to me, 'This is how you're seen first before they find out who you are.'"
Sara Boyd, a retired vice-principal at Menlo Atherton High School, and her husband, Harold, a retired Stanford administrator, raised two sons in the Palo Alto home where they still live.
"We had an extremely frightening experience when the police picked up one of our sons while he was stopped at a gas station in Los Altos," Boyd recalled. "He'd taken a karate class at Stanford and he had his sticks in the back of the car."
Their son was told karate sticks could be a lethal weapon. The officers asked him whether he would use the sticks to defend himself if someone tried to hurt him and, when he answered in the affirmative, they took him to jail, Boyd said.
"We'd never had any trouble with the police and suddenly we had to find a bail bondsman — it was very frightening but I wasn't going to go home without him."
The charges were later dropped.
Boyd said her husband, once stopped for a minor traffic infraction, was asked whether he was "going for a gun" when he reached toward the glove compartment to retrieve his vehicle registration.
"The police officer was so hostile to him," Boyd said. "The assumption is that all Black people carry guns, especially Black men. We don't have guns. We detest violence. That was irritating. Why was he talked to in such a hostile manner?"
Of the recently publicized killings of Black people at the hands of police, Boyd said: "I cringe because that could have been one of my sons. It isn't pleasant for us, but we do what we have to do to survive, and we try to do the right thing."
Retiree Michael Harrison grew up in Palo Alto — his grandfather first came here in the 1920s — and graduated from Palo Alto High School in 1968.
As a child in the late 1950s, he walked frequently from his grandparents' Crescent Park home to play at his cousins' house in Midtown.
"A group of guys at the corner of Channing and Newell were always there and they'd yell the N-word over and over every time I walked by," recalled Harrison, now retired after 28 years with the pharmaceutical company Alza.
Harrison said he would keep walking without responding.
"What were my options? I'm one Black kid and they're four or five white guys," he said. "I'd probably be the one who got in trouble if there were a fight so I just stayed to myself. But I remembered who they were and basically I did not befriend any of them throughout high school."
As a young lawyer, Cordell said she found a community of African American friends in East Palo Alto, where she launched her law practice, but chose to raise her two daughters in Palo Alto.
"I decided to stay here primarily because of the schools and I was not disappointed — my daughters got a very good education," she said. "But I saw things here in this community.
"What was consistent was how kids of color, particularly Black kids, were treated, mostly at the high schools. Black kids were getting suspended or disciplined at disproportionate rates given how small their population was. I'd get calls — sometimes from parents, sometimes from teachers — who saw this and were concerned. It was all part of the systemic racism issue."
In 1982 Cordell was appointed to the Santa Clara County Municipal Court by then-Gov. Jerry Brown. Six years later, she won the election for Superior Court, where she served until leaving to become vice provost at Stanford in 2001.
When people began discussing racial profiling in the 1980s or 1990s, "there was all this pushback," she said. "Now we know it happens. It's harder if you're Black and you live in a city that counts itself as being liberal, mostly white, where people don't get it, or are in denial or don't understand."
Cordell said she "should be jaded by now" but remains "ever hopeful," particularly encouraged by the youthful organizers of the current protests. She also has recently found joy in a surprising racially integrated venue in Palo Alto — the pickleball courts at Mitchell Park.
Boyd said she feels uplifted by the Black Lives Matter signs she notices in the yards of some of her neighbors while out for her afternoon walks.
"It's really consoling and comforting to me to know that our neighbors are finally aware about police brutality in this country," she said. "When people put a sign in their yard, we feel like they have empathy for the Black people in America."
Loretta Green credited people with cell phones for photographing and documenting racist incidents that, in previous times, would not have been believed.
"Thank goodness for cell phones," she said. "I'm hoping that will make a difference, because all of this has been going on for a long time," she said.
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