Performative Progressiveness: How Palo Alto’s local politics fail to adhere to progressive values

Performative+Progressiveness%3A+How+Palo+Alto%E2%80%99s+local+politics+fail+to+adhere+to+progressive+values

Michaela Seah

 

Palo Alto is cul-de-sacs and bicycles. It’s “Biden 2020” lawn signs and farmers’ markets. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have always been told that I lived in a “liberal bubble,” lucky to be protected by “coexist” bumper stickers and vegan options at the school cafeteria. 

Within my four years at Palo Alto High School, I have seen multiple articles from Verde, C-mag, and The Campanile that talk about this “liberal bubble,” and how Palo Alto is so radically left-wing that right-wingers are allegedly oppressed, as ridiculous as that sounds. This notion is not completely false. 

According to Oxford languages, Liberalism is a belief that generally supports civil rights and the free market, and is often associated with the Democratic Party, which Palo Altans and the greater California overwhelmingly support, according to the official election results.

However, there is a misconception that just because Palo Alto votes blue that it upholds progressive values of equality and justice. Although subtle, Palo Alto participates in the oppression of marginalized groups all the same. 

Policing

ABC7 News found that in 2018 Black people were 13 times more likely to be arrested than White people in Palo Alto. Just last fall, the FBI opened an investigation into the Palo Alto Police Department over the department’s alleged long-standing pattern of violence against unarmed citizens. 

All while the Palo Alto City Council and mayor claim to support Black Lives Matter while only providing bare minimum reforms such as bias training, banning chokeholds and leaving shooting to the last resort, as reported by Palo Alto Online, and refusing to reallocate police funds. 

These reforms are proven to be unsubstantial without further actions, and while better than nothing, they are merely crumbs. The Guardian found that in Democrat majority cities such as Los Angeles, Seattle and New York, cities that have made the exact same reforms as Palo Alto, have been ineffective in preventing the violent and wrongful murders of Eric Garner, Charleena Lyles or Ryan Twyman. All victims of when the officers were practicing the reforms that were supposed to save them. 

Contrary to popular belief, there is no conclusive evidence that bias training reduces prejudice. 

Not too far from us, San Jose, where the police department has practiced implicit bias training for years, had an incident where a Black activist who personally knew the chief and other officers was shot in the groin with a rubber bullet after trying to de-escalate a confrontation between police and protesters. 

“[These reforms] don’t really get at the root causes and root foundations of what policing is in our country,” Pastor Bruce Reyes-Chow, head pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto, Bay Area housing activist and prison abolitionist said.

“Police were formed out of slave-catching units, that was their primary role in early America. That carries on through understanding of what it means to be a police officer. … Police departments are founded on racist ideologies,” Reyes-Chow said. 

“Police were formed out of slave-catching units, that was their primary role in early America. That carries on through understanding of what it means to be a police officer. … Police departments are founded on racist ideologies,”

-Pastor Bruce Reyes-Chow

“Why would the percentage of Black folks that are pulled over, arrested in Palo Alto, go any lower, unless we really challenged the police department and our public officials to think deeply about anti-racist practices in our government and our police department. … If we don’t take steps to change it, we’re just gonna reinforce it. We’re basically saying ‘Yeah, it’s wrong,’ performatively. But, we really don’t think it’s wrong and we’re not going to change anything.”

To attack the core issue is to support defunding the police and reallocating those funds to education, housing, mental health and community. This will help us move toward true crime prevention without the racist, violent institution of policing. 

“I think people’s first idea about abolition is that it is going to turn into the purge, right?” Reyes-Chow said.

“ It’s going to be a free-for-all. And that’s a lack of imagination, and that’s an unwillingness to challenge the status quo and the ways we do things now. And so the first thing we jumped to is why this wouldn’t work as opposed to how we could do this differently,” Reyes-Chow said.

“Palo Alto is not a policed community like other places are. We could actually try some things if our public officials would be open to the possibility of something that could be much better.”

Housing

Affordable housing in the bay and especially Palo Alto has been an issue for a long time, being a space of great job opportunity with nowhere for the employees to live. According to a recent study by The National Low Income Housing Coalition, in pricey counties such as Santa Clara County, the average minimum wage worker would need to work four full-time jobs to make rent, let alone have enough left for food and family expenses. A 5% rise from 2019. 

Widespread unemployment due to the pandemic makes matters worse, another study by San Jose-based nonprofit Healing Grove Health Center estimates that nearly 15,000 households in Santa Clara county are in danger of homelessness when eviction protections expire in February.  While Palo Alto bans residential evictions during the pandemic, they still have yet to freeze or enact rent control. 

The crisis has gotten to the point where the state has attempted to intervene. The Mercury News has reported that in a recent plan, the Association of Bay Area Governments,  a regional planning agency of elected officials funded by the Department of Housing and Community Development, has demanded that Palo Alto grow by 36% over an 8-year span, the highest of any other city in Santa Clara County. This would mean about 10,000 new housing units, over half which will be below-market-rate. 

The plan has been met with resistance from the Palo Alto City Council, which voted six-to-one in a meeting in November to send a letter of protest to ABAG, this being the fifth such letter sent since August. 

While there is lots of groaning from council members who claim the demand  is “impossible,” this sentiment does not seem to be shared when it comes to not-so-affordable housing. 

The Stanford Daily reported earlier this year that the city has built 421 units of higher-income housing since 2015. Contrast that to the measly 43 units of low-income housing built since 2015, only 6% of what was mandated by the AGAB plan.

The city has built 421 units of higher-income housing since 2015. Contrast that to the measly 43 units of low-income housing built since 2015, only 6% of what was mandated by the AGAB plan.

Reported by the Stanford Daily

“I think Palo Alto, in some ways, likes to be this exclusive, provincial, kind of space,” Reyes-Chow said. 

“What does it really mean if we want to build more housing? Well, it means we’re going to have to give up some corridors that we feel like have this untouchable image or view, in order to bring in more housing,” Reyes-Chow said. “You can’t just say you want more housing and then not be willing to shift and change what things may look like. And that’s a very conservative value, right? To keep things the way they are and then talk about wanting to change.”

What Now?

The truth is that Palo Alto’s “progressiveness” and liberalism, in general, is a contradiction. The city can either care about marginalized communities as they claim or they can continue to be full of hot air. They cannot do both. Defund the Police. Support affordable housing. Or continue to be hypocritical. 

Yet despite its flaws, Palo Alto is not completely hopeless. Just this November, the council finally voted to open Foothills Park to non-residents, albeit from tremendous pressure from the NAACP, the ACLU, and countless residents, as reported by The Mercury News. It’s clear that with enough pressure, even Palo Alto’s most signature symbol of elitism can be destroyed. 

The burden of change, however, is not entirely on the city. The election may be over, but change does solely come from the ballot box. If you are able, donate or volunteer for local mutual aid, which is a community-based way to exchange resources as a form of solidarity. Getting involved is as easy as visiting the Bay Area Mutual Aid Wiki, where you can donate resources to the community and provide support for strikes, protests, and tenet organizations.

“There have to be continued protests and public action, because that’s the only way that you can get people into realizing, ‘Oh, we have to do something.’”

-Pastor Bruce Reyes-Chow

“There have to be continued protests and public action, because that’s the only way that you can get people into realizing, ‘Oh, we have to do something.’”

Change is a collective effort, not an individual one. It is essential to keep protesting, keep fighting, and keep helping one another to demand what Palo Alto says it is: a city that is willing to stand up to oppression.

“The more we can do that,” Reyes-Chow said, “the more we push our public servants to make policy that will hopefully begin to turn the tide of how our municipalities actually function.”