Last summer, I witnessed a possible illegal arrest in our very own Town and Country. Although it has been almost a year since it has happened, recent events have made me reconsider this event in a different light. Palo Alto has long been one of the more educated cities in America. In general, we are a population of affluent, knowledgeable people who are open and tolerant. Whenever brutality or ignorance appears on the news, I am privileged enough to feel horrible for some time afterwards but console myself by knowing injustice cannot persist in a place like Palo Alto, where racism, sexism, and inequality are frowned upon and people are kind and fair. My experience last summer told me otherwise.
I will try to give the most accurate account of the incident below; I do not know the implications, but only wish to explain my experience as a bystander and a teenager who did not know what was going on, nor what do to. As I am trying to be factual, this will likely be a boring read.
I had just gotten off my shift from work at a restaurant nearby, and was eating a late afternoon snack with a friend when an older Black man walked by us. If I remember correctly, he had a slight limp and was moderately tall. We were eating outside, on one of the tables near the street. Later, that same man came back and stood near our table, looking as if he was waiting for someone. We kept eating, as this was not cause for any sort of alarm.
After a few minutes, a police car pulled up. A white police officer came out and pointed at the empty beer can on the ground. The can was sitting on the ground, inconspicuous and didn’t seem to blatantly belong to someone. It was sitting around 6 feet away from a few cloth bags that belonged to the man. I didn’t know this then, but it is unlawful in California to carry an open container of alcohol in a public space; it is a small infraction, with a maximum $250 fine and no jail time. However, it is legal to carry an open alcohol container for the purpose of recycling.
The officer asked the man if it was his, to which he replied no. It was his friend’s, and he was waiting for his friend to come back and pick it up. I don’t know if this is true or not, only that this was the only information given to the police officer for the time being. He then crushed the can and attempted to throw it away, but the police officer stopped him. He politely asked if he could go and find his friend to be questioned, then proceeded try to pick up his bags. The police officer stopped him, leaving the man very confused. I don’t believe he was trying to escape; it would have been impossible anyways, with his bad leg.
They spoke for a while and then another police car arrived. Another white officer came out, and they both questioned the man. This resulted in them dragging him over to their car. They put the bags into the backseat and made the man come to the front of the car, where they bent him over the hood, handcuffed him quite roughly, and put him into the backseat.
I watched and was confused; was there any background to this incident that I don’t know about? What if there was a friend who was coming back? We would truly never know if this man was lying or not; it wasn’t clarified in the ensuing questioning.
At the time, I was taking a summer law course at UC Berkeley. Seeing this arrest, I was curious to see if it was unlawful, so I took pictures and videos in case I needed to prove that this incident occurred to someone later on. I called my professor and detailed the scene to him. After a while, he told me that it was, based on what I saw, an illegal arrest. However, I don't know what circumstances could have changed my perspective.
After all this time, I am still unsure of what I could have done, and what the consequences occurred from this interaction. I’m open to opinions and any information that would be helpful in getting a better understanding of what happened that day. As a form of privacy, I will not be uploading the videos or photos that I took.
I still see those officers around, leading me to think back to that day. Yes, this incident was probably rather minor, but even minor crimes should be held accountable, regardless of which party committed them. This is my perspective that others can add to. For now, I wonder if such arrests are more common than I think, and if I actually did witness an illegal arrest last summer.