Vigil of reconciliation brings hope in East Palo Alto

Dialogue seeks to engage police, people of color in wake of violence

Fear along with a commitment to unity and understanding marked a vigil involving people of many races and ethnicities in East Palo Alto on Monday night, held in the wake of shootings involving police nationwide.

The gathering brought together more than 70 people who voiced grief, concerns and hopes and spoke about how they have been personally affected by the violence.

The vigil and discussion was held at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, spearheaded by Pastor Paul Bains and convened by Faith In Action Bay Area and local faith leaders. Police chiefs Dennis Burns of Palo Alto and Robert Jonsen of Menlo Park, East Palo Alto Commander Jeff Liu and Palo Alto City Councilman Marc Berman also attended.

Bains said fear and confusion in East Palo Alto is palpable following the fatal shootings in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, of Alton Sterling by police on July 5 and of 32-year-old Philando Castile in Minnesota during a traffic stop the next day. The killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge since then have also instilled fear and concern among East Palo Alto residents and law enforcement, people on both sides said.

Bains said that young people are "blowing up" his phones, concerned about interactions with police.

"Because of what I am hearing on the streets, it's very chancy right now," he said, regarding the need for the vigil and dialogue. "This is a powder keg. You hear it on the street. You are fearful of what is to come."

Laura Arceo-Madriz, 17, a Menlo-Atherton High School student, was one of the few young people at the vigil -- a void that many in the room recognized. She said her friends and cousins have had negative experiences with police, such as being pushed down too hard by them. She is afraid of what could happen in the future, she said.

Much of the problem lies in a different set of standards applied to people of color, and that comes from not knowing each other, Arceo-Madriz said.

"I don't understand how this is still happening. It hurts. ... It's a mentality that needs to change. How is it that we are still here despite efforts to promote peace and nonviolence?" she said.

Jorge Bautista, minister of the Congregational Church of San Mateo United Church of Christ, said he is full of rage.

Although he is a man of peace, he said, "There are moments when I can't help but want to throw something out a window."

Growing up in San Jose, Bautista and his friends were victims of police brutality, he said. When he got older and began working with gangs and the police, he met many good officers. But the trauma of those early police encounters runs deep. Reconciling his experiences as a youth with his relationship with police officers today is hard, he said.

"When I see people angry in the streets, I understand," Bautista said.

Bains, who is also the Palo Alto Police Department chaplain, has himself experienced racism from police officers, he said. Bains and others said the psychological wounds resulting from unjust treatment by police and from racial inequality last a lifetime.

Both Bains and Liu said the East Palo Alto community still struggles with trusting police in the aftermath of a very ugly episode in the city's history. In the 1990s, a band of white officers who called themselves the "Wolf Pack" terrorized residents, beating some of them.

Liu said he experienced the repercussions of that criminal behavior when he joined the force in 2000.

"I inherited that. I was judged based on the uniform and I still am," he said.

Liu said he has deep concerns about the situation across the country.

"As a nation I'm afraid for the dynamics and the atmosphere of policing and the people feeling abused," he said. But he noted that East Palo Alto "is not South Carolina or any of these cities" where police shootings have taken place.

The large sizes of communities where the shootings by police have occurred contributed to the violence, he said. In a small city such as East Palo Alto, the risks for such incidents are lower because police and many residents tend to know each other. He pointed to the fact that the last police-involved shooting in the city took place in 2006, when officer Rich May was killed.

Knowing people in the community can make the difference between life and death when police are dealing with a suspect, even an armed one, Liu said.

Last year, he was dispatched to an alleged stabbing at a preschool graduation. When he got out of his patrol car, he found himself facing the knife-wielding man. In that kind of situation, where there are many families nearby and a man is carrying a "giant knife," the odds of successfully disarming the person without force are low, he said.

But Liu knew the man.

"I said, 'Throw the knife down.' And he did," Liu recalled.

Even people at Monday's vigil who haven't been directly affected by police brutality said they wept as they watched recent tragic events unfold on TV. And they wondered what they could do.

"I've been working in the social justice and racial justice area for 15 years. I have been stunned over the past 2 1/2 years that this is going on. In December 2015 when Mario Woods in San Francisco was killed on camera, I was sitting at home when I got the message. I started weeping," Jennifer Martinez, executive director of Faith In Action Bay Area, said.

Martinez, who identifies herself as white Hispanic, called the discomfort of hearing about what's happening to others a small price to pay compared to the risks facing her darker-skinned colleagues and family members.

"I think of all of the things I've said that have showed my ignorance," she said. "I want to be made uncomfortable, and I'm OK with that."

East Palo Altans have been seared by decades of violence that has taken the lives of many young people. Since 1995, 145 young people have been killed by violence in East Palo Alto, said Bettye Wilson of Mothers and Others Opposing Violence Embracing Peace Unity Healing and Love (MOOVE 2 Peace).

Wilson's son died in violence in 2012. Each time she hears of killings in East Palo Alto or the shootings of young people and officers around the country, the pain returns, she said.

"It shatters me all over again because I know the pain that that family is going to endure. When I see these deaths on TV, I am shaken to my core," Wilson said.

"Black-on-black, brown-on-brown crime and the police officers -- they all need to be put in the same bucket. We need to stop all of it," she said.

Wilson said she does not blame all police.

"My anger is against those officers that are making them all look bad. It's a small number that are doing this," she said.

Palo Alto Police Chief Burns observed that police rely on the trust of the community, and right now, "it's shaken across the country. My thought is that it's not an us-and-them thing. (It's) how are we going to move forward?"

Robert Jonsen, chief of Menlo Park police, said that his department has been involved in conversations and vigils on a quarterly basis. That work has paid off, he said.

"We have a good relationship in our community for the most part," Jonsen said.

Liu has worked hard to get community members to see beyond his uniform and to just know him as "Jeff," he said. The East Palo Alto Police Department has recently hired many young officers, and Liu has been mentoring them, often reminding them to get out and meet with community members.

"That way you have an idea of who you are working for," he said.

On Monday night, participants partnered with someone they didn't know to share their experiences. Many people of different races -- white and black and brown -- hugged or held hands as they talked, looking intently at one another, trying to find a way forward.

Justin Wooley said he had an eye-opening discussion with a Caucasian woman.

"She said she felt guilty and had the feeling that she needs to do more. ... We touched on white privilege and the reverse side of growing up in a predominantly black community. We talked about hope and we also hugged," he said. The vigil had "moved the conversation to things that are higher than us." And it was an opportunity to make a new friend, he said.

Darryl Stubblefield gave hugs to anyone he could find after the meeting.

"If nobody told you they love you, I will. This community is where I lay my head. All we have to do is say 'Hi,'" he said.

"If we don't speak to each other, how are we going to communicate?" Stubblefield asked.

Monday's gathering was the first in a series of dialogues and action events that are planned, Bains said. The next meeting will focus on bringing together youth and police to discuss their personal feelings and on how to resolve conflicts. More information can be found on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, search for the hashtag #epavigilanddialogue.

East Palo Alto Police Department racial/gender makeup

Police Officers: 35 total sworn

Caucasian: 12 male; 1 female

Latino: 3 male; 4 female

Asian: 6 male

African American: 5 male

Pacific Islander: 2 male

Other: 2 male (Iranian/Palestinian)

Records/community service aides/community service officer: 9 total non-sworn

Latino: 3 male; 3 female

African American: 2 female

Asian: 1 female

Source: East Palo Alto Police Department

How to file a complaint against a police officer:

East Palo Alto Police Department: Visit and click on "Report a Concern and fill out the form or visit the department to request a form in English/Spanish. The Administrative Services Sergeant will contact the citizen. Verbal complaints can be made in person or by calling 650-321-1112.

Palo Alto Police Department: Call 650-329-2413, 24 hours a day, and ask to speak with an on-duty supervisor. Persons can also choose to contact the Independent Police Auditor, Mr. Michael Gennaco, at 323-412-0334 or by email at

Related content:

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After sniper shootings in the South, Palo Alto officers patrol in pairs


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