In the wee hours of Aug. 8, local protesters plastered University Avenue in downtown with anti-racism posters depicting how racial discrimination permeates throughout Palo Alto.
By 10:30 a.m., a white man had spray-painted over the posters with pro-Donald Trump messages and racist rhetoric: "MAGA (Make America Great Again);" "THEY (Black people) COMMIT MORE CRIMES" and splotches of gold paint that obscured quotes and QR codes linked to information on the posters.
On Monday, the city washed and scraped the posters away.
"I'm not shocked. I don't put (this incident) past Palo Alto," said Hudson Alexander, 20, a Gunn High School alumnus who helped organize the display.
The event was led by a group of mostly local high school and college students, who call themselves Palo Alto Youth Art Protest and intended the display to serve as a quiet demonstration.
Organizers said the group was created in June to localize a movement that was happening around the world and to push their own hometown to reckon with its issues on racism.
"There's some sort of shallow liberalism that operates in the city of Palo Alto," Alexander said. "And there's not a lot of action behind words."
The result was a quiet, but pointed and highly methodical protest that was emblematic of the times. The paper used for the posters was recycled. The environmentally friendly glue used to stick them on University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto — a prime location where foot traffic is guaranteed since the city closed the road in June for outdoor dining — was made of flour, water and sugar; and each informational sign was cited with QR codes to direct passersby to the source as a way to combat any accusations of "fake news," said Lucia Amieva-Wang, a 19-year-old Palo Alto High School alumna who helped organize the event.
Along with the artwork, portraits and a quote from novelist James Baldwin, many of the 26 posters pointed people's attention to past and recent examples of systemic racism in Palo Alto and Santa Clara County.
"The majority of subdivisions established in the city between 1925 and 1950 included the following clause," one poster stated, quoting paloaltohistory.org: "No person not wholly of the white caucasian race shall use or occupy such property unless such person or persons are employed as servants of the occupants."
Another poster had black-and-white yearbook photos with the following message: "In the 2018-2019 school year, 7.2% of Black students were suspended from PAUSD. 0.7% of white students were suspended." (According to a 2019 report from the California School Dashboard, an online database of statistics on the state's school systems, 6.7% of Black students at Palo Alto Unified were suspended at least once, compared to the 0.7% of white students.)
"We wanted this to be like an exhibit in downtown, where people would walk away learning something new about the racism that exists everyday in Palo Alto," Amieva-Wang said.
But in a few hours, the posters were vandalized. The man, who made contact with the Palo Alto Police Department after the incident, spray-painted most of the posters, one by one, refuting each of its messages with what he called "corrections," according to a passersby's video of the altercation. The city did not immediately have his name available to release to this news organization.
On one poster, which cited how the city spent $44.6 million on the Palo Alto Police Department in the 2019-20 fiscal year, he spray-painted, "Give them more."
In the video, the man is seen shouting, "Patriot lives matter" and "You're pro-death camps," referring to unsubstantiated claims that the Black Lives Matter organization supports reported death camps in China.
"This is all anti-Trump," he said, and then repeated a now popularized, but unfounded far-right conspiracy theory about how Trump was "putting his foot down" on pedophiles.
The man was cited for vandalism by police, Meghan Horrigan-Taylor, the city's chief communications officer, said in an email. The case has since been referred to the Santa Clara County's District Attorney's Office to consider issuing charges of vandalism and/or a hate crime, she wrote.
On Friday afternoon, a District Attorney's spokesperson said the office had not received the case yet.
In a similar case, a couple from Martinez, a city in Contra Costa County, was recently charged for a hate crime by county District Attorney Diana Becton for vandalizing a city-approved and sanctioned Black Lives Matter mural with paint. According to a Mercury News report, however, several prosecutors within Becton's office disagreed with the charge.
Unlike the "Black Lives Matter" street mural on Hamilton Avenue — funded and approved by city officials — the Palo Alto Youth Art Protest's project was done without the city's permission.
"I don't know the exact legal definition of a hate crime," Alexander said. "But I will say there was hate behind (the incident), 100,000%."
To the dismay of the Palo Alto Youth Art Protest, the posters, even those that were not vandalized, were scraped away on Monday by city workers. (In an Aug. 8 email sent to the City Council on the same day of the incident, the group said it would remove the posters if the city does not agree with the demonstration instead of having janitorial or city staff take care of the job, as it "would be counterproductive to the message and the movement, and disrespectful to our community workers.")
Assistant City Manager Monique le Conge Ziesenhenne responded to the group's email on Monday, saying that the city supports peaceful protests in the community but "the vandalized posters no longer shared your intended messages" since the "negative comments added were intended to harm one aspect of our community."
She also wrote that the city "retains the right to remove items placed in the roadway and other right-of-way areas without warning or reason,"
Horrigan-Taylor agreed, noting that the posters were ultimately "placed illegally on a city street." She did not respond for clarification as to which aspect of the community the city believed was being harmed.
According to another email between the protest group and city officials, including Mayor Adrian Fine, the group was told by a Palo Alto police officer that "if the organizers were to want to do it again, that in his opinion, there wouldn't be a problem from the city's side."
Since the incident, a GoFundMe page was set up by Palo Alto Youth Art Protest, seeking $1,500 for more supplies for a follow-up protest event. The page raised $2,710 as of Friday afternoon.
Alexander said some of the money will be used on supplies for a "part 2" of Saturday's protest, and the remaining funds will be donated to local nonprofit organizations.
"You don't have to silence someone else's voice, which is what historically this country has done, to say what you have to say," Amieva-Wang said.