A throng of people marched through the streets of downtown Los Altos Friday afternoon in a peaceful protest against police violence and the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
They shouted chants like "No justice, no peace. No racist police" and "Say her name: Breonna Taylor."
The day might have been very different. Under other circumstances, it would have been Breonna Taylor's 27th birthday. It would also have been graduation day for many of the community's high school seniors. But Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency room technician, was killed by Louisville police officers shortly after midnight on March 13.
The threat of the coronavirus has banned most large gatherings, including graduations, while shelter in place orders are in effect.
Yet the protests of the past week in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and in opposition to racially charged police violence have brought protesters and allies out of their homes in record numbers.
Kenan and Kai Moos, who are African American and graduates of Los Altos High School, organized the Los Altos protest. Both said that they've personally been treated poorly because of their race. Kenan said he's been pulled over 15 times while driving the speed limit for "driving while Black."
Kai, who wore a Black Lives Matter T-shirt and recently finished his freshman year at Yale, said he's experienced many racial microaggressions, or small indignities that communicate prejudicial insults, like always being watched in stores.
Some of the policy changes they hope come out of the protest, Kai said, is for Derek Chauvin to be charged with first-degree murder and for police departments to be defunded and demilitarized. Chauvin is the Minneapolis police officer who killed Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man, by kneeling on his neck for more than eight minutes.
Another policy Kai Moos suggested is for schools to be funded with a more equitable source than property taxes.
School funding relies on home values in neighborhoods, which have been historically shaped by racist housing policies like redlining. Redlining is the practice by which banks or government agencies denied loans, mortgages or other financial resources to people based on their neighborhoods, usually neighborhoods that were occupied by African American or other minority groups. Funding schools this way carries some of those racialized inequalities over into the education sector, he argued.
Toni Moos, Kenan and Kai's mother, is a physician. She said she was proud and surprised when Kenan decided to organize the protest. Yes, there's a pandemic happening, she said, but everyone ultimately has to decide what risks to take. This, she said, was a risk she felt to be worth taking, especially because Los Altos is a community where the prevalence of COVID-19 is very low.
"It's important to be here," she added.
The long trail of protesters took to the street, winding their way down Main Street and through downtown Los Altos, in many cases taking over streets that the Los Altos police had closed off to vehicles. While protests in other communities have worried business owners to the point that some boarded up or closed their businesses, many shop owners in Los Altos stood outside as the protesters passed, some signaling support for their cause.
While marching, the protesters, many of whom were students, gave different reasons for joining in the protest that afternoon.
Ten-year-old Anneliese, holding a poster while on her skateboard, said she was participating in the protest to support an organizer who is part of her soccer club. Her poster, she said, "means that we're all stronger together than separated."
Joseph, a 12 year-old Bullis Charter School student who is African American said he was marching because "police brutality has come to a point where it's absurd."
Kelly Peir, a rising sophomore at Mountain View High School, said she was marching to "do my part to make sure Black voices are heard."
Clara Martin, a rising sophomore who lives in Los Altos, held a poster bearing the names of many people who have died as a result of police violence. She said she was marching because "this is a really important issue that's not talked about enough."
Sisters Miranda and Ava Liu, who attend college at U.C. Riverside and the University of Toronto, said they felt the community can be "liberal bubble" and that marching in support of the Black community was "the least we can do."
Kevin Lee, an African American Mountain View resident, said that he was marching to raise his voice in protest to call for policy changes in the criminal justice system. He'd endured many negative encounters with law enforcement but some positive ones as well, he said.
State Senate candidate Josh Becker, who attended the protest and is the leading contender to represent about 1 million Peninsula residents between South San Francisco and Sunnyvale in the state Senate come November, said that the protests held up and down the Peninsula over the past week send a clear signal of commitment to furthering the goals of racial equality.
"How do we get to true racial equality?" he asked. Criminal justice reform and ending police violence should be the "floor," he said. He added that seeing so many high school students and young adults organizing the protests was inspiring.
The march ended at Los Altos' Lincoln Park, where attendees knelt for eight minutes and 46 seconds as part of a protest to mark the length of time Chauvin knelt on Floyd's neck, killing him.
There were speeches, with both Moos brothers reading poems.
Jimmy Dessouki, a member of the Los Altos High School Associated Student Body and rising senior, worked with the high school to use its sound system for the protest.
His message to the crowd was: "Don't stop until racism is over."
"We can't make a change unless we learn how we got here," said Kiyoshi Taylor, a 2015 Los Altos High School graduate. "Why is it we know so much about white history, but even black kids don't know the first damn thing about their own history? … They're not going to teach it to us."
Some people, he said, will post a black square on Instagram, and say they've done their social justice for the day.
"It don't work that way," he said.
Crysta Krames, a member of the Los Altos Community Foundation who is white and lives on the street where the protest ended, talked about a time she was silent and didn't challenge the racist behaviors of a relative. "We have to feel uncomfortable speaking up," she said. "There are simply too many murders that scream, 'Show me I matter.'"
A real-life civics lesson
The Los Altos protest came less than 24 hours after another large Black Lives Matter protest in Mountain View, which drew at least 1,000 attendees, organizers said, and shut down El Camino Real for blocks as protesters marched from the intersection of El Camino Real and San Antonio Road to Mountain View City Hall.
Los Altos High School civics and history teacher Seth Donnelly helped students organize the protest. He said the protests in Mountain View and Los Altos represented "the most exciting moment of activism I've seen in my lifetime."
"We always talk about historical moments. This was a chance for students and teachers to make history," he said.
Helping to organize the protest were graduating seniors Greg Corn, Elena Mujica and Anna Fletcher.
After deciding on a time and a place for the protest, they spread the word to their networks on social media. The turnout far surpassed their expectations.
"We ended up taking the intersection," said Corn.
"It was surreal," said Mujica. "It felt very powerful, to stop the main road of traffic in the city to say this was something we really cared about that needs to be talked about."
"You can stop and sit in traffic for a little and think about systemic change,'" was the message the protest sent to the drivers stuck waiting in vehicles, she said.
Fletcher said that she felt it is her duty to "stand in solidarity with the Black community."
"As a white person with a lot of privilege in this community, it's important to use it to help those without it and push the conversation toward systemic shifts in policing, policy and culture," she added.
Mujica worked with Donnelly, the civics teacher, to create a list of 10 demands that protesters would push for.
Among them: That all the people involved in the murders of George Floyd Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery be prosecuted to the full extent; that federal police reform legislation mandate a zero-tolerance approach toward officers who kill unarmed, non-violent and non-resisting people; that chokeholds and strangleholds no longer be an acceptable practice by police officers; and that officers be mandated to engage in de-escalation strategies where possible to avoid using force.
Mujica added the Los Altos History Museum will be collecting posters from the protests for archival purposes.
"Maybe I'll come back to Los Altos and see my poster someday," she said.
Her poster's message? "Respect existence, or expect resistance, motherf***ers."