A day before Halloween, 2008, a few of my Palo Alto neighbors went to City Hall for a discussion about the robberies that had disturbed our residential equanimity. With the community demanding action, the Police Chief responded with tough-talk: “I have told my staff that I want you, when you’re out on the street, and you see African-Americans who, somehow, and these are vague descriptions, we don’t have real finite descriptions, I want you to go and have consensual contacts initially, to see who these people are.”
No sign of weakness from the rambling Chief. The spree of robberies would end, and our happy population could return to shopping sprees. “Consensual contacts” would save the day.
Less then a week before Barack Obama would be elected President (and Commander in Chief) of the United States, Palo Alto’s Chief of Police was suggesting that being stopped and questioned by her officers was consensual. Her carelessly honest comment drew me away from the middle-aged, feel-good excitement of the political campaign that I was involved in, and took me back nearly 30 years to Northwestern University, in Evanston, IL, a long, bumpy elevated train ride from Chicago’s Grant Park, where President-elect Obama would celebrate what many believed to be a history-changing victory of hope over hubris.
It was 1980, and I was a senior in college. To honor a friend who had died in a hit-and-run accident, I had made a pledge to not shave throughout my final undergraduate year. My heavy, dark, and unruly facial hair became a second pair of eyes, allowing me to see, and be seen, in different ways.
Walking to and from classes on the campus stretch of Sheridan Road, I kept my head down, lost in grief. Gradually, I began to make eye contact. In the fall, some of the white kids and all of the Indians nodded a neighborly hello. Except for slightly different shades of skin color, we shared much: hairstyle, walking style, the sidewalk, and perhaps aspirations beyond college.
As the school year progressed, the snow piles grew deep and dirty, and my beard grew thick and curly. After Winter Break, the bitter cold off of Lake Michigan insisted on a knit cap to cover my head. Between the cap and the beard, my eyes continued to make contact with fellow pedestrians. The black students, who had ignored me in the fall (and whose ignorance I had reciprocated), began nodding hello with a quick, upward jerk of the chin. Like a choral group that falls silent when a separate part comes to life, the whites and the Indians no longer saw me; they looked right past me, keeping their chins tucked into their chests.
Away from Sheridan Road, people tried to sell me dope and occasionally young toughs told me to go back to the Ayatollah. I lacked the patience to explain that as a Hindu Brahmin born in India, drugs and Iran were as foreign to me as death was to a college kid.
But my high-caste birth and my upper-class education didn’t protect me from consensual contact with the Chicago Police Department. As the child of frugal immigrants who worked day jobs and night jobs, I lived in a pre-gentrified part of Chicago and commuted to the university in Evanston. One cold night, walking home with a paper sack of groceries, I heard a car pull up alongside me; a young voice barked, “Hey, Boy!” Having grown up in Chicago, I knew that there was still a sizeable population which hurled that insult at black men, young and old. Although I wasn’t indifferent to the shame of being diminished, I could not imagine being addressed as a “boy.” I was deaf to the phrase. As the automobile stopped, I recognized it as a patrol car; the officer, who was perhaps a year or two older than me, demanded, “Where’s the purse?”
Puzzled, I mumbled, “Huh?”
The cop glared at me and jumped out of his car. “Don’t ‘huh’ me, Boy. I said, where’s the purse!”
I inferred that he was following up on a call about a robbery and had mistaken me for an “African-American perp:” brown face, black eyes, kinky beard. For a moment I thought I would clarify the mistake and be on my way. Instead, with an earnest voice that could be mistaken for that of a professor from the Northern suburbs, I said, “Excuse me, officer. What purse are you talking about?
Now it was his turn to be puzzled. “Oh. Just some confusion. Do you live around here?”
“You pulled me over because you thought I was black, didn’t you.”
“What? Why don’t you show me an ID.”
I thought about the Illinois driver’s license in my wallet but decided to reverse the power play: I displayed my Northwestern student card.
In a moment of respect for the Ivory Tower and its privileged denizens, the police officer said, “Oh, got it. So, what are you doing here?”
Puffed with a false sense of importance, I called the cop out as a racist. “You probably do this all the time, don’t you? Picking up black kids for being black.”
Power politics took one more ride on the teeter-tottering sidewalk. “Look, if you don’t want to come to the station, I suggest you go back to your fancy university.”
I had had enough consensual contact for a lifetime and headed home, not knowing that someday I would move to touchy-feely Palo Alto.
While safely ensconced in our candy-wrapped community, we Palo Altans welcome consensual contact. The weekend before Halloween 2008, hundreds came to the plaza outside of City Hall and to offices across the Silicon Valley to make “Obama for America” calls to strangers in battleground states.
One of my roles in the campaign was to open new phone banking sites. A few weeks before the election, we opened an office in East Palo Alto (or EPA for short), a largely black and Hispanic community that is geographically across Highway 101 from Palo Alto, but socially, economically, and psychologically 101 years away. Before an IKEA and Home Depot were built in East Palo Alto, we Palo Altans didn’t drive to EPA; we drove through it.
At numerous Camp Obamas at which I was asked to lead newly recruited campaign workers, we had standing-room-only attendance. Those camps truly felt like a “rainbow nation” of old, young, and middle-aged, of male, female, and transgender, of poor, rich, and middle-class, of management, union, and entrepreneurial, of citizen, immigrant, and undocumented, of religious, agnostic, and atheistic, and, of course, of black, white, and shades-of-brown. Indeed, we even had Democrats, Independents, and “Disgusted-with-W” Republicans. As such, I imagined that with all the enthusiasm that Senator Obama had generated, I would have little trouble encouraging volunteers to come to our new office in East Palo Alto. As it turned out, people keen on staking their claim on presidential history were willing to sit outside our Palo Alto office in the rain and cold rather than drive a few minutes to our dry, warm, and empty office across the highway.
My lesson learned from the campaign of 2008: unlike our then Police Chief who commanded her officers to make contact with African-Americans, most Palo Altans were uneasy about going to EPA and interacting with our eschewed eastern neighbors somewhere over the highway, somewhere over the rainbow.
Of course, as America’s election for President proceeds in 2012, if our esteemed Eastern neighbors from across the country make their way from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC to Palo Alto, CA, we’ll be more than happy to welcome Barack and Michelle to our leafy neighborhoods. We’ll give them a big hug and happily snap iconic photos of them kissing our babies. I suppose one can’t be too careful about consensual contact.
Rajesh C. Oza, an Organization Alignment Consultant, reviews books for India Currents and writes the “Satyalogue” column for Khabar.