Cordell says city commission’s report on race lacks immediate steps to solve racial problems

LaDoris Cordell

Daily Post Staff Writer

LaDoris Cordell, a retired Santa Clara County Superior Court judge and former Palo Alto councilwoman, said a new report on the city’s history of racism lacks immediate steps to address the problem.

A report coming to council Tuesday detailing the history of racism doesn’t have a plan the council can use immediately to address racial discrimination, Cordell told the Post.

The report, titled “Black and Brown Palo Alto — History and Current Experience,” was penned by the Human Relations Commission Chairman Rev. Kaloma Smith and Vice Chairwoman Valerie Stinger after council on June 15 asked the commission to write a report on how the city can address racism.

Cordell said the report is “more talk and conversations we don’t need.”

“I believe that the HRC members are all well-intentioned and that they are committed to justice and equality,” Cordell said via email. “I would have liked to see a report that focused on steps that all of us can take to make justice and equality for all happen in Palo Alto now.”

Cordell has lived in Palo Alto since 1971 when she was admitted to Stanford Law School and said she experienced “bigotry and discrimination” throughout her time here since then.

Even after getting a Stanford Law degree, she said that shortly after graduating she was profiled by Palo Alto police along with two other African American men during a traffic stop. Officers ordered them out of the car, forced them to stand with their arms and legs apart while the cops pointed loaded firearms at Cordell and her fellow passengers, she said. Police had mistaken them for two black men who allegedly robbed a store in Palo Alto and escaped on foot, she said.

“We received no apology and were sent on our way, albeit all of us shaken to the core,” Cordell said.

She also has encountered white Realtors who assumed she could not afford to buy a home in the city, by salespeople who wouldn’t wait on her in stores in the Stanford Shopping Center and by neighbors she said she fears might call the cops on her during her daily two-mile walks. She said she is afraid they might think she is “suspicious” simply because she is black and they think she doesn’t belong.

The report said these situations could be considered “microaggressions” — subtle but offensive comments directed at a racial minority — but Cordell doesn’t agree.

“I don’t view any of these experiences as ‘microaggressions.’ There is nothing about them that is ‘micro,’ Cordell said. “ I think that this is true for all people of color who have faced discrimination. ‘Micro” implies that it’s a small, insignificant matter, when in fact these occurrences are anything but that. These are all macro-aggressions. They stay with us, no matter how long ago they occurred.”

Instances of police brutality in recent years against minority Palo Alto residents were skipped in the report, though the report mentions that police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky. as starting points for Palo Alto’s recent police reforms.

The report says that the police have ended police use of chokeholds — which the state banned in September — but it doesn’t mention the 2018 attack by former Palo Alto police Sgt. Wayne Benitez on Gustavo Alvarez, a resident of the city’s Buena Vista Mobile Home Park.

In February 2018, Benitez slammed the face of a handcuffed Alvarez against the hood of a car, knocking out Alvarez’s tooth, a surveillance video of the incident shows. Benitez is also heard mocking Alvarez for being gay. The city paid Alvarez $572,500 in 2019 to settle the case.

District Attorney Jeff Rosen has filed two misdemeanor charges against Benitez — assault under the color of authority and lying on a police report — and a preliminary hearing is set for Wednesday (Jan. 20).

Benitez, 62, pleaded innocent to the charges at his Nov. 4 arraignment.

The report also doesn’t mention a $10 million federal lawsuit Buena Vista resident Julio Arevalo has brought against Palo Alto police over his violent arrest on July 20, 2019, outside Happy Donuts. The violent struggle broke the bones around Arevalo’s eye. The incident might have been ignored except that it was captured by the body camera of arresting officer Thomas DeStefano and the security system of the El Camino Real doughnut shop.

DeStefano told police investigators that he suspected Arevalo of dealing drugs. But it turned out Arevalo wasn’t in possession of any drugs, though he tested positive for amphetamine use. In the body camera footage of the incident, Arevalo repeatedly asks DeStefano and other officers who arrive on the scene why he is being arrested. The lawsuit says Arevalo went to Happy Donuts to buy a doughnut so he could surprise his son with it in the morning.

The suit claims police denied medical care to Arevalo by not taking him to the hospital for nearly two hours even though he was knocked unconscious, suffered a traumatic brain injury, had lacerations, had injuries to his wrist, knees, and legs, and suffered broken orbital bones.

The report says there’s a lack of black and brown role models in Palo Alto.

“Role models can be found everywhere and anywhere — teachers, counselors, politicians, religious leaders, business people, etc.,” Cordell said. “In Palo Alto, identifying them is a matter of knowing our history. One project that the HRC can undertake is just that — gathering information about black and brown folks who have made a difference for the better in this city and archiving that info for the city’s official records.”

The report said Palo Alto’s first black person to serve on council, Roy Clay, was elected in 1970, the city’s first black city manager, June Fleming, was hired in 1993.

And where the report asks for permission from the council for the commission to bring together hundreds of community leaders to advise the city on how to combat racism, Cordell offered another criticism.

“I think that it is way too late to have 100 community groups talking about race for the next two years. To what end?” Cordell said. “Isn’t it obvious that what we need to do is enact meaningful police reforms, ensure that there is housing affordable to those who work in this city (teachers, police, etc.) and for those who have low incomes, stop the disproportionate disciplining of black and brown students in our schools, for starters?”


  1. And shouldn’t we also ensure that Black and Brown people who live in Palo Alto be able to visit Foothills Park? They are now being turned away because LaDoris Cordell insisted on opening the park without considering the socioeconomic disparities between these residents and the much wealthier denizens of Los Altos Hills.

  2. Cordell is right. Less talk, more action.
    I read the “report” – it’s disappointing. It was to be a report of black and BROWN history in Palo Altan. That obviously would include contributions to our community since it’s founding – Latino businesses and worker contributions, home life, children and school life, city founders and leaders, and yes, discrimination and recent glaring police brutality.

    The report is more a disappointing collection of some bullet points, emphasizing mostly African Americans and discrimination, while our rich Latino history (in a town with a Spanish name) is given short shrift. Our “founding mother”, Juana Briones, is never even mentioned though her importance to Palo Alto is immense. .

  3. Although I no longer live in Palo Alto, I follow its local news religiously. I am saddened to read this article, and to learn that racial inequality is still an issue for this lovely city, which deems itself Progressive, just as it was in the 70s and 80s when I lived there. I’m pleased to see that Judge Cordell has attempted to focus the council’s attention on what needs to be done to remedy the situation asap.

  4. I’m glad that Judge Cordell called out this uncomfortable, but necessary truth about our City. The main obstacle I faced during my term as a Palo Alto Human Relations Commissioner, which ended before this report was created, was getting City Hall to actually ACT instead of just doing more talking. Many people know this as “the Palo Alto Process”.

    Often we know what the problems are, and we have many examples to look to for how to address them. We don’t always have to reinvent the wheel. The powers at be think Palo Alto is so unique or that these issues don’t affect us, that we end up spending so much time unnecessarily and ineffectively “studying” the issues before actually doing anything about them. And when we actually do act, its usually too little, too late.

    Like Judge Cordell, I always assume that everyone is well-intentioned and is committed to justice and equality. Being well-intentioned isn’t always enough though. Sometimes, we have to shake things up and be bold enough to do the uncomfortable in order to actually move our community forward.

    Just one person’s opinion

  5. LaDoris Cordell doesn’t want to be stopped by police? No one does…even criminals. Does she suppose police can tell who committed a crime before investigating?

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