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Peaceful Protest Puts Los Gatos On Edge, Unveils Underlying Racial Tensions

Bay Area residents have been holding significant protests all over the region in the past week. Here's the story of an important demonstration in Los Gatos that almost didn’t happen.

In the media, “protests” are often conflated with “looting.” That’s contributed to small town businesses worrying about demonstrations in their neighborhoods.

Such was the case on Monday when a group of Los Gatos teens put the call out on social media for a Black Lives Matter march.

Many locals urged the teens to cancel the protest. Some started sending ominous messages to an organizer: 15-year-old Nika Sabouri and her family, who are residents of Los Gatos. Casey Kamali, a fellow Los Gatos High School student, saw the impact:

“People were sending her intimidating messages ... saying that, you know, if looters came, they'd bring looters to her house."

Kamali helped Sabouri organize the march.

“Police were giving us run around answers and deferring us to other people. And then saying: ‘No, it can't be here, but it can't be here. And we want this away from businesses. And they didn't get back to us until much later in the day."

The teens pushed ahead anyway with detailed plans as well as safety and social distancing instructions for the community. They also got a helping hand from the town’s council member Marico Sayoc, who negotiated with the police.

On Wednesday, I watched about 600 to 800 people peacefully march down Los Gatos Boulevard to the grassy plaza outside of the town’s library. Most of them were teenagers, small children and their families.  They were escorted by the police.

It was 91 degrees, and most people wore shorts and flip flops … and their masks. When most had arrived, high schoolers, including Sabouri, started to speak:

“I will never, ever be able to truly understand the black person's plight in America. But I want to do what I can to help because this is our problem. It is not their problem."

Then some adults who hadn’t planned to speak rose to share their lived experiences as people of color in the community. One was Pilar Crawford, an African American mother of a former Los Gatos High student.

“I was driving down main street one day, and a woman jaywalked in the middle of the street, and didn't see me coming. I stopped at least 30-40 feet away from her. She turned around and saw me, and called me a black bitch. Unacceptable."

But it was someone else’s experience that really broke her heart. Her daughter Lauren experienced racial slurs from the time she was in elementary school all the way through high school.

“My daughter has shed too many tears and my heart aches for her. Imagine you're just walking down the hall trying to get to your next class. And a six foot two boy white boy in passing leans down to you and whispers [the N word] in your ear. This was last year. My daughter graduated in 2019.”

The only time that anyone took any significant action, she says, was a middle school teacher who trawled through the yearbooks to find the boys who called her daughter a racial epithet.

Crawford was one of several speakers sharing intense emotions that morning. The demonstration ended peacefully just after noon. The crowd dispersed quickly, and the parents of organizers Nika Sabouri and Casey Kamali picked them up in their electric cars.

A woman who identified as part Native American, part Latin American called me after the event. She said:

“Looking out and seeing the faces of people that work at the businesses I frequented, looking out and seeing the faces of people who frequent the restaurant I work at, seeing throughout the town and community, seeing them there is going to change my experience of Los Gatos, and that people have my back, and that I belong."

Even so, she said she didn’t want to share her name, because she was afraid of a backlash.

After the event, the superintendent of schools in Los Gatos issued a statement to the parent community entitled: “A Response to Protests and Racism.”

Among other things, the message said:

“LGUSD will continue to explore new opportunities to engage students, staff, and the community in conversation, education, and awareness of racism, equity, and inclusion. We invite you to become a partner in this journey.”

The letter then listed actions that parents could take and and resources to use to talk to their children about protests and racism. They're listed below.

Talk to your children with compassion about the frustration of the protesters so they know and understand the actions they are witnessing.

Read books together as a family to support conversations on race, racism, and resistance.

Volunteering in diverse settings can help build a cultural competency and a more inclusive society. These organizations have options for families to volunteer together.

Educate yourself through the eyes of those most impacted:

Speak up when you are witness to an injustice or some form of racism.

Sarah Lai Stirland is a freelance journalist and editor living in the South Bay. Her reporting background is in technology, science writing, law and policy. For the past few years, she's written about issues related to aging.