“Palo Alto is an elitist sh*t den of hate.” “Kind capitalism is a myth and our city is proof.” “I hate ‘social justice’ in Palo Alto. What a f*cking joke.” The messages — or rather, tweets — are uncompromising in their boldness; brash and confrontational, with a clear target for their ire and a disdain so apparent it almost pains to read them. Somewhat surprisingly, these were not the admonitions of an antifa member or Synergy listserv, but rather, a Christian priest from a local church.
The First Baptist Church of Palo Alto found itself in national headlines last week after Rev. Gregory Stevens, a 28 year old self-proclaimed “leftist libertarian” resigned from his position at the church. The resignation came on the heels of the aforementioned string of tweets and the predictably outraged backlash that followed. Palo Alto Vice Mayor Eric Filseth called the messages “vile,” and a group of local residents gathered and presented them in document form to the City Council, who at the time were voting on the church’s status as a “community center.”
Amidst the uproar that followed, Stevens resigned but made sure to burn a few more bridges on his way out, saying that “I believe Palo Alto is a ghetto of wealth, power and elitist liberalism by proxy, meaning that many community members claim to want to fight for social justice issues, but that desire doesn’t translate into action.”
Many will rightfully disagree with the politics Stevens promotes. His propositions are diametrically opposed to the ideals of many Americans and it would be difficult to envision such a message taking hold in a more red-blooded congregation. Superficially however, it would seem that Stevens found the perfect place to preach — a community whose politics supposedly aligned directly with his own drastic calls to action.
The incident was Palo Alto at its finest — a community so self-absorbed and totally lacking in genuine empathy that it failed to see the preposterous irony of its own actions. For one of the wealthiest communities in the country to attack a Christian priest for his calls at equality sounds more like 1930’s Berlin than one of the more self-proclaimed progressive areas in 2018 America. Nonetheless, this is the alternate reality that the citizens of this lovely town have created for themselves.
This same reality — propped up by $6 coffee and shielded from the outside world by rigid zoning laws — has been allowed to flourish in a community where everybody agrees on the liberal ideal but exceedingly few seek to actually act on it. Sure they may vote for Hillary in national elections and talk like good liberals at their weekly farmer’s markets, but realistically, the citizens of Palo Alto have turned a collective blind eye towards the blatant socio-economic problems that plague the community here and now.
One needn’t look far for examples. In the past year new ordinances made it harder for homeless people (many of whom were pushed to the streets by the very people now voting against them) to live in Palo Alto. The housing crisis continues to loom large and residents regularly refuse to allow for more building (wouldn’t wanna lower our home prices!) or large infrastructure projects that could free up resources for new developments (don’t want those dirty construction men in my backyard!). This exceptionalism — the idea that the rules should apply to everyone except for the broadly defined “us” — is an absurd and laughable juxtaposition given the economic realities of the area. However, when a community leader with no motives beyond his own notions of empathy decided to call out Palo Alto on its willful ignorance, he was unsurprisingly met with a cacophony of backlash that resulted in his own resignation and effective dismissal from the community itself.
The average home in Palo Alto costs over $3.3 million dollars. Its median income is more than $163,000 and anecdotally speaking, it’s home to more Teslas than any place reasonably should be. It would be one thing for its residents to own up to these truths and face the world as such. But by wrapping their wealth in a façade of ‘social good’ and limousine-liberalism, Palo Alto, and more broadly, Silicon Valley, have managed to have their proverbial cake and eat it too.
Stevens himself perhaps put it best when he said “If the same energies used to organize neighbors around minor parking issues, young girl’s choirs and ‘nasty tweets’ were honed to fight actual injustices, Palo Alto would be a very different city. Palo Alto needs more action, less lip service.” Few could deny the profound sardonicism of the whole situation. The citizens of this city live in a world where eating kale and buying $140,000 electric cars constitutes social good but providing homeless people with basic shelter does not.
This refusal to confront the true nature of things has cemented Palo Alto as America’s capital of hypocrisy. And as home prices continue to rise, gentrification eliminates more of the area’s demographic backbone and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor carries on with its unique brand of societal hemorrhaging, the members of this community may one day decide that it’s time for change. Until that day comes however, people like Rev. Stevens will find themselves in the smallest of minorities. Their calls will fall upon deaf ears.
Contact Harrison Hohman at hhohman ‘at’ stanford.edu.