BLM Protesters Demand Facebook Stop Funding Local Police
Menlo Park’s ‘Facebook Unit’ comes under fire amidst nationwide protests
On Sunday afternoon, hundreds of Bay Area residents marched down the streets of Menlo Park, California, to demand that Facebook stop funding local police. The technology company maintains a controversial relationship with local law enforcement after having pledged $11.2 million to the Menlo Park Police Department. Protesters made their way from neighboring East Palo Alto to Palo Alto, where they eventually wound up on Edgewood Drive, outside the $30 million Palo Alto home of Mark Zuckerberg. Their demand? Remove Facebook money from law enforcement coffers.
“We stopped in front of his house for a good 15 minutes and read our pledge,” JT Faraji, a lifelong resident of East Palo Alto told OneZero. Faraji is a member of the Tha Hood Squad, an art collective that helped to organize Sunday’s protest.
Their demand? Remove Facebook money from law enforcement coffers.
In 2017, Facebook struck a deal with its hometown of Menlo Park to fund a new police force, dubbed the “Facebook Unit,” which patrols the area surrounding the company’s billion-dollar headquarters. As I reported last year, both Facebook and Menlo Park claim this partnership is meant to account for a growing population stemming from Facebook’s expansion in the area. Since Menlo Park maintains a certain policing ratio, more residents necessitate more cops. But according to private emails between the city and Facebook, which I obtained through a public records request, the company aggressively pushed for Menlo Park to expand its police force, despite strong opposition from communities of color.
“We need to show how the [policing ratios] will be stretched without our initial support,” Facebook’s director of global security services, Marjorie Jackson, wrote then-Menlo Park police chief Robert Jonsen in 2017.
After several years of planning, in September 2017, Facebook agreed to donate $11.2 million into the City of Menlo Park’s general fund. The police department has hired several new officers thanks to Facebook’s millions — covering their salaries, pensions, training, and equipment — but because the city does not earmark these funds, there’s little transparency or accountability around law enforcement spending. When I spoke to then-mayor of Menlo Park, Ray Mueller, he said it would be inappropriate “if we actually kept track of [Facebook Unit] money,” or if police believed the company was paying their salaries.
Today, community organizers demand that Facebook stop contributing money to Menlo Park to support policing activities in any form. The group also demands the Menlo Park Police Department fire sergeant Ed Soares, a member of the department’s special investigations unit who was accused in a 2015 lawsuit of profiling and harassing a Menlo Park resident at a traffic stop. (The case was later settled out of court.)
Additionally, the group has asked residents of Menlo Park and East Palo Alto to stop attending Facebook-hosted festivals and farmers’ markets, which are open to the public. They request that food and produce sellers stop participating in the markets, as well.
A Facebook spokesperson told OneZero, “For the past few years we’ve contributed to the City’s General Fund to support improvements to bike and pedestrian safety, improve emergency response, and ensure additional security costs incurred by our growing presence in Menlo Park were paid for by us, instead of local taxpayers. These funds are allocated at the discretion of the City Council.”
Since the dot-com boom, Menlo Park has been infused with technology wealth, and the city of 35,000 people is largely white and affluent. By contrast, the historically Black and Latino City of East Palo Alto is poorer, and excluded from such economic opportunities. Poverty in East Palo Alto has risen steadily since 2000 and is “a significant concern” for the city according to a government report. Over the last decade, its original communities have been rapidly displaced by gentrification, and residents of color say they’re underrepresented in the technology sector that wields so much influence over their lives.
“In the past, nobody has cared to stand up for a population that is vulnerable because of their social and economic status — low income, Black, Latino, and Pacific Islander,” Faraji said of East Palo Alto. In 2017, Facebook and community members including Faraji met over concerns about gentrification, affordable housing, and the new police unit.
The company’s latest expansion in Menlo Park, a community called “Willow Village,” will be the largest development in city history. Facebook has promised millions of dollars to Menlo Park in the form of development agreements, funding libraries, and local nonprofits. This relationship has been likened to a “company town,” wherein Facebook is not only the major employer, but the provider of everyday necessities, goods, and services.
Facebook has also expanded law enforcement in Menlo Park’s poorest neighborhood. In 2013, Facebook paid to offset a police substation in Belle Haven, which sits adjacent to Facebook’s headquarters and is home to many of Menlo Park’s Latino residents. One year later, Facebook began funding the salary of a community safety officer to be stationed in Belle Haven for up to five years.
Like many technology companies, Facebook has expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement in recent days. “To members of our Black community: I stand with you,” Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook. “Your lives matter. Black lives matter.” But the company’s public statements are incongruous with decisions made behind the scenes; Zuckerberg chose to not remove a post by President Trump that incited violence against protesters, even as employees threatened to resign over the matter.
When asked about the Facebook Unit last year, a spokesperson for the company told me that Facebook has “a long-term commitment to Menlo Park, and we want it to remain a safe and inclusive environment for everyone who calls it home.”