Fear and Loathing in Menlo Park

Editor’s Note: Although I have been able to accumulate a great deal of information from various sources, and have managed to make contact with several individuals familiar with the details and status of this case, I want to make it absolutely clear that I have had no personal contact with the plaintiffs or their legal assistant, either directly or indirectly. That’s not to say I haven’t tried – I have – but they have refused to communicate with me in any way. They’ve made it clear, because of the fact that I was a Jehovah’s Witness at one time and left of my own free will, that they must consider me an “apostate” and avoid any contact with me. I do not take this personally and I understand why they must take that stand.

All other contacts have either been unbaptized persons who are familiar with the situation and those involved in it, or former members of the congregations involved who have also left the religion.

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Menlo Park Kingdom Hall

Menlo Park is a small California city in San Mateo County, located between San Francisco on the north and San Jose on the south.  Its eastern edge, the Bayshore Freeway (US 101), separates it from the community of East Palo Alto.

It’s a nice little town of about 35,000 people with a population that is predominantly white (62%) and Hispanic (23%). For most of its existence, the city has been made up of middle and upper middle class families. The average income per family has been reported to be around $125,000 (USD), and the city enjoys a relatively low crime rate. Child movie star Shirley Temple Black, author Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and singers Stevie Nicks (Fleetwood Mac) and Joan Baez have all lived in Menlo Park. Perhaps its most famous resident has been Sergey Brin, founder of Google.

On the other side of the Bayshore Freeway from Menlo Park, snugged up against the western edge of San Francisco Bay, lies the City of East Palo Alto. No two cities could be so close to each other (literally a few hundred meters), and yet be so completely different.

. . .When it was announced that the Menlo Park Elders were being removed (all of them) there were audible gasps in the audience. Of course, the assumption is that they did something wrong, and it’s very hard to get the story out. One of the sisters is elderly and in a wheel chair. The announcement nearly gave her a heart attack and she is now in bad health. – Anonymous caller

East Palo Alto IS NOT part of Palo Alto, the home of world renowned Stanford University. Actually East Palo Alto is not “east” of Palo Alto, it is “north” of Palo Alto. It is “east” of Menlo Park. The Bayshore Freeway and Santa Clara County Airport act as effective barriers, separating a wealthier Palo Alto from its much poorer neighboring city. Palo Alto is also part of Santa Clara County, while East Palo Alto is part of San Mateo County along with Menlo Park.

Menlo Park, East Palo Alto, and US 101 (click on photo for full-sized version) - Google Maps

Unlike Menlo Park or Palo Alto, East Palo Alto has for much of its existence found itself at the lower end of the economic scale. Prior to World War 2, much of the land was made up of family farms owned by Japanese-Americans.  During the war, most Japanese families were sent to internment camps and lost everything, including their homes and land. After the war, the city was populated by African-Americans, brought to the area during the war to work in the ship building and defense industries. By the 1960s, the city was so predominately African-American, that there was actually a movement that urged its name be changed to “Nairobi.”

Due to its high minority population and extremely low economic base, crime became a major problem for the community.  In 1992, it had the highest homicide rate in the USA on a per capita basis. It has been so economically disadvantaged that for several years there wasn’t a single major supermarket within the city limits.

. . .The elders don’t feel comfortable going [to the Kingdom Hall] as a lot of the people named in the law suit as defendants attend the meetings. This whole thing has alienated the [previous] elders from their life long religion. – Anonymous non-JW contact

Like its neighbor to the west, East Palo Alto has a population of about 35,000. African-Americans have in recent years become a minority again at about 20%. The vast majority are Hispanics, but there is also a small but significant population of Pacific Islanders, including Samoans and Fijians. Whites make up less than 4% of the city’s population. The city has not prospered as its neighbors to the west and south have, and the recent economic downturn has only complicated its existence.

The Menlo Park Kingdom Hall

For nearly fifty years, a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses has existed at 811 Bay Drive, Menlo Park. The Kingdom Hall building is just a few dozen meters from a busy southbound off-ramp of the Bayshore Freeway, separated from the highway by chain-link fencing and a stand of trees. East Palo Alto is directly across the highway.

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