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One of the first times I sat down with Plano Mayor Harry LaRosiliere, it was to discuss an uncomfortable truth: a small segment of his political opposition that had begun in a place of reasonable discourse, had soured into conspiracy theories and veiled, racist attacks on him as a black man. The controversy was rooted in the city’s plan to introduce some apartments to house Plano’s diverse, growing population.
“He’s trying to turn Plano into another Harlem,” one person wrote on Facebook at the time. As we discussed, it seemed unlikely that the same comment would have been made had he not been African American man who was born in New York.
Still, he was full of love for the city, insistent that the kind of behavior we were witnessing was not indicative of Plano as a whole. He was still working despite citizens who accused him of conspiring with developers and ruining Plano’s clean, suburban image. We spent a lot of time discussing his hopes for Plano, how happy he was to be raising his family there, and his desire to serve and help make it even better. I don’t think I’ve met a person who loves Plano and its people more.
In the uprising of protests over the death of George Floyd, Mayor LaRosiliere stands in a place full of opportunity: he is both Plano’s mayor and leader, but he also knows the pain the Black community is feeling.
So far all protests in Plano have remained peaceful and it seems to be no coincidence that the response from Plano’s leadership and law enforcement has also been empathetic. Plano Police Chief Ed Drain walked with protesters early in the week. Their response has been heartening, especially when so many leaders in the country are missing the mark.
“I see a lot of anxiety in the community,” LaRosiliere says. “The other day, I got some panicked calls about a pile of bricks—it was for NTTA, they were building a wall I think. But people thought they were piled for vandalism later on. That speaks to the level of anxiety that’s out there. People are wondering if every potential gathering can become a powder keg.
LaRosiliere explains that part of the reason racism is hard to address is that to acknowledge it can feel shameful.
But, as he says, “The first step is acknowledgement that racism exists.”
As a nation, our focus has largely been on the many instances of police violence against people of color. Perhaps it’s because police are meant to protect and serve the public, and the betrayal stings worse coming from someone in a position of power, someone who carries a gun and is allowed, under the right circumstances, to subdue and detain us. Racism is exposed at its most brutal in these life and death situations.
“It’s difficult for someone who hasn’t experienced it to know, but that’s the reality,” LaRosiliere says. “If I say there’s a problem and you say, ‘I don’t see it,’ then it’s hard for us to fix it. Every time something like this occurs, it creates the opportunity for us to be awakened and enlightened. Once we acknowledge it, that creates common ground. Then we can work on fixing it.”
Last Tuesday, a group of 1,500 planned to march in Frisco from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. However, at the time, they were also considering a march in Plano directly afterward. LaRosiliere recalls discussing it with other city officials. “As much as we wanted them to come, there was also some natural consternation because it was in the evening, when things tend to turn,” he says.
In the end, the protest didn’t come to Plano. But they prepared anyway, and it was Plano Police Chief Ed Drain who offered a simple solution that flies in the face of what many departments have done.
“We’ll have to make sure we have manpower,” Drain suggested. “Check to see who is our friendliest to put out there.”
He didn’t offer to grab SWAT gear and show force. Instead, he wanted the friendliest and most empathetic officers on the force, the ones he trusted to know the difference between forcing submission and keeping the peace.
That has been the attitude for a long time in Plano, LaRosiliere says. He credits the department’s longstanding policy of creating relationships with our community with any success they have had. The philosophy is that instead of only seeing the police when something goes wrong, the public should see them getting to know the community before something goes wrong. If a nonprofit is having a fundraiser, the police should buy a table. If there is a religious or cultural festival, the police should join them in their celebration.
“If you went out at a bar and got into a fight with someone, and only after that, offered to sit down and get to know them, how would your offer be received? That’s what [departments] end up doing when there is an incident like in Minneapolis,” LaRosiliere explains. “We need neighborhood policing. But when it comes after a department has already treated you poorly—you’re going to now sit down and say, ‘Let’s be friends?’ No; that wound has to heal.”
Despite the work put in on the front end, LaRosiliere cautions that to believe racism is “fixed,” or that Plano is immune to it is “hopeful thinking but not based in reality.”
Perhaps Plano hasn’t had an encounter between cop and black man go viral. That doesn’t mean that people of color in the city and surrounding areas haven’t been treated with suspicion or shown less respect. Just because it doesn’t have a spotlight on it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.
“Fortunately we don’t have many incidents, but those things exist everywhere,” LaRosiliere says.
He isn’t ashamed to point out where Plano falls short, and where there is work to be done. He sees uncomfortable conversations as opportunities to improve before a crisis forces the issue. “People are waiting for leadership,” he says. “Frisco Mayor Jeff Cheney walked for four miles [with protesters]. That speaks to the desire to be with them, step by step. For us to ask marchers indoors to get out of the sun, and to have a conversation in a relaxed setting, for a police chief, to clear his calendar to listen to you: that’s acknowledgement. That’s affirming.”
Once LaRosiliere told me that he didn’t want to be remembered as Plano’s first Black mayor, but as the next great mayor. He still holds fast to that notion.
“I’m not just the African American mayor,” he says. “I’m the mayor of an entire city. Right now, our focus is on African Americans. They are a part of [our community] and they matter.” He hopes to have a representative from the city at every protest and event moving forward. And as always, he is full of optimism for Plano’s future.
“In Plano, we strive to be the best versions of ourselves,” he says. “That’s who we are.”