In a neighborhood where the wrong color spotted by the wrong eyes can spark a violent confrontation, bright orange briefly took over West Ninth Street in Santa Rosa on Friday night.
About 50 people — more than half of them children — pulled orange T-shirts with “Santa Rosa” written on the front over their clothes near a playground at Puerta Villa apartments across West Ninth from Lincoln Elementary School, where just over two weeks ago children found a gun hidden under a building.
Led by Santa Rosa police officers and city staff, parents pushing strollers and older children bouncing along on foot marched around the apartment complex, then about a half-mile down West Ninth Street to North Dutton Avenue and back to make a point in the neighborhood where gang violence has been a texture of life for decades.
“The simple message is ‘This is our neighborhood’ and ‘No to violence,’ ” Rafael Rivero, community outreach specialist with the Santa Rosa Mayor’s Gang Task Force, said to the group.
The city held Friday’s “Night Walk” as part of the city’s annual Gang Prevention Awareness Week. The event follows a spate of gang-related assaults and incidents — fights, gunfire and a gun at the elementary school police suspect was hidden by gang members.
“I think a lot of us who live here are just families — and only some have problems,” said Gonzalo Galdan, 40, who lives at Puerta Villa and works at Amy’s Kitchen. “It’s good for people to see their neighbors are here, we are around.”
A group of boys, swimming in their orange T-shirts, said they were proud to wear “Santa Rosa” on their clothes and liked marching around their neighborhood with the police.
“Free ice cream” was the main draw for Jonathan Zargoza, 11, he said.
“The exercise, it’s a cardio workout,” said Eliseo Reyes, also 11.
But the boys and their friends also nodded when asked if gangs were a matter of life in the neighborhood.
Gang-related disputes have brought violence to the neighborhood in waves over the decades.
Shootings spiked in the 1990s and again in the mid-2000s. Each time, the incidents ultimately galvanized residents, police and city leaders to band together to address the violence.
Starting last December, gunfire and a stabbing foretold of another wave of gang-related violence that washed over the neighborhood.
Then, in January, a band of about 35 law enforcement officers led by the Santa Rosa police and aided by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office descended into the neighborhood following investigations into fighting, drinking, drug use, intimidation and assaults.
They arrested eight suspected gang members, including three juveniles.
Khaalid Muttaqi, program manager for the Santa Rosa Mayor’s Gang Task Force, said recent incidents have built a lot of momentum among residents and others who want to stem the tide.
City staff are discussing improving Jacobs Park with a new playground, sending letters addressing chronic problems with certain landlords and planning other improvements to the area, Muttaqi said. These efforts support the work police do with crime in the area, he said.
Muttaqi said that just last night a group of teens told him neighborhood beautification was important to them.
“There is a lot of pride in this neighborhood,” Muttaqi said.