All it took was the big, bold front-page headlines, the fast-talking TV anchors and a swarm of outraged online posts to remind us never, ever to think it can’t happen here.
The Charlottesville chaos and what ensued recalls an eight-month period in the late 1970s when a small group of Bay Area Nazis targeted Santa Rosa.
It was a free speech issue that plagued the City Council for the better part of a year, inflicted injuries and created considerable angst.
In August 1978, Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker, sponsored by a local group called the Sonoma County Alliance against Racism and Political Repression, drew 125 people to the Community Baptist Church (then in South Park) to hear him discuss black history while urging denial of free speech to Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.
Allen Vincent, a San Francisco resident and leader of the Bay Area American Nazi party, decided Aptheker’s talk would be a good excuse to bring his Brown Shirts to Santa Rosa.
When word of Vincent’s intentions reached the City Council, he was informed there was not enough time before Aptheker’s talk to get the permit necessary for a political rally. So, moving on, Vincent applied to rally in Courthouse Square in November.
The permit did not come easily. There was trepidation, outrage and reminders of freedom of speech. Council members, while deploring the message, acknowledged the Nazis’ right to assemble. Mayor Donna Born’s judicious comment was: “The greatest thing that could happen is that they would have a rally and nobody would come.”
The rally was a donnybrook that shocked not only the citizenry but the police chief as well.
That would be Sal Rosano, in the fourth year of his 22-year tenure as chief. The event and what came next lives vividly in his memory, as his first-person account, written for a Santa Rosa Junior College memoir class, testifies.
At a pre-rally meeting Rosano’s command decided to present a low-key approach. They agreed on a dozen officers in uniform and six more in plainclothes in the square with 40 more policemen and deputies in riot gear at the police station, which was still part of City Hall in those years.
Vincent brought just nine Nazis but, as Rosano recalls, it was an invitation to a violent protest. Hours before the Nazis arrived, the square had filled with people, not the “listeners” Vincent had expected, but outraged protesters.
Most of them, Rosano remembers, were from militantly progressive groups with a liberal (pun intended) contingent of Sonoma County citizens. Vincent’s Nazis were set upon when they arrived. Rosano recalled that people swung their signs and opened backpacks and knapsacks and hurled the bricks and rocks they’d brought with them.
The riot squad was summoned, Rosano wrote, but by the time they arrived just a few minutes later the uniformed officers trying to prevent serious injury all around were being, in the chief’s word, “pummeled.” Actually, seven of them were injured, two of them seriously enough “to warrant disability retirement.” Eight protesters were arrested.
The whole thing lasted maybe 20 minutes. The Nazis piled into their van and left town. Vincent was back within the week asking for another rally permit.