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.
The debate dragged on through the winter. Over multiple protests and warnings, including Rosano’s, the Bill of Rights prevailed. But not in Courthouse Square. Told that was impossible, Vincent submitted a list of parks where his troops might rally. The council, based on police assessment, chose Franklin Park. And a date, March 24, 1979, was scheduled.
Rosano was ready. After meetings with law enforcement officials from the Sheriff’s Office and surrounding police departments, he had assembled 250 officers, most in riot gear.
By rally time, some 500 protesters were gathered on the softball field, being photographed and interviewed by more than 50 credentialed members of Bay Area newspapers, radio and TV. Former PD reporters remember that Editor Art Volkerts had taken all precautions with his staff, outfitting them in hockey helmets purchased for the occasion.
On Rosano’s order, a chicken-wire pen had been constructed around the bleachers, and Vincent and his dozen followers were escorted into the makeshift “chicken coop” behind the backstop. They offered a Nazi salute, which was greeted with several hundred upturned middle fingers.
Vincent held up a book called “White Power,” then strutted and screamed anti-black, anti-gay and general hatred epithets while the crowd roared back. Some eggs were thrown, but the backstop did its job.
After about 40 minutes, Vincent and his Nazi dozen left the way they came, while the thinning crowd chanted “Go home. Go home.”
There was one arrest. A young protester was charged with trespassing for trying to climb the fence into the adjoining Pioneer Concrete plant. He was taking a shortcut to his car.
The cost, when all the outside help and city expenses were tallied was, Rosano estimates, some $48,000.
Thus ended Santa Rosa’s Nazi experience.
It was, as editorial columnist Pete Golis, who was a reporter covering that first rally, remembers it, a “coming of age” moment in Sonoma County’s political history. It was miles and years and a far cry from Charlottesville and today’s political climate.
It wasn’t the county’s only brush with political protest, of course. Sonomans fought their own Civil War, far from Gettysburg. The wave of Russian River Valley settlers in the early 1850s were mostly farmers from Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee who came West for gold but found their fortunes in this arable land. Conversely, Petaluma, the first commercial center by virtue of its waterway connection to the Gold Rush boomtown of San Francisco, was settled by East Coast merchants.
When war loomed in the next decade, Petaluma was Union; Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and Healdsburg (where there were active Knights of the Golden Cross, a precursor of the Klan) were all predominately Confederate. There were skirmishes, some injuries, some charges of sedition and hard feelings that lasted for — well, some historians, who love to tell the shaky legend of the Battle of Washoe House, would insist there are still the remnants of a lingering rivalry.
And, later, in the 1890s, there was the banner across Mendocino Avenue in front of the courthouse, saying “The Chinese Must Go” as Santa Rosa and surrounding towns joined a coastal boycott of Chinese labor in response to a worldwide financial depression, with the immigrants accused of “taking white men’s jobs.”
And we cannot — and should not — ignore the brief flurry of Ku Klux Klan activity here in the 1920s. In ’23, Sonoma County Klansmen met at McDonald’s reservoir (now Lake Ralphine in Howarth Park) and some weeks later held an initiation rite — with hoods, white sheets, torches and a giant burning cross — in a field on the west side of Petaluma Hill Road.
I think of that pretty much every time I drive that way. But it’s all ancient history, of course. Just don’t ever say it can’t happen here.