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Black Lives Matter rally draws modest crowd in Santa Rosa, renewed calls for change

Peaceful student and community activists supporting the national Black Lives Matter movement on Saturday called on fellow Sonoma County residents to vote in the November election and continue actively seeking an end to systemic racism as social unrest boils over across the country.

About 200 people joined a rally in Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square to renew demands for reforms to police departments following another high-profile police shooting last week in the United States. National demonstrations backing the Black Lives Matter movement, including local rallies, have slowed and seen diminished participation since their peak earlier this summer, and organizers challenged supporters to relight the fire if they want to inspire progress.

“The changes start with us. We don’t got time for this racism no more,” Delashay Carmona Benson, 50, a student at Santa Rosa Junior College, told the audience. “It is time to clean up the swamp in Sonoma County. The only way is in unity.”

Benson, co-president of the SRJC Black Student Union, organized the peaceful event to keep the momentum from this summer’s local protest movement going. Wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Defund the police, refund the people,” she urged others to take the microphone and offer words about taking action, particularly in light of the lull in community participation in the last month.

“Let’s admit that this is a small group compared to three months ago,” said Joy Ayodele, 18, a Santa Rosa organizer. “I know that you guys know that Black lives matter, clearly, but you need to keep saying it, and say it a little bit louder and a little bit prouder. Black lives are still ending, and we can’t wait for it to be local, to be vocal.”

“This is a movement, not a moment,” added Tavy Tornado, 31, founder of Love and Light, which seeks policy reforms. “Why does it have to be a trend to do what’s right? I’m not going to be quiet anymore, and I don’t want to see any of you quiet anymore.”

Protests sparked anew this week after Jacob Blake, who is Black, was shot at seven times last Sunday by a white police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Blake was hit in the back four times, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.

The incident ignited demonstrations across the country and prompted professional athletes to boycott games in the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball.

For organizers, the narrative was all too similar to other people of color who died at the hands of police in recent years, including now household names George Floyd of Minneapolis, Minnesota; Breonna Taylor of Louisville, Kentucky; and Elijah McClain of Aurora, Colorado. Floyd’s death on Memorial Day, after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes, provoked the national movement, which included several weeks of rallies in Sonoma County starting in late May.

Rowan Dalbey, 19, of Santa Rosa, wore a hand-drawn sign around her neck Saturday that depicted images of Floyd, Taylor and other members of the Black community who were killed before them: Trayvon Martin in 2012; Tamir Rice in 2014; and Sandra Bland in 2015. Where people put their time reflects what they actually care about, she said.

Rowan Dalbey makes photographs while wearing a sign she created that features people who died at the hands of the police during a Black Lives Matter protest organized by the Santa Rosa Junior College Black Student Union at Old Courthouse Square in Santa Rosa on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)
Rowan Dalbey makes photographs while wearing a sign she created that features people who died at the hands of the police during a Black Lives Matter protest organized by the Santa Rosa Junior College Black Student Union at Old Courthouse Square in Santa Rosa on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)

“I personally have a lot of friends who could be here and they just aren’t,” she said. “People think that they go to one protest and everything’s fixed. And it’s not.”

Between poems, appeals to vote against President Donald Trump and for a local ballot measure that would increase oversight of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, there were also a few moments of levity on Saturday. During a break, music thumped from a speaker and attendees took part in the electric slide on the grass. A child also spoke briefly and shouted “Wakanda Forever” — a nod to the death of actor Chadwick Boseman, who played comic book character Black Panther on the big screen and died Friday after a long battle with colon cancer — which drew cheers.

The focus of the event, however, remained keeping people engaged in the reset of American social paradigms that have prevented people of color from securing leadership and decision-making positions, speakers said.

Santa Rosa couple Sarah H. and Eric H., who declined to offer their full last name, brought their 9-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter for the family’s first Black Lives Matter rally. Together, they spent the afternoon making cardboard signs with supportive messages to help their children understand the importance of equality and being allies to the movement for societal change.

Sarah H., left, and Eric H., who declined to provide their last name, attend their first Black Lives Matter protest with their children at Old Courthouse Square in Santa Rosa on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)
Sarah H., left, and Eric H., who declined to provide their last name, attend their first Black Lives Matter protest with their children at Old Courthouse Square in Santa Rosa on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)

“This last year is kind of when I finally realized how bad things are right now, and that’s not OK,” said Sarah H., a former teacher. “We want a different future for our kids and we want them to know what I didn’t know. We need to start with the young, and work our way up. It’s long past due.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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