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Healdsburg protest of police brutality draws hundreds as curfew ends in Santa Rosa

After five nights of demonstrations in Santa Rosa, the national movement against police brutality spread to the heart of Sonoma County's Wine Country, with hundreds of protesters lining Healdsburg's main thoroughfare in a show of solidarity Thursday night.

As many as 600 people came together at the corner of the city's downtown plaza to join in spirited chants and flash homemade signs with messages of peace and justice for people of color. Many of the passing drivers honked their horns and waved their raised fists out of their windows in solidarity, building the volume of the impassioned rally just steps from the city square's boutique shops and restaurants.

The protest, which kicked off in the plaza at 6 p.m., had initially been planned by another organizer on social media before being canceled. But the Healdsburg Peace Project, a city mainstay, picked up the slack and reconstituted the event as part of its weekly Thursday meetup.

“It's really important for us to be here and support the movement,” said Healdsburg resident Heather Svendsen, who along with partner Ralf Medloff wore face coverings to limit the spread of the coronavirus. “We have a lot of white privilege here in Healdsburg — and it is white privilege — so this is about helping change the experience in our country for all races and ethnicities.”

Downtown Santa Rosa was comparatively quiet Thursday, the first night since a citywide curfew was lifted.

Protests kicked off in Santa Rosa on Saturday over the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who was killed Memorial Day in Minneapolis by a white police officer who pressed his knee on the back of Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd's death has spurred massive demonstrations across the country about police brutality and discrimination against people of color.

After reports of violence and vandalism during the protests over the weekend, the city imposed an 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew Monday “to keep the community safe,” said Santa Rosa Police Chief Rainer Navarro. Windsor soon followed in implementing a 9 p.m. curfew. Both cities' curfews expired Thursday morning and were not extended.

Since Saturday, Santa Rosa police have arrested about 160 people associated with the demonstrations, according to Lt. Jeneane Kucker. Most of the arrests were for violating the citywide curfew.

After about an hour, protesters from the Healdsburg rally that spanned more than a full city block marched north. They passed several boarded up shops on the square, stopping at the Healdsburg Police Department. There, they kneeled and chanted phrases including, 'Hands up, don't shoot' and 'Black Lives Matter' before continuing on into neighborhoods throughout the city of about 12,000 people.

Two police officers took a knee and pounded fists with members of the crowd near the city's roundabout in a show of support.

The gathering of hundreds of people in tight spaces has concerned local officials, including Dr. Sundari Mase, the county's public officer, who has warned it could result a spike locally in cases of the coronavirus. But demonstrators Thursday mostly minded social distancing measures as they encroached upon the street to join the rallying cry for equal treatment and an end to the American police state.

“I don't know what it's like to be black,” said Cristal Lopez, 23, of Healdsburg, wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. “But I do know my experience, and my family was worried about me being out here. There are risks involved because of COVID, but black people risk their lives every day, so it's worth it to me.”

While the first four nights saw hundreds of people taking the streets of Santa Rosa, Wednesday night's protest was much smaller. Only about 30 people joined the rally, and most dispersed before the 8 p.m. curfew. Eight people were arrested between 9:06 p.m. and 9:35 p.m. for violating the curfew, but there were no reports of violence or vandalism that night.

Navarro said that although the group Wednesday was very small, protests can often grow to a large scale very quickly.

“The curfew is the curfew,” Navarro said. “I don't know who's going to go out and loot and who's going to go out and vandalize.

“I don't like it any more than anybody else — I do not want to arrest anybody for a curfew violation,” he continued. “I want people to be able to be safe.”

Over the past few days, Santa Rosa police have requested mutual aid from several law enforcement agencies to respond to the protests, including Petaluma police, the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office, CHP, Cotati police, Sebastopol police and Napa police, said Sgt. Chris Mahurin.

On some of the more chaotic nights, like Monday, Mahurin estimated that there were anywhere between 125 to 140 officers downtown, about 40 of whom were from mutual aid. Given the much smaller gathering on Wednesday, only about 40 officers were stationed downtown.

Navarro said there may be additional protests planned this weekend, so the department is preparing for the possibility it may need to increase staffing to respond to any large demonstrations. While the curfew has not been extended, the concrete K-rail barriers that were set up around downtown will remain through the weekend.

While Navarro said he supported peaceful protests, “we have people who are taking advantage of this and beginning to vandalize property and hurt people and taking it out on our staff.

“I'm hoping that we as a community can get back to addressing the issues that are a national problem,” Navarro said. “But do it in the way that we know how to do it — and that's through peaceful demonstrations and active conversations.”

The organizers of Thursday's rally in Healdsburg also plan to hold another demonstration at the city's plaza next week.

You can reach Staff Writers Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com and Chantelle Lee at 707-521-5337 or chantelle.lee@pressdemocrat.com.

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