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Hundreds turn out for Black Lives Matter march, rally in Rohnert Park to seek police reforms

Tears streamed down Jackie Elward’s face and her voice cracked with emotion while speaking at a Black Lives Matter demonstration she planned Saturday morning that ended in the courtyard outside the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety, demanding an end to systemic racism.

The 40-year-old Rohnert Park resident, who grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo, called on the several hundred attendees to stand up and help bring about changes to the way law enforcement treats people of color. And she urged elected officials and members of the local police force to work with citizens to ensure the community’s minority groups are safe and free from harm based on their skin tone.

“Have you ever felt powerless about protecting your kids, from those who are supposed to protect them, but instead kill them over anything and get away with it?” Elward shouted. “We are not seeking revenge, but we want to be treated as equal as everybody here. Black lives matter!”

The rally, which drew more than 300 people, was preceded by a milelong march west down the sidewalk along Rohnert Park Expressway to the public safety headquarters. Members of the city’s dual police-fire department helped block off street traffic to guide participants in the peaceful protest to their planned terminus, where Elward, two of her three children and several other residents spanning multiple generations shared charged testimonials.

“It’s not the blatant racism that I think we’re struggling with in this society so much. It’s the institutional oppression - the racist policies that are meant to keep black people from succeeding,” Sonoma State University student Anferny Moore, 25, told the crowd. “But no more. Never again.”

Elsewhere in Sonoma County as the Black Lives Matter movement concluded its third week of protests across the nation, hundreds more people marched Saturday each in Petaluma and in at least three different events in Santa Rosa. The rallies and demonstrations were inspired by the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Minneapolis man, while in police custody on Memorial Day. The four officers involved were all fired and face criminal charges, including second-degree murder.

Saturday’s event in Rohnert Park was the city’s second Black Lives Matter demonstration after a couple dozen people protested at a main intersection and Highway 101 overpass last week. The county’s third-largest city is home to more than 43,000 people. Just 3% of its residents identify as black, with Latinos making up the city’s largest racial or ethnic minority at almost 29%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Elward, who noted the event was not politically motivated, said she was sick to her stomach over the Rohnert Park City Council’s dead silence so far in addressing issues of police brutality. A 12-year resident of Sonoma County, she ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 2018 and has already announced her intention to challenge longtime Councilman Jake Mackenzie in the city’s first district-based election in November.

Mackenzie, 80, who currently serves as the city’s vice mayor, attended the rally along with fellow council members Gina Belforte and Susan Hollingsworth Adams. He said the council planned to hold a formal discussion about police procedures later this month and pointed to the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance pledge. The challenge issued by former President Barack Obama in 2015 for cities to review and reform police use of force policies was signed by Mayor Joe Callinan last week.

Among other legal problems tied to accusations of police misconduct over the past six years, the city’s public safety department remains embroiled in a federal civil rights lawsuit tied to the death of a Forestville man in 2017. A jury award of $4 million to the Wroth family after Branch Wroth, 41, died while in Rohnert Park police custody was overturned on appeal in December, with a new trial set to begin later this year.

Callinan was out of town and missed the Saturday event. Tim Mattos, the city’s director of public safety, was on an extended vacation and also absent. In his place, Deputy Chief Aaron Johnson attended, as did more than a dozen other members of the department who stood around the perimeter and within the demonstration.

“I wanted our staff to hear it. This is an opportunity for all of us to grow,” Johnson said, citing a recent policy change by the ?department to end use of a specific chokehold that can be lethal if applied improperly. “We want to listen to the concerns, we want to listen to the perceptions. Really, it’s about us getting together and being one community, not cops versus the community.”

Among the attendees Saturday was Patty Foster of neighboring Cotati, who held a homemade cardboard sign with black marker that simply read: Black Lives Matter. She said she also made it to the first event held in Rohnert Park the week prior and plans to continue showing up.

“As a 58-year-old white woman, I feel it’s my duty to be present. I come here to learn and understand,” she said. “I was really pleased with the amount of people who showed up today … because I thought that this was going to die down - like everything else that we’ve been marching for. It made me feel we might have some hope here.”

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

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