‘I wouldn’t raise kids here’: Residents grapple with racism in Healdsburg

Healdsburg is the essence of Wine Country, a town that draws travelers from around the globe to feast at its farm-to-table restaurants, shop at its tony boutiques and visit some of California’s most renowned wineries.

But in recent weeks a hidden side of the town revealed itself, one that doesn’t appear in the tourist brochures, during a fiery debate over racism that led to the resignation of its mayor, Leah Gold, on Tuesday and thrust it into headlines far beyond the Russian River.

Gold angered some residents when she declined the request of a City Council member to schedule a discussion on the use of force by Healdsburg police officers in the line of duty. “To me, it’s a solution looking for a problem,” Gold said. “I don’t see that that’s a place I particularly want to put our time and energy.”

“We don’t have this issue in our town,” Vice Mayor Evelyn Mitchell added.

Mitchell quickly backed away from her comments. Gold hesitated. And while the then-mayor insisted she was referring specifically to police abuses, critics interpreted her words more broadly. To them, Gold’s reaction was one more example of white blindness in the face of overwhelming evidence of systemic bias and racism in America.

Over the past week, The Press Democrat spoke to people of color in Healdsburg, a town of nearly 12,000 residents that is about 30% Latino - the third-highest concentration of Latinos among the county’s nine cities, according to 2019 Census Bureau estimates. Their message, and the message of others who discussed the issue but declined to be interviewed on the record, was unified: Racism exists here, in forms both subtle and blatant.

None argued that Healdsburg is more bigoted than other small towns in Wine Country. In fact, that’s part of their exasperation. These experiences are happening virtually everywhere in America, all the time, symptoms of the dual realities of life faced by people of color and white people in 2020.

Everyday slights:?‘People ask me if I live here’

Not all racism involves the burning of crosses and desecration of synagogues. Communities of color in America have long noted the weighty burden of petty remarks, subtle jabs and suspicious looks - all of the things that can make someone feel like a second-class citizen.

Tomas Morales, 41, and the son of Mexican immigrants, grew up in Healdsburg, owns a house there now and works for the county in the Department of Transportation & Public Works. Kiley Clark is a Black woman who lives in Healdsburg and works on a farm in Sebastopol. Skylaer Palacios, 25, was Miss Sonoma County in 2014; she identifies as Black, Latina and Native American (Arawak), and is currently sheltering with her parents in Healdsburg.

Morales: “Growing up with my family, their English wasn’t great. I was raised in Dry Creek Valley. My dad was a vineyard foreman for an Italian family. It started from there, honestly. Every time we went into town, from the local barbershop to the grocery store, people made comments because my parents didn’t speak English well.”

Palacios: “My family has had the police called on us a few times for frivolous reasons. On one occasion someone had reported my license plate, saying my car was speeding through the high school parking lot. I did drive through the lot that night, but I know I was not speeding. There are several speed bumps and I was with my father, who is adamant about safe driving. It was then that I realized simply existing was offensive to some members of our community.”

Clark: “People ask me if I live here all the time. Especially when I walk around Fitch Mountain, near where I live. People I pass will ask me, ‘Where do you live?’ I give them my address but they don’t give me their address in return. I even had one experience where a woman walked into my house and asked me, am I sure I live here? I was like, ‘Who are you?’?”

Palacios: “My brother graduated from Healdsburg High School in 2009. As my mother and I were discussing where to sit on the bleachers before the ceremony began, a woman who was seated said, ‘speak English.’ My mother gave her a mean mug and I may have laughed since we were speaking English. I can only imagine that she just saw our skin color and needed to find something to say to try and diminish us.”

Signs of oppression: ‘There were a lot of swastikas’

Even in Sonoma County, a place that San Francisco political consultant David Latterman described as “a perfectly respectable liberal county” in a 2012 Press Democrat interview, darker-skinned people can’t escape constant reminders of the pockets of hate that flourish among them. Cristal Perez, 20, is a Sonoma State criminology and criminal justice major who grew up in Healdsburg.

Perez: “Once on Cinco de Mayo, one student drove up with the Confederate flag flying. Certain instances made me really uncomfortable. And to know there were no repercussions was tough. It was just a slap on the hands and they’d tell them, ‘Don’t do that.’

“Once I was approached by a white male student at high school. I was just walking to class, or walking around at lunch. And he walks up to me and yells right at me and calls me a ‘beaner.’ We never even had a conversation before that. I think other people have similar stories.”

Palacios: “There were a lot of swastikas. A lot. They were graffitied onto desks, chairs, lockers, bathroom stalls. I don’t think anyone ever complained about them. They were kind of normal, I guess. I often saw Confederate flags being toted around on the cars of some upper-?classmen. I always wondered if they really knew the history behind it, or if they were just showing off because they could, because no one would stop them. By the time I was a senior, the flag-toting stopped, but there were still a fair amount of swastikas. They served as a reminder for me to stay silent and accept white ‘supremacy’ as normal, and it worked. I did.”

School is no refuge: ?‘You’re lucky you don’t ?have hair like them’

We like to see the American school system as the great equalizer, a place where kids of all cultures and economic backgrounds may come together, as peers, in the pursuit of knowledge. It can be that. But uncomfortable patterns often set in as Black and Latino students learn they simply aren’t treated with the same deference as white kids. Ever Flores, 46, has worked as a high school counselor in Healdsburg for more than 20 years, and is president of the teachers association there.

Flores: “As a school counselor back in the day, I had to report to colleges if a kid had been suspended. Years ago, and I won’t tell you their names because these are prominent Sonoma County families, some kids were caught drinking in Georgia Park. The police were called, and they were cited. The kids ended up with lawyers, and they were able to expunge the record. Yet it was a fact I had to report about some other kids. Ever since then, I’ve fought with every principal at Healdsburg High. I will not divulge that information for any kid. It sets up haves and have-nots.”

Perez: “Talking to Latinx students, I knew a lot wanted to try and take (advanced placement) classes. They were told, ‘Oh, it’s really hard, I don’t recommend you taking that.’ For me, I didn’t even go into AP. I didn’t feel comfortable, because they were all majority-white classes. One time I signed up and got into the class, and I was one of three brown kids. I feel there has to be more outreach to get those students into those types of classes.”

Palacios: “I was in my senior English class when the girl sitting to my right asked, ‘Are you Black?’ I told her yes, that I was Dominican. She said, ‘Oh, you are so lucky you don’t have hair like them,’ as though it was a real compliment. I am not sure if she was aware that I straightened my hair.

“During my senior year, I took drama. One of the last plays we did was ‘Hairspray.’ If you have seen it before, you’d know that the cast only consists of Black and white characters. ... The teacher did not hold auditions for parts, he just chose the students he felt like picking. I got the role of one of the Dynamite Girls and had about one line of song. ... Then I had to endure the sight of the classmates who were playing Black roles get spray tans, a few shades lighter than me so they wouldn’t be too dark. This form of blackface was fully funded by the teacher himself.”

Police encounters: ?‘Arms and legs spread’

Leah Gold’s controversial comments were in response to a call for police review, which was in response to a rally at Healdsburg Plaza in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, which was in response to the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. America is in the midst of a widescale reckoning on race and equality right now. But it all started with accusations of police overreaction - a subject illustrated in a story from Tomas Morales.

Around three years ago, he said, he confronted a 20-something neighbor who Morales believed was taking advantage of the young man’s elderly grandparents, drinking and smoking weed and playing loud music in their backyard almost daily.

Morales: “So one morning my son stayed home from school. He was sick as a dog. I stayed home with him. The guy was partying in his backyard with friends. ... I went up to the fence - it was a little, 3-foot wire fence. I said, ‘Look, I’ve had enough. You need to knock this off.’ I said, ‘If you don’t knock it off, I’m calling the cops. You have underage people drinking, smoking.’

“He came over, into my driveway. I met him at the beginning of my driveway. He shoved me, and we went at it. In my driveway. I was so pissed off. His girlfriend comes out, starts yelling, ‘Leave my boyfriend alone,’ and calls the cops. His grandma came out. I said, ‘I’m done. I don’t want your grandma to see this.’ He was stumbling back to his house, and he sits on the front porch there.

“The cops get there, and what do they do? Guns drawn. One guy comes at me with his gun, pushes me down, facedown, arms and legs spread in the driveway. He handcuffs me. I’m saying, ‘Go look in the backyard, you’re gonna find alcohol and buds, all kinds of stuff. My son’s sick upstairs.’ He wouldn’t let me go.

“Finally, a Hispanic cop comes, and I remember him from high school. Really good guy. Must have said something to the first cop. I couldn’t see. My face is on the pavement. The Hispanic cop helps me up and apologizes. That’s what really pissed me off. He knew what that one cop did was wrong. ...

“Then the white officer comes up to my door. He says, ‘You’re off the hook.’ Off the hook? He says, ‘Yeah, your neighbor is not gonna press charges.’ They called the Fire Department and an ambulance. They’re babying him. I could hear ’em: ‘Are you all right? Sit down and relax.’?”

Asked about Morales’ claims, Healdsburg Police Chief Kevin Burke said, “It’s difficult to respond with older, vague allegations. I can confirm that we never had any communications complaint from him about these incidents.”

The future of Healdsburg: ?‘I wouldn’t raise kids here’

Most longtime residents of Healdsburg agree that poor treatment of ethnic minorities isn’t as blatant as it used to be. At the same time, the class divisions of the city are starker than ever as property values rise, pricing out service and agricultural workers. Many Black and Latino residents wonder if there will continue to be a place for them and their children in a city where the median-priced home cost more than $777,000 in May.

Flores: “Walking through Healdsburg back in the 1990s, in the time of Prop. 187 (the 1994 initiative that curtailed the rights of undocumented immigrants), it was not a comfortable feeling. That’s the ’90s, right? Moving on to more current times, the same set of people live there. Racism hasn’t gone away.”

Clark: “It’s nothing overt. It’s a systemic thing, kind of ingrained into the socialization of folks. I wouldn’t raise kids here. For that reason.”

Perez: “People are buying houses here, and they don’t even live here. The small businesses here are advertised toward tourists, not the community. These families can’t afford to go downtown and have a meal here. There’s no affordable housing whatsoever. I’m afraid you’ll see less and less people of color and Black families. It’s kind of sad. Like diversity is slowly disappearing.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.