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Santa Rosa’s 24-hour police reform protest features seminars, speeches, overnight camp

It was part protest, part picnic. The young couple sat on the grass at Juilliard Park while their children, 1 and 5 years old, climbed on their parents as if they were playground structures.

This was around 6 p.m. Saturday, during the open mic session of a 24-hour Black Lives Matter protest that had begun six hours earlier at Doyle Community Park and would soon migrate to Old Courthouse Square, where protesters planned to stay the night.

The couple, Devin and Telena, preferred not to give their last names due to the political nature of the event, which drew some 150 people to Juilliard Park. They said they hadn’t been to any of the earlier protests held in Santa Rosa since the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed May 25 in Minneapolis. Floyd died after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

But it was important to the family to be at this demonstration, said Devin, who believes that these are momentous days in the history of this nation. “It feels like we’ve been given an opportunity to address issues that have been in our system for 400 years,” he said.

“My daughter’s been wanting to come to one of these marches since we told her what happened to George Floyd.”

“She thought ‘march’ meant there would be a marching band,” added Telena, while fishing graham crackers out of a handbag. “But she’s still happy to be here.”

Once the open mic ended, attendees were encouraged to attend a half-dozen “classes,” including “City Budget Explained,” “Know Your Rights” and “Street Medicine 101,” conducted by EMTs Eris Cambron and Ted McDolan, who held their audience rapt by providing tips such as:

“Arterial bleeding is bright red and spurting.”

“Remember, if you get tear-gassed, no milk, no Maalox” in your eyes. “Just water or saline. And keep blinking.”

While this knowledge was definitely valuable, it really wasn’t that kind of protest. The event was long on civility and education, short on the raw passion characterized by a few other demonstrations in recent weeks.

In the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s death, “there was a lot of anger, and rightly so,” said Alea Sanders, 24, a paralegal and one of the organizers of the event that began at noon Saturday and was scheduled to end at the same time Sunday, with a brunch in Old Courthouse Square. “And people should still be angry.”

As emotions are less raw, she said, “We’ve been given some great opportunities to educate ourselves” on issues that will sustain the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Foremost among those issues, at this protest, was Santa Rosa’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year, and the police department’s hefty share of it.

While it was called a protest, the event felt more like a combination of seminar and sleepover, with chanting, signs and music. At 4:30, the protesters began migrating from Doyle Park to Juilliard Park, a mile west. Around dusk they embarked on a silent, candlelit march to Old Courthouse Square, a half-mile north, to honor minorities killed by police.

During that march, the otherwise peaceful demonstration was marred when a driver trying to get through the marchers may have struck one of them near Sonoma Avenue and E Street, although no victim had come forward by 10 p.m., according to police and protesters.

A woman driving a white Porsche Cayenne told Santa Rosa police that while trying to get through the marchers around 9:15 p.m., her car was “vandalized,” after which she said she was “assaulted,” according to police Sgt. Hector DeLeon.

That differed from accounts given by protesters, who said the woman was driving aggressively and provoked the incident.

Saturday afternoon, at the north entrance to Doyle Park, a 20-year-old named Sascha, who declined to give his last name, had parked his father’s mini-bus. Protesters who intended to spend the night in Old Courthouse Square could stash their sleeping bags and backpacks with him.

Speaking to a receptive audience of 60 or 70 people, most of them sprawled on the grass at Doyle Park, Janina Turner directed their attention to a 15-foot-high stack of blue cardboard boxes to her right. Beside it were several much shorter stacks.

Turner is a lead organizer for the Sonoma County chapter of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate organization. The stacks served as a gigantic bar graph designed to call attention to how hefty a share of Santa Rosa’s budget goes to its police department. That figure for the next fiscal year is $62.2 million in the budget recently proposed by City Manager Sean McGlynn.

“The police already take 35% of budget,” said Turner, who called for reallocating funds into programs and solutions that “get to the root of the problem.”

When someone is suffering a mental health crisis in the streets, she added, “why call the police when we could call a mental health expert, who doesn’t have a gun and won’t escalate the situation?”

Attendees got the chance to ask about the city’s proposed budget during the event that followed: a Q&A with Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm and Vice Mayor Victoria Fleming. Also in the crowd at Doyle Park was City Councilman Chris Rogers, who’d been invited to share his in-depth knowledge of the city’s budget during a presentation around 5:30 at Juilliard Park.

While there was talk of defunding police, Alea Sanders, who helped organize the event, made the point that she dislikes that word. “What I’m a proponent of is reform and reallocation of funds,” she said.

Rogers is looking forward to having that discussion the next time the City Council meets. “I think the mentality we have in this community,” he said, “is that we’re not going to be able to arrest our way out of mental health issues, or out of poverty issues.

“Should we be investing more in social workers who can respond” to mental health calls “that are less likely to be violent, and focus our police attention elsewhere? I think it’s a really interesting and valid conversation to have.”

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