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‘Rasta Charlie’ banished by new owners of Montgomery Village in Santa Rosa

Rastafarian version of Charlie Brown was deemed potentially offensive by WS Development, the Boston-based company that purchased Montgomery Village from a local family last year.|

The retail space next door to Sonoma Outfitters at Montgomery Village is vacant, for now. To brighten the storefront, the mall’s new management company has lined its windows with upbeat slogans welcoming shoppers to “our little slice of Sonoma County” and assuring them, “you’re in exactly the right place.”

Pointedly excluded from that welcoming sentiment is the sculpture a few yards away, directly in front of Sonoma Outfitters.

There stands Rasta Charlie, also known as Charlie “Reggae” Brown, a Rastafarian version of Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz’s original.

Rasta Charlie has a bit more pigment than regular Charlie Brown, and is sporting dreadlocks. Standing sentinel outside the store since 2005, first at Railroad Square, and for the last 8 years at Montgomery Village, the statue has been a crowd favorite, according to Debra Knick, who owns Sonoma Outfitters with her son, Greg Peterson. “People love him,” she said.

But Rasta Charlie’s days there are numbered. WS Development, the Boston-based company that purchased Montgomery Village last year from a local family, has determined that some mall patrons could find the sculpture offensive. Therefore, it must go.

Dumbfounded’

Earlier this summer, said Knick, a middle-aged woman came into Sonoma Outfitters to complain about the statue, describing it as “racist.” Rasta Charlie, she said, was just Charlie Brown “in blackface.”

“We were just dumbfounded,” Knick said. “We’ve had him out front for 17 years” and heard no complaints. “Everybody takes their picture with him. People contact us from out of the area asking, ‘Do you still have Rasta Charlie? We’re coming to your state. We want to visit all the figures.’”

Rasta Charlie was created by Sonoma County artist Maria Krahn. Her intent, she told William Johnson, author of the 2021 book “The Complete History of Peanuts on Parade,” was to “convey the fact that people of all ages and ethnicities come together when music is around — especially Reggae music.”

Her Rasta-infused take on the argyle-sweatered Brown was inspired by Santa Rosa’s “Peanuts on Parade.” Starting in 2005, the city commissioned local artists to create dozens of one-of-a-kind statues of the “Peanuts” gang. Each was decorated differently, depending on the vision of the artist. About 70 of the figures are on public display around Sonoma County.

The woman who’d condemned Rasta Charlie as racist shared her misgivings with Brittany Mundarain, general manager of Montgomery Village, which was sold last year by Dave and Melissa Codding to WS Development, one of the largest privately held development firms in the country.

Mundarain asked to meet with Knick and Peterson. At the end of the meeting, she broached the subject of Rasta Charlie.

“She said she’d had complaints,” Knick recalled. “And I said, well, you’ve had one complaint. She called you twice.”

Mundarain agreed, at the time, that only one woman had complained, Knick said.

Asked if they might move the statue inside the store, the owners said there wasn’t room for Rasta Charlie inside Sonoma Outfitters.

Thanks, but no thanks

Knick had a subsequent conversation with Gina Huntsinger, director of the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa. Huntsinger told her the museum would be willing to take the statue off her hands, enabling Knick to take a tax write-off. Or, if Knick preferred, the museum could pay her for it.

Asked what the museum would do with the sculpture, Huntsinger told her she didn’t know.

Unwilling to risk Rasta Charlie being relegated to some dusty storage unit, or a fate still worse, Knick took a pass on the museum’s offer.

That offer still stands, Huntsinger said Wednesday in an email to The Press Democrat.

While the museum had no role in the “Peanuts on Parade” statue program, and did not participate in its “organizational efforts or approvals,” she wrote, it does help owners of those statues retire them. “Debra declined our offer.”

Last week, Knick was informed by Mundarain that, after careful thought, and with the values of diversity and inclusion in mind, the company had decided to banish Rasta Charlie from the premises.

Mundarain declined to be interviewed, but emailed a statement expressing WS Development’s desire to make all “guests feel welcome.”

“After thoughtful consideration and consulting community members and local organizations,” it continued, “we arrived at the conclusion that the sculpture should not be on property.”

Asked if it was true that she’d received complaints from just a single individual, Mundarain provided a fuzzy reply: “We’ve had multiple conversations on the subject and obtained feedback from many parties.”

Knick has since taken to social media, announcing that Rasta Charlie needs a new home — preferably outside a local business. “He brings 100s of people every year,” she wrote on Instagram, “so if you are interested please call Debra or Greg.”

Celebration of music

In a comment on that same Instagram post, Knick excerpted an email from the artist, Krahn, whose daughter is half Jamaican. Krahn wrote that her work represented neither blackface nor cultural appropriation.

Her intent, she said, “was to recognize our ‘brown’ brothers and sisters of various ethnicities and to appreciate their contributions to our culture, especially Reggae, with brings together people of all different backgrounds and cultures in joy and celebration of music.”

Charles Schulz himself had a subtle role in advancing the civil rights movement that was convulsing the nation in the late 1960s. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Schulz got a note from Harriet Glickman, a former California schoolteacher concerned about the country’s worsening race relations.

She asked him to consider adding a Black person to his “Peanuts” universe. Not long after, the cartoonist introduced Franklin Armstrong, the cartoon strip’s first Black character.

Some in the segregated South were outraged, but Schulz never wavered.

So mild was Franklin’s disposition that over time, according to Glickman’s obituary in the New York Times, some readers grew resentful of his lack of “more defining characteristics.”

Among them, it added, was the comedian Chris Rock, who riffed about the Peanuts gallery on “Saturday Night Live” in 1992: “Everybody got their thing except Franklin! Give him something! Damn, give him a Jamaican accent!”

Rock might as well have been describing Rasta Charlie, who must soon take his leave from Montgomery Village. On Tuesday, an employee at the mall — a 20-something Black man — asked about the kerfuffle.

After hearing about the woman’s complaint, he said, “Sounds like kind of a reach.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88

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