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Sonoma County protesters hesitant to march for racial injustice as coronavirus surges

Sonoma County activists marching for Black lives in the wake of George Floyd’s death have seen crowd sizes shrink in recent weeks, a reality they say is because of public health concerns over spiking coronavirus cases and fatigue among protesters unable to maintain their initial resolve.

Thousands of residents poured into county streets daily in late May and early June, decrying systemic racism and injustice after Floyd was killed May 25 in Minneapolis police custody. The tension at early marches in Santa Rosa led to sometimes violent clashes between protesters and police, and prompted some cities to impose curfews aimed at averting unrest.

Crowds that once reached as many as 2,000 people have dwindled in mid-July to as high as 200 and as low as two dozen, with fewer marches occurring and most held on weekends now.

This weekend, protests and events continued Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park and Sebastopol, where activists on Friday and Saturday put the finishing touches on Sonoma County’s first Black Lives Matter mural.

As soaring COVID-19 cases force residents back indoors, protesters have adapted their tactics, mobilizing caravans of cars, hosting networking events and going online for educational livestreams and social media discussion to continue delivering messages for equality.

“I know people want to be cautious, and even the youth who were going really hard those first weeks are now saying, ‘I can’t risk that or bring it back to my family,’” said Santa Rosa native Joy Ayodele, 18, who has organized several marches this summer and founded the youth-led group What We Are Fighting For.

Given the resurgence of the virus, county Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said that “any gathering would be a cause for concern,” including a large protest. Contact tracing has indicated get-togethers on Father’s Day, June 21, and the Fourth of July were major factors contributing to the escalation of infections, she said.

There has been no credible link so far between protesting and widespread transmission of COVID-19. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research last month found that protests in more than 300 U.S. cities did not cause a significant increase in infections.

Rubin Scott, president of NAACP Sonoma County, said social distancing and mask requirements have been “the No. 1 priority” for organizers. Many support groups like Mask Sonoma have been at rallies to distribute protective gear, and several protests held by the NAACP or Love and Light had rings drawn on the ground to help keep protesters at a safe distance.

“With the virus, everyone has their civil duty,” Scott said. “You can always follow on social media, and you’ll find ways you can become engaged online that may fit better for you. I think the (crowd) numbers are getting smaller because people are finding ways to be proactive and get their voice heard (elsewhere).”

There has been no letup for Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm, who said he is still having meetings regularly with residents in person, often at a distance in the City Hall courtyard or with face coverings on at a neutral site.

Every City Council discussion involving the police has included a flood of comments from residents demanding less funding for the department, a trend that has followed most elected boards in Sonoma County who oversee a law enforcement agency.

For Schwedhelm, the city’s former police chief, his gauge for measuring the momentum of the protests is less focused on crowd size and more about the broad range of people continuing to reach out. To him, the movement is still in its infancy as white people continue getting educated and listen to personal stories from their neighbors, he said.

“We’d be naive to think in a couple of months we could change systemic racism in our country or the city of Santa Rosa,” Schwedhelm said. “We’re aware of it and now looking for action steps we can take. I’m a process person, where do you want to start?”

There has been progress in many communities, and growing numbers of allies willing to widely recognize their privilege, Ayodele said. She thinks that has created an environment in which many people who are new to activism after Floyd’s death are experiencing protest fatigue for the first time, and it’s vital they stay engaged.

“It’s easy to become that way after those first couple marches that were all day in 100 degrees with thousands of people,” Ayodele said. “It was a huge weight put onto the body. But that weight, that racial oppression our Black communities are feeling and I have felt in my own life, that’s not something you can decide to be tired of and put away or stop dealing with.”

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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