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Sonoma County residents seek changes in society that go beyond police tactics

Santa Rosa City Schools trustee Ed Sheffield brought his 6- and 8-year-old sons downtown on a Sunday morning after a nighttime protest against police brutality to help clean up graffiti and damage done the night before.

A biracial man raised by his African American father and white mother, Sheffield didn't bring his children to Fourth Street the next day to talk about vandalism, although he does not condone it. He wanted to show them an expression of rage he and other people of color in America felt at being treated unfairly, being judged for the color of your skin, the language on your tongue, the texture of your hair. He wanted to show them what it means to be part of a community and to help clean it up.

'With everything that's going on right now, you get flooded with these memories,' Sheffield said. 'You're angry and you're enraged and you want to get it out. Part of me wanted to smash things, too.'

For many people of color in America, watching George Floyd, a black man, die under the weight of a white police officer's knee in Minneapolis, resurfaced every injustice felt or heard, every tense traffic stop, every derogatory slur at school, every threat of arrest.

Communities across the country erupted in protests over Floyd's death, sustaining demonstrations that have gone on for nearly three weeks against racism in policing and all other aspects of American society. These rallies have led to troubling clashes between protesters and police in parts of the country that, for some, have exposed painful wounds going back generations to the slave ships.

But these marches have forced government leaders to act. Minneapolis city officials have pledged to dismantle the police department and build something new. Leaders in other cities like New York are talking about diverting money away from law enforcement forces to social services.

A growing number of local law enforcement agencies, including the county's two largest — the Santa Rosa Police Department and Sonoma County Sheriff's Office — have announced they will ban the carotid hold used to restrain people, a potentially deadly tactic that blocks blood flow to the brain and can kill when used improperly.

On Wednesday, Sonoma County government and law enforcement leaders gave an unprecedented show of support for police reform. They pledged to re- examine local policing practices, local budgets and find ways to increase independent oversight of law enforcement, including possibly boosting powers of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach. The watchdog agency for the Sheriff's Office was created in 2015 after years of public anguish following the death of Andy Lopez, a 13-year-old Santa Rosa middle schooler who was shot and killed by a sheriff's deputy.

In interviews with people of color of Sonoma County, from longtime community leaders to young people behind the local protest movement, many said the push for changes to local systems that enable racial injustice must include police reform, yet go beyond it. The movement must not fade with summer.

'I hope this time is different,' Sheffield said. 'The momentum is there.'

In a June 6 letter, the Sonoma County chapter of the NAACP called for the city of Santa Rosa to adopt sweeping changes to its policies. The proposals included a wide range of ideas such as questioning police recruits about race and bias during the lie detection test before being hired, require periodic re- credentialing for law enforcement officers and funnel more funds toward social services.

Rubin Scott, president of the local NAACP chapter, said the county has persevered through fires, power shut-offs and a pandemic together and has built-in resilience that must be leveraged to take a harder look within. The community must demand a better, humane, just result for every police encounter, he said.

'Our mothers and our pastors have told us: Don't run, comply, be passive, do what they say,' Rubin said. 'In that instant everything we were told and trained to do, you saw the man (Floyd) do it. And yet the result was death.'

Multicultural history lessons

Healdsburg High graduate Lupe Lopez, 22, believes change must start in schools by embedding the experiences from indigenous and other marginalized communities in history, art and other classes. Students should learn about the injustices that are part of our shared history and also celebrate the multicultural contributions that make the country what it is today.

Lopez, who will start a graduate program in social work at Columbia University in the fall, was galvanized to organize protests in Healdsburg after a majority of her city's council members rebuffed requests to allow a public conversation about local policing in light of Floyd's death. For Lopez, that was a reminder of the racial divide she's felt in her city from an early age, like the time she watched how rudely a police officer treated her father during a traffic stop. Her father was still covered in dirt from a long day of farm labor, but had promised to take her to the store.

'My dad asked the reason why he was pulled over, and the officer didn't say anything,' Lopez said. 'I talked to him about it after and my dad told me, 'That's what happens. In this country people will look at you differently because of the color of your skin. They will treat you badly.' '

She felt that herself in school when a substitute teacher asked her why Latino students were involved in an accelerated college prep program because they were going to end up working in the fields anyway. She heard it while working at Big John's Market and a customer told her she was too pretty to be Mexican. Another customer said her name was fit for a dog.

'I think it's important for people in Healdsburg and other places to be aware — there are racial injustices in your town,' Lopez said. 'People will always be talked down upon for the color of the skin. I can guarantee you it's an issue.'

Getting young people to vote and engage with local politics is an urgent priority for Mickale Jones, 28, of Sebastopol, a recording artist and photographer who is expecting his first child, a son, in August. Jones is biracial, the son of a black father and white mother, and he organized a silent parade Saturday led by drummers from Santa Rosa Junior College to Old Courthouse Square. It was an echo of a similar silent march in 1917 to stand up against anti-black violence in East St. Louis, Illinois.

'The way our country in general has viewed people of color and the system itself, as cliche as it sounds, really isn't designed to help people like me win,' Jones said. 'It's created many obstacles. And just now for the first time other people are starting to see it. Black people, Hispanic people, we've been saying it for years. And this feels like the first time it feels wide out in the open.'

Local elections are important

Calls to defund police departments and reallocate some money away from enforcement and toward social services resonate with Jones, who watched his mother, a special education teacher, spend her own money on chalk, notebooks and other supplies for students.

'Local elections aren't quite as flashy as a national election and I think a lot of people don't understand the importance of what a local election can do,' Jones said.

There is an urgent need to get a diverse group of people into leadership positions, said Sylvia Lemus, a programs manager with Sonoma County Human Resources deeply involved in Latino leadership groups from Los Cien and co-chair for Santa Rosa's annual Cinco de Mayo festival.

To do so, Lemus said, leaders must build mentorship programs in schools, corporations and government to ensure a diverse group of people succeed.

'Everyone needs to pay attention to the moment. This is a time to look at your organization and see there are certain people missing from the table,' Lemus said. 'Do what you can to bring equity and diversity and different voices to the table. As progressive as Sonoma County is — oh my goodness, sometimes I see we are not where we need to be.'

A stark example of racial bias came just last month in Lemus' view as the county was grappling with new data that showed Latino residents were contracting the coronavirus at dramatically disproportionate rates, drawing a sharp focus on the health, workforce and economic inequalities here. That disparity has continued to increase, and Latinos currently account for 3 out of 4 known cases of COVID-19 in the county.

Even still, Sheriff Mark Essick publicly questioned the authority and wisdom of Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase, who issued the first stay-at-home order in mid-March that shut down many businesses, saying she didn't provide his office or the public with enough evidence to back up her decisions. Essick later agreed to enforce the health order, but Lemus said she believed that action undermined the authority of Mase, a woman of color, and 'emboldened' people to disregard her expertise.

'The disrespect that leaders in the community and community members have had towards her feels unfortunate,' Lemus said.

Lemus and others linked the current unrest to the 2013 death of Lopez, whose 20th birthday would have been June 2, bringing community members together for a vigil in his memory. Lopez was walking with an airsoft gun on a sidewalk in his neighborhood when a deputy ordered him to turn around and immediately fired his service weapon. The deputy, who was cleared of any wrongdoing, said he mistook the plastic BB gun, which was made to look like an AK-47, for a real assault rifle.

For many, Lopez's death remains an unresolved grief.

Affecting generations

Lisa Carreño, chief executive officer of United Way of the Wine Country, was working with young people at the time of Lopez's death as regional director for the 10,000 Degrees, a regional nonprofit that helps disadvantaged youth get into and through college. She said his death was in her opinion an 'unlawful killing' that affected a generation of local youth who are now in their late teens and early 20s. She and others said they believed it partly fueled the youth-led demonstrations that took over Santa Rosa for the better part of the last two weeks.

She said she took hope for the future in the diversity in the crowds.

'We have seen more and more clearly how structural racism affects our lives and our conversation about racism has gone from these hushed acknowledgments among trusted friends to this public outcry,' Carreño said. 'These protests are not examples of chaos, to me they are examples of rejection of that system.'

To move forward, communities including Sonoma County must acknowledge their troubled history with race, starting from the treatment of native people to the incidents of today, Carreño said. She said local policies should be given a simple test: Is this policy racist or anti-racist?

'We need to be looking at that question each time we look at policy,' Carreño said. 'Are we being racist or anti-racist by how we execute those things? I think it's important for us to begin to have conversations no matter how ill-equipped we feel we are.'

Calls for people — especially youth — to become politically active and speak out at city council and county supervisor meetings were universal.

Jose Oseguera, 22, of Santa Rosa said he joined protesters downtown almost every night marches took place in Santa Rosa because if felt like a 'now or never' moment to call for change.

Oseguera said he doesn't believe all law enforcement officers are biased, but he does see how the profession acts as part of a system that for too long has stacked the deck against people of color. He described how his palms sweat whenever he sees a patrol car on the street — 'I even say a little prayer.'

But he believes local politicians are listening right now, and young people must take this chance to be heard.

'We need to be attending city council meetings, going there with a purpose for them to understand what we'd like out of them as a community, as one,' Oseguera said. 'This isn't something that will die down and I hope it doesn't.'

Sonoma County human rights commissioner Zahyra Garcia said tangible local changes could involve a wholesale reexamination of how city budgets are allocated with a social justice eye.

'The housing crisis is a choice — here we are funding police tanks and rifles,' Garcia said.

Having honest conversations

But change must also take root in the home and in schools, starting with the youngest children.

Sheffield, the school trustee, said he talks frankly with his sons about his experiences as a black man growing up in Ukiah, the son of a dentist whose house was the only one in the neighborhood to be egged on a regular basis. Sheffield said his father told him that African American men must work harder to get less. He began to believe that once he got his driver's license and learned that every traffic violation would lead to being ordered out of the car, patted down and stood on the curb.

Sheffield said he's talking with his children about how essential it is to treat everyone with respect and to reject ideas that people who look or seem different are anything less than equal. He has observed how black children are picked on in school, then misunderstood when they lash out in defense.

People of color have these tough conversations with their children. It's time for more white families to address these topics even before issues crop up, he said.

Sheffield said he was moved and got chills when Santa Rosa Police Chief Ray Navarro kneeled with protesters one week ago during an afternoon demonstration at Old Courthouse Square. 'That's the right kind of message to give to the youth,' Sheffield said.

'I definitely want them to respect police, but that general trust at least for people of color, kids of color, it has to be earned,' he said. 'And I think that's what this movement is about.'

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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