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.