South Park mural tagging mars city history, pride

An apparent gang rivalry played out in a war of paint has indelibly marred a mural in Santa Rosa's South Park neighborhood that features important civil rights figures and community members.|

An apparent gang rivalry played out in a war of paint has indelibly marred a mural in Santa Rosa’s South Park neighborhood that features important local and national civil rights figures and community members.

Spray paint script now covers the faces of national civil rights leaders Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as local figures such as the late Jesse Love, a Navy cook who survived the Pearl Harbor attack and later worked at Sonoma County’s community hospital. He was also a longtime South Park resident.

The large mural is on an outside wall of a Head Start preschool building at Martin Luther King Jr. Park on Hendley Street. The now-scarred tableau includes a child blowing bubbles in an overflowing rose garden near the old Community Baptist Church building in the neighborhood. The piece overlooks a grassy park and playground where a summertime free lunch program serves between 50 and 100 children each day.

“It’s personal,” said Vince Harper, assistant director of community engagement for Community Action Partnership, a nonprofit that runs the Head Start program. “What this mural meant - these are prominent figures in our country and our community. These are people’s family members and friends.”

In addition to King, Chavez and Love, the 5-foot-by-20-foot mural also includes the likenesses of several local figures who have since died, including some of Sonoma County’s pioneering civil rights activists: Rev. James E. Coffee of Community Baptist Church, former director of Sonoma County People for Economic Opportunity Eddie Mae Sloan and Platt Williams, who in 1952 helped found the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter.

The mural also honored people still active in the community, including current local NAACP president and retired Baptist minister Ann Gray Byrd, Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria chairman Greg Sarris and longtime Sonoma County labor and Latino community activist Alicia Sanchez.

A reward of up to $2,500 is being offered by the Sonoma County Alliance’s “Take Back Our Community” program for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the suspects involved.

Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Tommy Isachsen said the graffiti is essentially a conversation between rival gangs - sureños and norteños - writing threats in code with the next group crossing it out and writing new threats with new slogans. One of the coded threats is “187” - the state penal code section for murder.

“It represents the fear and intimidation that these communities have to deal with,” Isachsen said.

The bulk of the damage to the mural was done over the weekend, Harper said. But city park and Head Start staff have been battling a graffiti spree since mid-May.

Spray paint at one point covered nearly every outside wall of the community buildings at the park, but most of the walls have been repainted.

Harper said restoring the mural has been discussed, but they believe the spray paint cannot be removed from the mural without ruining the underlying artwork. The mural was done by artist Laura Hoffman, who worked with local children to design and paint it. It was installed in August 2011.

Harper said that the impact of the ?graffiti goes far beyond property vandalism.

“Kids know what it represents, that it’s connected to violence,” Harper said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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