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White hand sculpture painted black outside Santa Rosa mall

The white right hand outside the Santa Rosa Plaza mall was painted black Friday evening.

Police learned of the hand-painting at about 6:42 p.m., near the end of a downtown protest in which an estimated 50 people and about 20 vehicles participated, said Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Patricia Seffens. Police were aware of protesters marching between roughly 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., Seffens said.

An officer met with mall security, who suspected protesters marching nearby were responsible but hadn’t identified anyone. Mall officials decided not to pursue any legal action Friday, Seffens said. By Saturday evening, some of the paint had flaked and peeled off.

The hand sculpture, a fixture in downtown Santa Rosa since the mid-1990s, previously was tagged with anti-police graffiti just ahead of the large demonstrations in Santa Rosa in late May and early June over the killing of George Floyd. The unarmed Black man was killed on Memorial Day as a white Minneapolis police officer kept his knee pressed down on Floyd’s neck.

The Instagram account for What We Are Fighting For, a youth-led organization founded by Santa Rosa organizer Joy Ayodele, shared a picture of the large marble hand after it had been covered almost entirely in black paint.

“The time is now to uplift our black & brown brothers and sisters. Your hands are open, Rosa..,” read the caption, which also included the hashtags #BLACKLIVESMATTER and #goodtrouble, a reference to the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who rose to prominence in the 1960s as a civil rights leader and died July 17 at the age of 80.

What We Are Fighting For earlier in the week announced multiple events Friday, including a peaceful march to the Santa Rosa Police Department headquarters on Sonoma Avenue to demand the department be defunded and that money be invested into “an alternate crisis response team.”

The City Council in June funded the Santa Rosa Police Department at slightly less than the amount recommended by city staff, but the department’s budget still increased year-over-year. A 2016 ballot measure imposed a requirement that more than one-third of the city’s general fund go to the police department, and that rule would need six of seven council votes to be overturned.

Ayodele could not immediately be reached for comment Saturday.

The 7½-ton hand is the centerpiece of a larger installation dubbed “Agraria” by artist Larry Kirkland, installed outside the mall in December 1996.

Though some may see the massive pale hand as symbolic of white supremacy, Kirkland has said he intended the hand to be a tribute to Santa Rosa’s agricultural workers and heritage.

While many reacted favorably when protest-related accounts shared images of the painted hand, not everyone agreed. One commenter suggested the statue was “ruined,” while another pushed back, acknowledging that “it’s a monument to everyone who worked the land to make Santa Rosa what it is today” and argued that “painting it black actually adds to (its) historical and monumental value cause it’s finally recognizing the (people of color) who are left out of the history of this city.”

Kirkland’s studio in Washington, D.C., and a spokesperson for Simon Property Group Inc., which owns the mall, did not respond to messages seeking comment.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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